“Why did we take Katie to a regular school? Because we wanted her to grow up like everyone else. We wanted Katie to learn how to write, read, add, and subtract like our two other children. Inclusive education had not been implemented in schools at the time; special schools were the best case scenario,” Katie’s father, Vepkhia Diakonashvili, said. He challenged society years ago and took his disabled daughter to public school.
It is due to her parents’ persistent efforts that Katie is now independent. She can go to the store and to the development center, she can sing, and she can make objects out of clay. Katie is 22 years old. She has mental development problems. Vepkhia Diakonashvili’s family lives in Akhaltsikhe, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia.
Her father said that they went through a lot of difficulties, but it is due to the fact that Katie goes to a normal school that she can make use of all necessary things in life. “Yes, my daughter doesn’t understand fractions, but she has basic knowledge. She can write and read and she feels like a complete part of society,” Vepkhia Diakonashvili said. Her father is convinced that Katie will not stay at home like many other people with disabilities, but she will make her own money instead.
The center’s music therapist, Anahit Anesyan, works to make sure that the list of songs includes something everyone likes. She tries to do everything to ensure that these young people with disabilities will feel free and happy and that they will leave the center every day feeling great.
When these people were in school, inclusive education was not yet implemented in the Georgian educational system. This is why many of them went to special schools. Some of them studied in these schools, while others’ parents took them out of school after 4th grade and kept them at home.
“Before they started coming to the center, they were very withdrawn and impatient. They couldn’t sit for long and they were afraid. I won’t even speak about their creativity,” Melano Chilingarashvili said. She is the art therapist and special education teacher at this center. She sometimes ends up working on one detail for three to six months.
Now, their creations are displayed throughout the rooms in the center. These works of art are also displayed in exhibitions.
As far as how likely it is for people with disabilities to make their dreams into a reality in Georgia, the head of the Regional Association of Samtskhe-Javakheti Toleranti, Tsira Meskhishvili, said that there are many problems that still remain unsolved. According to her, this is not only a problem in Georgia, but in several other countries as well. “Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland resolved the issue of making sure that people with disabilities are included in society over the past few decades.” According to her, it was a good thing that Georgia ratified the UN convention. “Many issues will be resolved due to the convention. The Georgian government has already drafted programs. But as far as how much those programs are being implemented- that’s another question entirely.”
The problem is especially present in villages. “Many centers are being opened in Georgia and inclusive programs are being implemented with the support of the state and society. However, the stigma still remains. Many children, especially in villages, are stuck at home. They can’t go to school because the infrastructure is not advanced enough. Also, they don’t go because parents hold on to stigmas; they don’t want others to know that their children have disabilities. Society is not yet ready to understand that,” the association’s leader said.
She emphasized that even regional government centers where people receive social services are not accessible. Not all educational and cultural centers in Akhaltsikhe have the structural means to accommodate people with disabilities. “There are no elevators even in the buildings where they live. If there are no elevators for people to leave and move around the city, then what are they supposed to do? They can’t jump from the third or fourth floor. This issue needs to be resolved first.”
Special educator Nino Nadiradze, who works at the Number 1 school in Akhaltsikhe and is an inclusive education expert in Samtskhe-Javakheti, said that the biggest problem that parents worry about is how to get their children who have mobility issues to school. Inclusive education began to be implemented in Georgia in 2009, but there are still many difficulties. The program was implemented in ten secondary schools, and then it expanded. “In the beginning, society had difficulties accepting and understanding all of that. When inclusive education was introduced, it was difficult for teachers, for parents who had children with disabilities, and for those who had able-bodied children,” Nino Nadiradze said.
“There was no such thing in Georgian society for a disabled child to leave the house, and especially not for them to sit next to able-bodied children. Teachers also reacted to this aggressively,” the teacher said, and added, “This ‘conflict’ was resolved thanks to the Ministry of Education of Georgia. First, teachers went to special classes, and then parents who were for and against this practice went through training.” One of the strategic steps taken by the ministry was to hire team of professionals in schools composed of special educators, psychologists, and speech therapists. Nadiradze agreed that inclusive education also changes the mood in the classroom.
“Children do not believe in stigmas on their own; it’s adults who enforce such beliefs in children,” Adelaida’s teacher, Isabella Margaryan said.
Her teacher remembers that Adelaida was aggressive in the beginning, but when she saw how kindly the other children treated her, her aggression went away and she became a full member of the class.
Narek’s family lives in the Azatan village. The school in the village does have an inclusive education program, but Narek can only go to that school when the state provides him with a special car and wheelchair and when the school builds a proper bathroom and hires proper professionals who work with children who have disabilities.
Schools began to be accessible for children with disabilities in the Shirak region in 2012. There has been some progress over the years and schools have been fitted with certain necessities, but as Narek’s mother, Azatuhi Vardkhatunyan, says, there is still transportation to consider. Azatuhi’s husband goes to another country to work every year in order to take care of the family’s needs, but she alone cannot take care of Narek’s transportation.
Hayarpi Poghosyan, a social worker at the Armenian Caritas charity organization, believes that the work of social workers is also important during this process. Social workers will find children who have special needs and who do not go to preschool or school because of stigmas and other difficulties they face because of their families and societies. She believes that work needs to begin in the family.