Driving impact for persons with disabilities – Institutionalising change

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The Georgian Down Syndrome Association (GDSA) was founded four years ago to help young mothers of children with Down Syndrome who found themselves virtually alone and without any peer or professional support that would have helped them to deal with the initial challenges and to learn about the ways in which they could support their children to live independent lives.

The association was created by parents and an adult with Down Syndrome with more than a decade-long history of cooperation, to achieve full inclusion of people with Down Syndrome in public life and to combat stigma associated with the disability. It started with a page on Facebook, through which the founder sought to locate other parents in a similar situation and share experiences. It led to issue-driven collaboration that gradually transformed into an institution that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

With support from Europe Foundation, GDSA has been working toward its mission through efforts to institutionalise its development programme in the municipality of Tbilisi, so that local authorities start taking responsibility for the area’s children and adolescents with Down Syndrome and ensure that they are better prepared for independent living. To this end, the association worked with more than 30 specialists to improve its initial development programme based on best practices and the feedback received from the beneficiary children and adolescents with Down Syndrome. At the same time, the association engaged parents, CSOs, DPOs, journalists, and media outlets to raise awareness among key stakeholders and the general public about the importance of providing extensive support and development programmes to children and adolescents with Down Syndrome, underscoring the duty of local and national authorities to ensure the enjoyment of human rights by all citizens of Georgia.

As a result of these efforts, in 2020, Tbilisi City Hall provided space for creating the country’s first Down Syndrome Center, where GDSA will be able to run its development programmes, benefiting hundreds of children, adolescents, and adults with Down Syndrome, helping them to prepare for or to lead independent lives. This cooperation between GDSA and the Tbilisi municipality gave momentum to another important first for children, adolescents, and adults with Down Syndrome residing in the city of Batumi, as Batumi municipal authorities decided to allocate budgetary funds to institutionalise support services for them and their family members starting from 2022.

In addition, Europe Foundation has been supporting the association in its efforts to improve the socio-economic inclusion of people with Down Syndrome through social entrepreneurship. The idea of the social enterprise (SE) Babale came about from the wish to find employment opportunities for people with Down Syndrome in a country with an already high unemployment rate. While the concept of social entrepreneurship was new for the parents at the GDSA, they drew strength and commitment to learn about business plan development, pricing, and product marketing from their children, who longed to be a part of the country’s economic life, but could not find ways to do so. Europe Foundation provided both grant support and technical assistance to the enterprise, so that people with Down Syndrome could be employed to make and market different types of gifts and souvenirs.

The SE Babale is not just a workplace for people with Down Syndrome, but a gathering place for the PWD community, where new ideas are generated and new initiatives are launched. It is a place where children and adolescents master vocational skills and interact with their peers of so-called “typical” development, which is another way of raising the population’s awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities.

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