Children with disabilities in Georgia now have more opportunities to develop

UNICEF-led initiative for social change through communication, ‘See Every Color’, has been an integral part of the change

By Timothy Ogden for UNICEF Georgia
Lile with her Mother
UNICEF/Geo-2018/Jibuti

13 October 2018

Lile and Lele were born with Down syndrome, but while watching them scribble drawings on paper or push a toy pram around a room, there is little to separate them from any other children of six, and this is just how Mika Dzidziguri, Lile’s mother, thinks it should be.

“I want her to be treated just like everybody else,” she says. “And I am seeing much more of that now.”

This is not just Mika’s perception – research and data support her claim. The 2017 Welfare Monitoring Study showed that from 2015 to 2017, stigma against disabilities has been reduced from 41.5 percent of the population to 28.3 percent, a staggering figure considering the short space of time observed.  

UNICEF-led initiative for social change through communication, ‘See Every Color’, has been an integral part of this drastic reduction, as educating the public about the needs of people with disabilities and changing misconceptions and stereotypes has resulted in building a more open society. For the campaign to have a maximal effect, a mix of four approaches has been used: education about disabilities, and countering myths and prejudices; creating a platform of advocacy for parents and children; promoting interaction between young people with and without disabilities; and initiating public discussions and influencing the attitudes of professional groups.

Since February 2017, as part of the campaign, UNICEF has undertaken extensive outreach activities throughout Georgia, including interpersonal meetings, media campaigns, and large-scale events, as well as cooperation with professionals – such as doctors and teachers – to enhance their collaboration with the parents of children with disabilities. The contest between municipalities to identify the best practices and social programs for children with disabilities resulted in municipalities reconsidering their programmes and services for children with disabilities. Furthermore, calls for parents of children with disabilities to share their stories, online quizzes to check the knowledge of people about people with disabilities, partnerships with cinemas and more discussions with students at schools and universities, are still planned until the end of the year.

The campaign has already built bridges between people, and led to friendships between children who might have different needs but have found plenty of common ground, and the campaign still has two months before it concludes. But already, the parents of children with disabilities are noticing differences.

 “I can see changes in terms of the awareness of society. I think people have become far more aware of people with disabilities,” says Sopiko Mirziashvili, Lele’s mother.  “If we compare from when Lele was born and today, there has been huge change, especially over the last three years or so. People have become far more aware of the needs of people with disabilities, and understanding in how to treat them.”

The public are not alone in their changing perception of children with disabilities. The Georgian government has shown far more interest in caring for disabled children in recent years, thanks to the joint efforts of the government, parents, and UNICEF. These sorts of results from dialogue with the authorities, Sopiko thinks, is the primary way in which the lives of children like Lele will be further improved.

“We do communicate with the government, there is a platform for this, but in terms of real results there is still a long way to go. Of course, these cannot happen quickly – this is a continuous process. We need to enhance our communication with them, prevent child abandonment because of disabilities, and improve overall services.  The most important thing, though, is that the government’s attitude is changing. But this is just the beginning.”

It is, in fact, children who are leading the process of change; Sopiko believes that the best educators are other children. “Because Lele attends a normal school and interacts with other children, they get to see that she isn’t so different – they make friends and play with her, and then they go and talk to their parents about her. This then educates the parents, so it spreads very naturally.”

Mika Dzidziguri, the single mother of Lile, also six, agrees with the notion that there is still a long way to go, but claims that she has witnessed changes she would not have thought possible even as recently as three years ago. “We’ve run campaigns, with the help of UNICEF and parents’ groups, and of course these have helped educate the general public, but they have also raised awareness in the business community,” she explains. “We’ve actively communicated with a number of businesses, and we have corrected the misconception that people with disabilities aren’t capable of doing anything. At first they had no idea what work they would be suitable for, but after we started collaborating we have found jobs for young people with disabilities in the business sector.”

The fact that children like Lile and Lele will be able to undergo a hitherto unprecedented level of development has allowed parents like Mika to dare to dream of something that they once considered completely beyond their reach – the semblance of an independent life for their children. This, she thinks, along with the gradually changing perception of the public, has caused the biggest change to be felt by the parents themselves.

“For me, it’s not just about my child anymore, or Down syndrome – it’s about everyone’s children, and all disabilities. I can see lots of other colors in other people now.”

This inclusiveness has led Mika, other parents and collaborating professional groups to travel to Georgia’s rural regions. “It’s good to go to villages and towns to meet and talk to other parents and provide the support they need,” says Mika. 

There are, of course, still many miles to travel. Child abandonment might happen with less frequency, but it has not died yet; the parents of other children might have learned sympathy and understanding, but there are many people in the country who still harbor stigma. Mika and Sopiko, however, are optimistic for the future – at this time, their daughters have opportunities for development that they would have considered unrealistic as recently as several years ago. 

For her part, Sopiko believes that Lele and Lile’s future development, and future lives, will be helped greatly by those children they go to school and make friends with. “Those children, when they grow up, won’t have learned any stigma or intolerance,” she says. “They will already know that although people with disabilities have different needs, their aspirations, and feelings, are the same.”

This is evident just by watching the two girls. Lile was recently featured as a child model in a fashion magazine, the dream of any girl her age, and Lele’s motherly concern for her stuffed animal is a familiar sight at any kindergarten. Their needs, indeed, might be slightly different, but the similarities between them and other children are far greater than any differences.

Lile with her Mother
UNICEF/Geo-2018/Jibuti
Lele
UNICEF/Geo-2018/Jibuti

Since February 2017, as part of the campaign, UNICEF has undertaken extensive outreach activities throughout Georgia, including interpersonal meetings, media campaigns, and large-scale events, as well as cooperation with professionals – such as doctors and teachers – to enhance their collaboration with the parents of children with disabilities. The contest between municipalities to identify the best practices and social programs for children with disabilities resulted in municipalities reconsidering their programmes and services for children with disabilities. Furthermore, calls for parents of children with disabilities to share their stories, online quizzes to check the knowledge of people about people with disabilities, partnerships with cinemas and more discussions with students at schools and universities, are still planned until the end of the year.

The campaign has already built bridges between people, and led to friendships between children who might have different needs but have found plenty of common ground, and the campaign still has two months before it concludes. But already, the parents of children with disabilities are noticing differences.

 “I can see changes in terms of the awareness of society. I think people have become far more aware of people with disabilities,” says Sopiko Mirziashvili, Lele’s mother.  “If we compare from when Lele was born and today, there has been huge change, especially over the last three years or so. People have become far more aware of the needs of people with disabilities, and understanding in how to treat them.”

The public are not alone in their changing perception of children with disabilities. The Georgian government has shown far more interest in caring for disabled children in recent years, thanks to the joint efforts of the government, parents, and UNICEF. These sorts of results from dialogue with the authorities, Sopiko thinks, is the primary way in which the lives of children like Lele will be further improved.

Lele
UNICEF/Geo-2018/Jibuti

“We do communicate with the government, there is a platform for this, but in terms of real results there is still a long way to go. Of course, these cannot happen quickly – this is a continuous process. We need to enhance our communication with them, prevent child abandonment because of disabilities, and improve overall services.  The most important thing, though, is that the government’s attitude is changing. But this is just the beginning.”

It is, in fact, children who are leading the process of change; Sopiko believes that the best educators are other children. “Because Lele attends a normal school and interacts with other children, they get to see that she isn’t so different – they make friends and play with her, and then they go and talk to their parents about her. This then educates the parents, so it spreads very naturally.”

Mika Dzidziguri, the single mother of Lile, also six, agrees with the notion that there is still a long way to go, but claims that she has witnessed changes she would not have thought possible even as recently as three years ago. “We’ve run campaigns, with the help of UNICEF and parents’ groups, and of course these have helped educate the general public, but they have also raised awareness in the business community,” she explains. “We’ve actively communicated with a number of businesses, and we have corrected the misconception that people with disabilities aren’t capable of doing anything. At first they had no idea what work they would be suitable for, but after we started collaborating we have found jobs for young people with disabilities in the business sector.”