Esma Gumberidze, 22, Tbilisi
I am a fourth-year student of Tbilisi State University.
I would hardly be able to study at the university unless I had support from my family. We are from Kutaisi. My family moved to Tbilisi when I went to school. Initially the handbook of the Georgian language was the only textbook available to me in Braille. My mother used to read to me text books in all other subjects. Adapted education was rather arbitrary even in a special school for visually impaired people and my mother has invested a lot in my development. I remember she used to make some drawings from modelling clay, matches and other materials to explain lessons at home. When I was in the eighth or ninth form, some handbooks became available in Braille, and others in the audio form. When I saw my achievements I became more motivated.
I did not have any private tutor to prepare me for the National Examinations, I did that independently. The collection of examination materials published by the National Center are available in Braille as well. The problem is that it is published only in those years when some visually impaired child is going to pass examinations. Therefore these collections are not available for all years. To make a long story short, after I studied all the materials in the Braille script, my mother took me to the Public Library. She read to me the collection of examination materials not available in Braille. So I prepared for the exams independently with the help of my mother. But where are the children who arrive to study from regions, without their families, supposed to stay here?! With a relative? Yes, but how is s/he supposed to deal with all the inconveniences caused by not adapted environment and lack of relevant skills? S/he needs a friend or a relative to take her/him to the university. My parents still accompany me to the university and other places. The City Hall has financed the project of accompanying person of the Union of the Blind People but there are only 3 such persons in Tbilisi and several hundreds of visually impaired. Of course, they cannot provide individual services and take me to the university every day. What I am trying to say is that it is rather difficult for people with disabilities to live alone in Tbilisi. It is often impossible for the whole family to move to Tbilisi to give him/her an opportunity to receive a higher education.
Initially I was enrolled in Free University getting 100% of state financing. I was rather surprised by the attitude of the Prorector, who was a Harvard graduate, and other representatives of the administration, who said that I was supposed to go to Europe if I wanted to study because they did not had sufficient resources to hire individual lecturers for me. I think this happened because of lack of information. We explained that they would not need to hire lecturers individually for me. We told them that since they got accreditation they were obliged to provide a respective environment for all students, including me. Initially I felt awkward, I did not want the university to incur expenses because of me and I proposed to ask fellow-students to volunteer to read materials to me. We tried this but it did not work. Then I applied to the administration, I explained my condition and asked them to hire a reader for me as there was no other solution. Then they hired a reader who worked with me only and even came to my house.
I decided to move to Tbilisi State University mostly because it had exchange programs and it was nearer to my house. Besides I would not have to pay tuition fees as I had got a 100% scholarship. Before moving to the university I head already known that they were obliged to provide an inclusive environment, so I explained everything to the deputy dean. There is no electronic nor audio literature in the university, therefore the administration assigned library staff to take turns and read materials to me. We have a schedule, I go to the library and they read whatever I tell them and whatever I need to read. I use a voice recorder to record everything important, for example, articles of the codes. As for less relevant things, I just listen and pass exams using my laptop computer. This is an individual approach rather than systematic. As far as I know the Legal Department of the university had never had a visually impaired student before. Of course it is not comfortable because I can come and work here only at certain hours. Had I my own textbook I would listen to it whenever I wished – at night, during the day, or at the week-end… For example, if a lecturer misses a lecture, I cannot come to the library and say that I have two free hours and ask them to read unless I already agreed with them in advance.
I also told them that I had to pass written rather than oral exams. I need this education to do something in the future, do not I?! I will not be able to use my knowledge unless I can resolve a case (a legal problem) in a written form. When I told them that they assigned to me an IT specialist, who taught me some computer skills. Another barrier is that I cannot choose subjects independently because of not adapted database. I asked an IT specialist whether it was possible to teach me to use the database. They told me that it was not adapted, so they just got rid of me without teaching me anything. Therefore the administrative staff helps me to select subjects.
Unfortunately not all universities do that. For example, parents have read materials to my classmates up until now. I strongly advise them to ask the administration to assign a reader because it is the obligation of the university, not the parent. It is like that everywhere, they do not offer that service themselves unless you ask for it. It was like this in Tbilisi State University, Free University and in many other places. To put it briefly, you should speak up, there is no other solution. There is no department or even one person at Tbilisi State University responsible for PWD issues. As far as I know, currently total of 8 PWDs with different types and levels of disabilities are studying at various departments of the university.
My family never told me that I would not be able to study, work or achieve anything. My mother raised me differently. She used to tell me all the time: “So what? Go to the director” or “let’s go to the Minister…” She believed that it makes sense to fight. So I thought there was nothing special in that I was enrolled at the university. I learnt from other people later that, after all, this was quite a feat.
Even though I have faced some difficulties I have been able to overcome barriers in the process of studying. I managed to study at school and I still do that at the university. I take part in exchange programs as well – during the school years I was in the USA for one year as an exchange student. I have come from Germany recently where I studied for six months. As far as I understand, finding a job and further career growth would be a really a big obstacle for me. I often think that I totally will be able to become a lawyer because I will have an assistant, who will help me. But before that I have to take several steps – attend internship programs, work as an assistant… which means I have to run to and fro with documents in my hands, look for things, which I will not be able to do because of not adapted environment. Therefore, this internship (which is one of the steps I have to take) will be a serious challenge in my career growth”.