Iveta Tsitashvili, 42, Zugdidi

“I think after the right to life, freedom of choice is the most fundamental right of a human being. People with disabilities cannot choose where to receive education, where to work, or where to go on a holiday. The government (or the society) dictates them specific places for these activities because other places are inaccessible or closed to them. They are considered as incapable, rather than as human resource or human beings with their rights. They regard a human in a wheelchair as someone in need of assistance (medical or charitable) and this person can only be pitied or helped, or special enterprise(s) (or places) must be set up for them and they must be isolated from the society… in the best case scenario, they can be given entry-level or low paid job(s). You may have more experience, education, skills or a degree but you are not considered for highly paid public positions. They say demand for employment of people with disabilities is unreasonable since there are so many abled people who go unemployed in the country. If not the association DEA where I’m working now, I would struggle to get a job. I don’t mean to employ a person just because he or she uses a wheelchair. Such a person must of course have appropriate qualifications and skills to fulfill the assigned duties. I joined the association in 1998, i.e. before I had to use the wheelchair, and when I started to need it I was depressed for two years. It is thanks to the head of the association that I am actively involved in my life, not just passively observing it from afar. I still work in this organization. Work is very important for me.

A bigger problem than inaccessible environment is inaccessible mind. Our society has many stereotypes, including that people with disabilities are poor, pitiful and in need of help. They think that intermittent assistance and installation of ramps to the buildings is all that social integration is about. We have not gone further than that. If a building has a ramp, they think it is accessible. Most of the existing ramps are useless, we call them quasi-ramps. It is impossible to use them. A short time ago they installed a metal construction in the underground passage in Zugdidi and named it a ramp. It is, however, dangerous to be used by people in wheelchairs or parents with infants in strollers. We addressed them officially in writing and even told them to either replace it or remove it altogether, but nothing has changed. The head of the architecture department says “I understand your concern”, but he does not understand that the notions of “concern” and “right” are different. This is not my concern, this is my right!

I had trouble accepting the wheelchair… In my dreams I am never in a wheelchair, I always walk or run up the stairs in high heels and I wake up with my legs shaking and my heels on fire, for a split second it feels as if I will get up and go. Even though so many years have passed, I still cannot accept this life because this condition turns everything upside down.

I participated in local elections. In my neighborhood, the Combine Settlement, I ran in past elections as independent majoritarian MP candidate. I wanted to see the path majoritarian candidates, namely, female majoritarian candidates, go through. This process was dramatized by my wheelchair. To see the society respond to not only a woman in the politics, but a wheelchaired woman was really something. I came face to face with the stereotypes about women and the stereotypes about women in wheelchairs. There were five of us – majoritarian candidates, and I was the only woman. When I went to neighborhoods to meet voters, they did not even pay any attention to me, and usually thought that the candidate was not me, but a friend who was helping me move around, or other friends who came to meet me. When I started my speech, they would watch me in disbelief as if shocked that a person confined to a wheelchair could have an opinion. There were times when women cried out “So educated and in a wheelchair!”, “So smart and in a wheelchair, why?” “Why do you want to go into politics?” One of them asked, “how are you go going to run around”. I answered why, MP is not an athlete and running is hardly essential for the job”. They regretted later, saying “If we had voted for the “wheelchaired girl”, we would be better off, and many people visited me to ask for help. These memories make me smile now.”