Mariam Mikiashvili, 28, Tbilisi
„I am Mariam Mikiashvili. I am 28 years old. I have a spouse and a child, who will be one year old soon. I live in Tbilisi and I am a special education teacher. I studied this profession in Norway. Before that, I got a bachelor’s degree in social and political sciences at Tbilisi State University. It was quite difficult for me to study at the university in Tbilisi, which fueled my desire to pursue my master’s degree in some ‘normal’ country, where I would have a more accessible environment. There was actually nothing accessible to me and I would find the same situation if I enrolled in the university now. Lecturers used to ask me how I was supposed to pass exams and how they were supposed to examine me. The university administration was not prepared to accept a visually impaired student, they had never seen such a student before. I did not have access to anything – physical environment or tests. I basically had oral examinations. As I heard from other students, the environment has not changed much since. Tbilisi State University has just recorded a sound program and bought a Braille printer. This printer is in the library of the first building of the university. As far as I know, its presence is formal and has been never used.
Generally, persons with disabilities (PWD) face a lot of barriers, women also encounter difficulties in our society. When you have to experience both of them together it is doubly difficult. For example, in my childhood my family considered me and my sister, who does not have any disabilities, absolutely equal, so I did not have any privileges. They did not have any more or less expectations from me compared to my sister and I was independent – I used to climb trees and rails like my sister, i.e. I did not face any barriers or restrictions from my family. Nor I felt any restrictions when I studied at school for visually impaired people. But when I finished school and became a student, when I started flirting, when the scope of my interests broadened and I needed more freedom I felt restricted. The family also looked at this differently. They seem to protect women from something all the time. And they feel even more protective to a girl with disabilities. Then when I already had a boyfriend my family members were aware of my every step because of the environment and because they were used to doing this before. So I had to share things with them whether I wanted this or not. There was no other way, i.e. I had to say things and this was not strange neither to them nor to me. This period was really very difficult. Certainly, visually impaired men have to live in the same non-adaptive environment, but they still do not face so many barriers; e. g. they don’t have to say all the time where exactly they are going and how long they are going to stay there. The public has the same attitude. Strangers have often told me in the street: “Why do they let you go out alone? Don’t you have parents?” Yes, they think that I should not go out independently.
I remember in Norway the whole month would pass and I would not remember that I was not able to see. I used to live in an ordinary student dormitory, I had an orientation and mobility trainer, who helped me develop skills to move safely in the community when I first arrived there. Then I did everything absolutely independently. I was rather surprised when I first realized that I had not thought that I could not see and nobody had made me feel that.
Probably I am very lucky because I feel equal to my spouse, i.e. we both do our share of household chores. One of the factors that has probably contributed to our relationships is that he is also with low vision and understands my problems related to visual impairment very well. In Georgia, women often have to endure wrong and rough treatment from their husbands, but fortunately, I do not have such problems with my husband.
Currently I work at the NGO founded by my sister. We work on the education and rehabilitation, environmental accessibility challenges for the blind and partially sighted people. Visually impaired girls face bigger challenges so they don’t go out much. Girls encounter more obstacles, and some of them just give up. Especially if the have not had the opportunity to study… I know some girls who have finished schools recently, whose parents say that they do not need education. There was one girl, who had been brought up by her grandmother, who said she could not persuade the family that this child should study in Tbilisi and they should pay a rent for an apartment. They were from a province. Were she a male, they would think more about leaving her in Tbilisi. But because she is a girl she finished school, went back home in the province. Families do not realize that they disable their girls more than they would be if brought up in the right way.”