I can ask “How are you?”

Posted September 23, 2019

Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

“Sign language is even more natural to me than regular Georgian,” says Maia Kublashvili, a sign language interpreter who learned it as a child to talk to her parents.

“My Mom and Dad have hearing impairments,” Maia says. “I was just 15 months old when I first spoke in sign language to let them know that my baby brother was awake and crying.”

For now, Maya is one of Georgia’s most sought-after sign language interpreters. She works to improve the environment for people with disabilities and actively promotes sign language studies.

Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

“We train social workers, psychologists and teachers. We also work with the families where children have hearing impairments and help parents to communicate with their kids,” Maia says.

The demand for gesture language is rising in Georgia. Sign language interpretation is now part of the protocol at almost all major public events, which was not the case five or ten years ago.

Photo: Vladimir Valishvili/UNDP

Maia recalls her interpretation for the President of Georgia at the UN-organized Festival of the Sustainable Development Goals in Ambrolauri in June 2019. 

“I went up to the stage to translate a presidential speech and noticed people with hearing impairments in the audience,” she says. “I saw their eyes sparkling with joy as they saw me speaking in sign language.”

A woman and her eight-year-old son with hearing disability came to meet Maia after the event. The boy was eager to learn sign language but did not know where he could do that.

“I told him that it was his language and he could learn it easily if he really wanted to,” Maia says. “We agreed that his mother would bring him to Tbilisi where he could do his studies.”

The region of Racha, where the SDG Festival took place, as well as many other regions of Georgia, lacks facilities for people with hearing impairments. Many families have no other option but to travel to the capital city for education and other services.

Since 2015, fifty local councils composed of representatives of local self-governance, civil society and people with disabilities have been established in municipalities across Georgia to handle issues related to disability. Their work holds the promise that at least some of the most acute problems will be addressed at the local level.

Improvement and development of Georgian sign language is yet another challenge to address. When, in 2018, Georgia’s Public Service Hall introduced disability-sensitive public services, it turned out that there were no Georgian signs for property registration, issuance of the identification documents and other concepts related to public service delivery. UNDP and the Government of Sweden stepped in at that point to help create and introduce over 400 new signs and train 750 front desk operators in disability-sensitive communication. The guidelines of disability-sensitive public service delivery have been incorporated into the Public Service Quality Standard and introduced into all Public Service Hall branches across Georgia.

Photo: Leli Blagonravova/UNDP

Twenty operators of the Tbilisi Public Service Hall were trained in sign language to offer adapted services to people with hearing impairments.

“Learning sign language is a great opportunity,” says Pikria Siprashvili, a Public Service Hall operator. “I have been fascinated with sign language since I was a child and always felt upset that I could not understand it. I was aware that speaking in gestures was not an easy task, but I was eager to learn. Now my sign language is almost perfect!”

Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

Since November 2018, when disability-sensitive service was first introduced in the Tbilisi Public Service Hall, over 500 people have received services in sign language.

“Providing services to people with hearing impairments is an emotional experience,” says Pikria Siprashvili. “Every time, I feel excited that we can talk without an interpreter. I am proud that we can offer public services in sign language.”

Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

Flora Bezhanishvili and her family are frequent customers of the Public Service Hall. Eight members of the family have hearing impairments and they all need different public services in their everyday life. Flora is an active member of the Union of the Deaf of Georgia. She organises public events and works as a trainer.

“Before, I had to come to the Public Service Hall accompanied by an interpreter and that was very frustrating,” Flora says. “Since the space has been adapted to our needs, I do not feel excluded anymore. I feel part of the community. I know many of the operators and enjoy chit-chatting with them before we move on to business matters. I wish all public institutions in Georgia could follow this great example and provide services in sign language.”

According to the Georgian Union of the Deaf, 4,000 adults in Georgia have hearing impairments. Most of them struggle to get access to sign language interpretation and other services. Even this incomplete statistical data show that inclusion and human rights protection remain a challenge in Georgia.

However, the country’s public space has become more welcoming for people with disabilities in recent years. UNDP with its partners and donors – the European Union and the Government of Sweden – was at the forefront of many of these initiatives. Positive developments since 2015 include an SMS and video call service introduced by the emergency hotline 112; first steps taken by the Public Service Hall, Legal Aid Service and Parliament to make their environment more accessible for persons with disabilities; and training in sign language and disability-sensitive communication for civil servants and public service operators.

“UNDP firmly believes that equal rights and equal opportunities are the foundation of sustainable development that leaves no one behind,” says Louisa Vinton, UNDP Resident Representative in Georgia. “Georgia is making evident progress in building an inclusive environment and accessible public services. However, we still look forward to seeing more developments in adopting the legislation and polices that will help the country move forward in the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

Photo: Leli Blagonravova/UNDP

This landmark convention envisions a society where everyone has equal opportunities to communicate, study, work, get services, exercise their rights, live independently in the community and realize their personal potential.

Maia Kublashvili thinks that everyone can do their share to make that happen.

“Just saying “How are you?” in sign language makes people with hearing impairments feel appreciated and included,” she says.

“I do believe that things will change for the better. For the sake of people who live with us side by side, I want these changes to happen soon.”