|© UNICEF Georgia/2012/Blagonravova|
|Children attend class in the day care centre for children with disabilities in Tbilisi, Georgia. The centre is managed by First Step Georgia, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, and is supported by UNICEF and USAID.|
TBILISI, Georgia, 17 July 2012 – It is play time at the First Step Georgia day care centre for children with disabilities.
There, about a dozen children of different ages choose games or activities while teachers keep a watchful eye over them. Some race around on tricycles or wheelchairs, some play with toys, while others simply sit or lie silently, lost in their own thoughts.
One boy stands out from the rest. He is listening avidly to classical music on a transistor radio, rocking gently back and forth.
This is 9-year-old Jemal Chulukhadze, who has from cerebral palsy and related disabilities. "Jemal adores music," said his grandmother, Zoia Chulukhadze. "Music really calms him down and makes him happy."
Fighting for their rights
Ms. Chulukhadze has been bringing her grandson to the day care centre every day for almost four years while Jemal’s mother looks after his siblings and his father looks for work. Along with thousands of others, the family fled South Ossetia during the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia.
Cut off from their land and traditional source of income, life has been hard. Ms. Chulukhadze receives a monthly state benefit of 30 lari (US$18), which doesn't even cover her bus fare to and from the day care centre.
Still, she is optimistic. "We don't have very much to eat. But doing our best for Jemal is really the most important thing. Seeing him make progress has been the biggest reward," she said.
Giorgi Demetrashvili, programme coordinator of the day care centre, says Jemal has seen great progress. "Initially, Jemal had barely any motor skills. In fact, he couldn't stand up unaided. He couldn't feed himself or communicate. Now he is much more mobile, more active and sociable, and can feed himself. And while he might not be able to speak, he can communicate through his own sign language,” Mr. Demetrashvili said.
|© UNICEF Georgia/2012/Blagonravova|
|Jemal Chulukhadze, 9, listens to music at a day care centre for children with disabilities in Tbilisi, Georgia.|
Much of this has been due to Ms. Chulukhadze’s efforts. "Zoia really fought for Jemal's rights through the municipality where they live, and obtained full state coverage to attend this centre," said Mr. Demetrashvili.
Reforming the childcare system
The day care centre – which caters to 46 children aged 3 to 18 – offers families individual assistance as well as a comprehensive educational programme for the children based on group work. "This is education in a very broad sense, providing support for a child's particular needs and helping to make them more independent," Mr. Demetrashvili said.
The centre and neighbouring early intervention centre for children with disabilities opened in Tbilisi in September 2011, managed by the NGO First Step Georgia under an initiative with the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, and with support from UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), among others.
These centres are an important part of the reform of the national childcare system, which is geared towards deinstitutionalization and providing alternatives such as foster care, small group homes and social services aimed at preventing family separation. The ultimate aim is for all children in Georgia to grow up in a family environment – and as much as possible, with their biological families.
According to UNICEF Georgia, the number of children in state institutions has decreased, as has the number of institutions. Still, many children with disabilities still remain in special needs ‘boarding schools’, which are also being phased out.
There are now 24 day care centres across the country, but access to these services must be increased, said Director of First Step Georgia Maguli Shaghashvili.
"We have to co-fund each child through our own fundraising. State vouchers provide one third of the services. And those families who do not qualify for vouchers are in many cases simply not able to pay," she said. "Much remains to be done, too, to provide sufficient support for families fostering children with disabilities, and to further develop the concept of small group homes."
"Attitudes of stigmatization and discrimination against people with disabilities may be changing in Georgia, but it's a slow process," said Mr. Demetrashvili.