Support for children with disabilities re-ignites desire to learn

New centres in Georgia provide space for play and development

By Inge Snip, UNICEF Georgia

29 March 2018

With care and precision, Karina slowly moves the colourful rubber puzzle on the table towards her 14-year-old friend Mariam. She points at a blue, square piece and asks her friend “What is this?” “And this?”. “Very good,” Karina says proudly after her friend identifies everything correctly. 

Short for her age, but always smiling, 10-year-old Karina has Down syndrome. Her friend Mariam has brain damage. The girls sit at a white table in a serene, recently renovated, activity room filled with children’s books, toys, and puzzles. It's their favourite place to go, the newly opened centre for children with disabilities in Borjomi, Georgia. 

Children at the UNICEF-supported centre for children with disabilities in Borjomi, Georgia.

The centres cater for children with disabilities to support them and their families by providing psychosocial support, life skills, informal education and structured play. These centres do not replace school but provide additional support to help children with disabilities develop their skills and potential. The children’s families also learn how best to care and support their children.

Centres like these, however, are scarce in Georgia. Only 40 exist in the whole country, and most of them are located in urban areas meaning children like Karina are often left out. 

“I fought very hard for my daughter, I gave up my own life to give her a meaningful one,” says Karina’s mother, Gaiane Dalibandian. 

Gaiane went back to school to change careers and is now an assistant teacher at the centre, which opened its doors in December 2017 with the technical support of UNICEF and the McLain association for Children, and with financial support from Bulgarian Development Aid. The local Government also played an active part into the process.

Karina with her mother Gaiane who re-trained so she could work at the centre.
Karina and one of her friends play in a ball-pool together.

UNICEF renovated and fully equipped the building to create a friendly environment for learning, development and fun. Professionals from different fields of experience were also recruited and trained to ensure every child receives the individualized care they need to reach their full potential.

Children with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in Georgia. Not only do they face discrimination but they also lack access to proper services such as community based support, home help, and early intervention services. Data on children with disabilities is also incomplete, and many children remain invisible to the system. 

“The hospital told me when my daughter was born that I didn’t have to take her home, and all my relatives, friends, and neighbours told me to give her up,” Gaiane says. 

The practice of placing children with disabilities into institutional care is decreasing but still exists in Georgia. UNICEF is working with the Government to end institutional care for children with disabilities and support for families, such as these centres, are help keep families together.

Karina’s newly found friend Mariam - who was born with extensive brain damage - has also faced difficulties, her mother says, especially to have meaningful learning opportunities.

“Mariam has trouble reading words and sentences, she can read the letters, but gets stuck putting them together as words,” Tea Zurgashvili says about her daughter’s development challenges. “But some teachers at school think that, because of that, she won’t be able to do any homework and they stopped asking her questions in class.” 

Mariam told her mom that if no-one asks her questions in class, why should she do any homework.

But times are changing. Especially for Karina and Mariam in Borjomi. 

The children at the centre concentrate on mixing the cake batter together.

Laughter and squeals come from the hallway as Karina, Mariam and their friends run down the corridor for their afternoon snack. They are about to make a cake together and they are very excited. 

Up to 30 children with disabilities enjoy the different activity rooms, which are designed to help with their development through fun after school activities. 

Even though the centre has only been open since December, it has already given Karina something important: confidence. Karina used to be shy at school, not talking to her classmates and clinging to her mother and support teacher. But now, in the two hours she spends at school before she goes to the centre, she’s started to make friends with her classmates. 

Mariam, smiles for the camera as she tells us how much she enjoys coming to the centre.

“I like learning,” Mariam, who is now a confident teenager, tells us.

For Mariam, the center has been a breath of fresh air as well. “I like learning,” the confident teenager tells us, while she is jotting down Georgian letters on colorful papers. 

Her mother adds that it has been a long time since she’s seen her daughter so motivated to study and thinks the centre has had a positive effect on Mariam’s attitude towards her school work.