“I fear my child will be harmed again” Georgia’s children with disabilities struggle against stigmat

Public intolerance of children with disabilities can be a major obstacle to their development and ultimately a normal life.

UNICEF
Gabriel
UNICEF/Geo-2016/Khetaguri

03 December 2016

Six-year-old Gabriel smiles broadly as he sips on his fruit juice, with his mother Tamuna watching as she relates his story. “His lip was cut; it was bruised and swollen, and he had injuries to his head.”

A confident and talkative woman, Tamuna is clearly upset as she explains how her son, diagnosed with autism, had been beaten at his kindergarten in Tbilisi. “First, the staff claimed they had no idea what had happened. Then, that he’d injured himself and then that he’d been hurt by another child,” she said. “But both the social worker and the health worker were adamant his wounds had been caused by an adult.”

During the long battle for justice for her son, one of the hardest things for Tamuna to deal with has been the attitudes of the public and of state institutions. She describes how prior to the incident, she had been told that other parents at her son’s kindergarten did not want their children spending time with a ‘sick child’ – a phrase both loaded and offensive in the Georgian language. She blames the lack of understanding, and lingering Soviet attitudes – under which children with disabilities were expected to stay at home out of the view of society – for her family’s stigmatization.

Public intolerance of children with disabilities can be a major obstacle to their development and ultimately a normal life. Whereas Tamuna has been forced to fight to protect Gabriel’s right to education, her friend Eka has found even the simple act of travelling around Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, fraught with challenges.

Eka’s eight-year-old daughter, Salome, has also been diagnosed with autism. Two years ago, when Eka and her family were riding a public bus, Salome became excited, angering the driver, who verbally abused them and told them that “’sick persons should be in the hospital and not allowed to walk the streets.” In a separate incident, her fellow passengers turned on her, hurling insults and threatening with violence.

For now, Eka has abandoned all attempts at a public life for her child and has retreated to her small home. “All I want is to move around the city and feel protected,” she explains sadly, “and what makes me angry is that nobody has ever apologised to my child.”

Sadly, the experiences of Salome, Gabriel and their families are not isolated incidents, but part of a broader pattern of discrimination against children with disabilities in Georgia. The problem is illustrated in the 2015 Welfare Monitoring Study conducted by UNICEF, which found that 41 per cent of the Georgians hold negative attitudes towards people with disabilities.

“Everywhere we go, we are called ‘mad’”, sighs Tamuna, who feels isolated, and frustrated by her son’s stigmatization and the lack of support from state institutions. Eka is worried about the effects that social pressure is having on her younger daughter and she is increasingly uncomfortable going out with Salome for fear of being shouted at.

A 2016 UNICEF study which examined commonly-held attitudes towards children with disabilities in Georgia, found that stigmatization is rooted in four core perceptions: that these children are “abnormal”, that disability is a threat or contagious disease, that the children are dependent, and that religious and cultural norms justify negative attitudes.

Like Tamuna, the study sees improving public understanding of disability as critical to combating such perceptions. UNICEF is working to promote more positive attitudes towards children with disabilities in Georgia, and has launched a nationwide campaign, with the support of the 7: David Beckham Fund to challenge some of the most widely-held misperceptions and create a safer environment for children like Gabriel and Salome.

Energetic and friendly, Gabriel bounces around the room, cheerfully interacting with his visitors. Tamuna is nervous, as her son has just started primary school. The school is required by law to provide specialised support for children like Gabriel, but she’s not confident in what she’s seen so far. What worries her most, however, is the continued fear that someone will again hurt her son.