Five years after ratifying the landmark United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Georgia has yet to fully translate its transformative potential into everyday reality, according to speakers at “See, Hear, Take a Step,” a conference organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
In line with the motto of the disability-rights movement, “nothing about us without us,” the conference programme was defined in close consultation with persons with disabilities themselves. The agenda focused on the legislative and policy reforms that are needed to align Georgian laws and practices with the UN Convention; ensuring all public facilities and services are accessible to PwDs; and harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence to help PwDs realize their right to work and live in the community.
“Despite far-reaching legal guarantees aimed at protecting their rights, persons with disabilities remain largely invisible in Georgian society and thus face discrimination on a daily basis,” said UNDP Head Louisa Vinton. “In line with our promise under the Sustainable Development Goals to ‘leave no one behind,’ we need a joint commitment by central and local government, Parliament, civil society and the private sector to build an inclusive environment and break the stigma that currently serves to marginalize PwDs.”
This strong resolve to achieve the full inclusion of PwDs was echoed in welcome remarks by other conference co-organizers, who included Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze, Government Administration Head Natia Mezvrishvili, Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell, Swedish Ambassador Ulrik Tideström, British Ambassador Justin McKenzie Smith, Government Administration Head Natia Mezvrishvili, and the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Human Rights and Gender Equality Lela Akiashvili.
Recent reports have highlighted the many challenges that PwDs face. In her most recent annual report, the Public Defender noted six issues: 1) a lack of accessibility in public spaces; 2) a lack of information and specialized services; 3) a lack of quality inclusive education; 4) a lack of employment opportunities; 5) poor protection of the rights of people with mental health problems; and 6) a deficit of adequate rehabilitation programmes. These concerns also featured in a recent independent assessment of Georgia’s progress on human rights since 2014, which noted that only 161 of 3,535 PwDs registered as active on the labor market were employed, and only 122 of 53,109 people employed by the public sector in 2015 were PwDs.
On the policy front, conference participants urged the Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention, which would provide concrete mechanisms for individuals to seek redress for violation of their rights, and to designate an effective focal point to coordinate the action of all public bodies on PwDs.
One conference theme was technology’s potential to transform the lives of PwDs. Innovative approaches to mobility and accessibility were presented by Irakli Beridze, Head of the UN Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in The Hague, who joined the event via teleconference. Mariam Sharangia of Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA) and Nikoloz Kobakhidze, Chair of the new Artificial Intelligence Business Association, reported on Georgia’s role in building disability-sensitive technologies.
UNDP used the conference to announce a new USD 2 million programme to improve social protection for PwDs in Georgia, which will be implemented jointly by six UN agencies starting in January 2020. The programme’s main aims are to support legislative alignment with the UN Convention; to change public attitudes towards PwDs and fight stigma; to expand employment opportunities; to strengthen organizations that represent PwDs; and to improve the accessibility of public facilities and services.