People with disability stand for their rights – how activism can affect community mind set
For the last four years Deah Eremashvili has been fighting for the rights of people with disabilities to be able to lead an independent life. A person with disability herself, Deah, aged 34, has had to overcome barriers and break down stereotypes in order to assert herself. People were sceptical about her aspirations. By her own assertions, it’s been a rocky road, but she has made it. And, having built her own self-confidence and a successful career, she decided to encourage and motivate others, especially women, and to help them realise their value in society.
Deah is an activist contributing to the EU-supported project “Civil Society Action for Promoting Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Georgia”. Among others, the project involves Ramin Macharashvili, the founder of the organization Changes for Equal Rights, who began advocating for disabled rights in 2013. Activists mention proudly that previously they had to demand that the authorities involve persons with disability in budget planning, but now – as a direct result of that dialogue – municipal officials contact them and invite them to participate in the process.
Ramin explains how much has changed since then: “The public had the wrong attitude towards us, and we insisted that persons with disabilities should not be treated as charity recipients. Years ago, people with disabilities didn’t even appear in public. All projects on disabled persons, if any, were implemented in Tbilisi. Information about these projects didn’t reach the regions. Therefore, our first goal was to raise public awareness and disseminate information on the rights and needs of people with disabilities in Adjara,” Ramin says.
Among the many goals Deah and Ramin have set themself, employment has been by far the most challenging: it has proved incredibly difficult to convince both employers and persons with disabilities that they are worth hiring, Deah says. “Eighty percent of people with disabilities my age is used to being cared for by parents or other people. They can’t imagine being able to work independently. We have to work really hard to get them enroll for training courses.
“Actually, there are a vast amount of people with great potential, but we can’t see them. They may live on the 8th floor and are therefore unable to go outdoors. How can we see them? That is why we are fighting to provide them with services they need,” Deah explains, noting that it can also be challenging to communicate with employers.
“Often employers don’t know any people with disabilities, and they are scared. It’s sad to say it, but those employers are likely to believe that persons with disabilities could become an additional burden on them. However, when companies hire them and see how motivated and successful he or she is, they are ready to hire more. The attitude is gradually changing, but we still have a lot of work to do. In fact, we bridge the state, the private sector and people with disabilities. So far, we’re succeeding,” Deah says, recalling that last year alone, eight people with disabilities were hired in Adjara thanks to their efforts. According to her, the activists seek to promote a quota system to encourage employment of persons with disabilities and stimulate their self-development.
Much has changed in the region since activists began advocating for disability issues. As a simple example, Ramin explains that first disability-friendly buses had been launched in Batumi, but the bus drivers were not adequately trained about the real purpose of those buses and rarely used the ramps.
“Some drivers simply ignored persons with disabilities and passed by,” he says. “Others stopped, but didn’t know how to help passengers board the bus. Some drivers just didn’t want to the hassle. That’s why we started to wait for buses at bus stops carrying signs instructing drivers to: ‘Open the ramp’. A lot of volunteers joined us,” Ramin says, explaining that after the protest, the municipal authorities contacted their organization and offered help in training the drivers.
Another success story for the group came with the launch of their ‘Sea for all’ campaign, in 2019, whereby activists staged a performance to show that wheelchair users were unable to go to the beach. Within a few months, Batumi Boulevard Administration contacted the organizers and offered to address the problem jointly. By now, two sites have been arranged on the Boulevard to facilitate disability access to the beach.
Legal disputes over the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities have also intensified within the framework of the EU project. As a result, a number of discrimination cases are pending in the courts and the Public Defender’s Office and several cases have already been won. These are only few of Ramin and Deah’s civic activities. They can count many achievements, both big and small, but together with their counterparts they continue to fight for their rights and the rights of others in the region. It is only thanks to their efforts that people with disabilities living in Adjara have been given the opportunity to go out and prove their worth, and by raising awareness and through communication with the appropriate municipal divisions, those people have been given a lifeline to work, use public transport, visit notary offices, purchase train tickets online, visit the beach or indeed participate in any activities they want to engage in.