Dr Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, reflects on his time in Georgia as part of Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s Multi-Party Office work with the DUP.
Last week, I was privileged to be part of a small delegation to Georgia, funded by WFD, to take part in a workshop on the development of a disabilities policy for the Georgian government. This is the second time I have been a guest of that most beautiful place, where hospitality to the foreigner is not simply aspirational but is received as something very practical.
From beginning to end, Paula Bradley (DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly for Belfast North) Thomas Hogg (DUP local councilor for Belfast North) and myself were treated as friends and colleagues and not “experts” from somewhere parachuted in for a few days. For this, we are extremely thankful as we came as “outsiders” but left as good friends and allies.
There is an old Georgian proverb that translates roughly as “The right balance depends on the weigher”. In other words, how we value people depends on our view of the world.
However we treat our fellow human beings, it remains a fact that those living on the margins of society, the people who are disabled by physical conditions or social attitudes, tend to have to struggle to be treated equally. This situation has no geographical limitations.
Numbers of those affected by such conditions are notoriously difficult to obtain in any jurisdiction so it is not surprising that although only 3% of Georgian citizens hold “disabled status”, it has been estimated that about one in eleven Georgians are actually living with a disabling condition (GeoStat Census, 2014).
During the workshop we heard a presentation from GeoWel, of their recent survey detailing the situation relating to disability in Georgia. It was an extremely challenging experience to be given this insight into the daily lives of many Georgian citizens, those “differently abled”, who face huge challenges simply to access services or employment.
The survey highlighted five areas of concern, including status and statistics, perceptions and stigma, children, physical infrastructure and education and support for those living with disabilities. I could equally apply all five to the place I call home.
Georgia operates on a medical model of disability, an approach that tends to allow “hidden disabilities”, such as Down’s syndrome or Autism, to be overlooked, unless they are linked to a physical or mental health condition.
Over the two days, it became clear that all the delegates believed that this basis of assessment needs to be changed to a human rights centred, social model. It was also self-evident that there is a passionate conviction to make real change in Georgia for those living with disabling conditions, a view held equally by Government, public sector colleagues and NGOs. Such a shared vision, in my view, is unusual and is to be commended and supported.
Those of us who came from Northern Ireland were given ample time to present reflections on our own experiences of addressing disability, including Paula on the role of the legislature in creating policy, Thomas on the role of local authorities and myself – examining the need to ensure that equality and human rights principles underpin any disability legislation.
WFD played an essential role supporting the Georgian partners in taking this initiative forward and it was clear that their ongoing non-directional approach was both appropriate as well as beneficial to those involved. There was a clear desire to continue and indeed extend the partnership beyond this project.
So, we left with memories of passionate people, who together want to make real change to the lives of almost 400,000 Georgians who face daily challenges. We all believe that we are more than the sum total of our parts and experiences and that it is in coming together and standing alongside those on society’s margins that we best demonstrate our shared humanity.