The View from Georgia
My name is Giorgi Akhmeteli from the Republic of Georgia, and I am the founder of the Georgian organization “Accessible Environment for Everyone” that advocates for the interests of persons with disabilities and aims to contribute to their social integration and to the realization of their fundamental rights to be engaged at each level of social and civil life.
I have been in the USA for not even a month yet as part of a professional training program as a “Next Generation Leader” at the McCain Institute. Despite some people in my home country thinking that I came here for personal reasons, these days have been so full and productive, I am even more confident now that this was right decision. It was not an easy decision – I had to leave my professional team and my family, knowing in advance I would not be able to be engaged in our activities as vigorously from the U.S. as I had been.
I would like to share my story, the journey that brought me here, and the path I have chosen to fulfill my personal and civic goals that have eventually become the same. I am a wheelchair user due to a spinal cord injury in 2003 and since then I have had to overcome the obstacles persons with disabilities have to face in their everyday lives and those I could only imagine before.
Persons with disabilities represent one of the most marginalized groups in Georgia and throughout the world. Their right to participate in civic and political processes is often ignored. At the same time, we are the largest minority because we comprise 15% of the world’s population. Hundreds of thousand people with disabilities in my country, where the population doesn’t exceed five million, are perceived only as “objects” of charity or medical treatment rather than “holders” of rights. They have no access to the mainstream educational system, labor market, or entertainment opportunities. Government does not want to know about their needs. In the last decades, even the existence of the persons with disabilities remained unnoticed and if someone remembered them, decisions were made without engaging them in the process. This may be partially caused by the weakness and lack of awareness in the community of people with disabilities that had become used to this isolation. Despite solidarity with their problems, attitudes expressed by average citizens are based solely on medical and charitable approaches that are oppressive for the persons with disabilities. In many countries, one only needs to look to the media to see the same biases.
I felt enough confidence in myself that I could and should do something to contribute to positive, democratic changes respecting diversity and the idea of equality that is my vision of life. You should never wait for someone to do something for you. You must do your job. You have to do your best on your own. This is the key point and principle that unites all the persons with disabilities around the world – “Nothing about us without us.” This is the key principle that underlies the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”).
Ratification of the CRPD and its implementation are the major challenges we have right now in Georgia. Taking all the above mentioned issues into account, the CRPD is the first international document that enables approximately 15% of humanity to live equally with dignity. However, we all have to realize that all the challenges will not be solved simply with ratification. Once we have achieved ratification, we will all have to work hard for its implementation.
In Georgia, we have already made several steps forward and the CRPD strengthens our hope and confidence. I see our influence on decision makers; I feel our impact on the community and feel its trust and expectations by observing their increasing motivation and energy. With our assistance new Disabled People’s Organizations are being established in regions of Georgia, with the community mobilized around them, demonstrating their demand for change. They are now equipped with basic knowledge and skills to advocate for their own rights, and collaborate with while staying independent from the government. Different sectors of the society have started effective communication with each other. As a result of numerous events and activities aiming to raise public awareness, we initiated a shift in the minds of the people. Voices of persons with disabilities are louder and louder all around the world. Trying to find and nurture new leaders is of great importance in the field of disability rights. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act that has become quite effective for the American disabled community, uniting the world, including the USA, around the CRPD and its values is extremely important for each country and each person with disability living in different countries. With the USA’s influence as a role model for developing countries and those of young democracies, it is one of the main actors. Observing the movement demanding the ratification of CRPD in the USA, meeting with Senator McCain as I was fortunate to do, and hearing his promise to promote the CRPD convention, gives me hope that our dreams may come true.
When I graduate from The McCain Institute in August S 2014 and return to my home country, I will continue working on human rights advocacy and monitoring state policies with particular attention to equality, education, and access to public utilities and services. I will continue facilitating the CRPD implementation, and as a leader of my organization, I will clarify for my colleagues how to achieve our common goals. The knowledge, skills and experience I gain in the U.S. will help me to set priorities, work out the plan to fulfill our intentions step by step, and adapt and transfer practices of developed countries in Georgia.
This is the way we have to proceed, and we can do it with the help of each other and uniting around common humanistic values.