Tbilisi’s Settlement for the Blind

Georgia: Living a Life Apart in Tbilisi’s Settlement for the Blind

by Temo Bardzimashvili

Every morning, a soup kitchen in Tbilisi’s small southeastern
suburban district fills up with people holding white canes in one hand
and canvas bags in the other. After waiting in the line for a few
minutes, they leave the canteen carrying a loaf of bread and a plastic
container full of hot soup. Some stay by the canteen building, grouping
in the spot warmed by the winter sun to discuss the latest rumors and
political news. Others head back to their homes, scanning their way
through the alley with their white canes.

The canteen is a part of the settlement located in Tbilisi’s district
of Ponichala, where many residents are either completely blind or
vision challenged.

Built in the early Soviet era, the district stretches along the
highway connecting Tbilisi and Rustavi, an industrial town some 20
kilometers southeast of the Georgian capital. Initially, it consisted
of a few two-story dormitories and the factory. Later a library and a
cultural center were added to the settlement. Until the 1970s the area
was surrounded by a wall that separated the settlement from the rest of
the city.

There are polarized views on how and why the district was created.
Some, like head of Vimegobrot (Let’s Be Friends) non-governmental
organization Gia Jvarsheishvili, think that it was the policy of the
Soviet government to conceal the existence of people with disabilities
that sparked the idea of an enclosed area where Georgia’s sightless
would be kept away from the Soviet utopia. “Factually it was a ghetto,”
says Jvarsheishvili.

He says that even 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet system,
Georgia’s blinds are still suffering from this policy. Except for this
very settlement and the school for visually impaired children located in
Tbilisi’s other district, no other designated infrastructure exists.
However, according to Jvarsheishvili, a more important consequence of
this policy is that in many cases the families of the blind, and
sometimes blinds themselves, are ashamed to be exposed to the society.
“For example, it’s quite common that parents of the children with vision
problems don’t want them to use the white canes outside of the school,”
says Jvarsheishvili.

The story of the Ponichala settlement for the blind dates back to the
end of the 19th century, when a few Georgian philanthropists gathered
their efforts to collect donations to build a school for visually
impaired children. Built in 1890, the school housed classrooms, a
dormitory, and a workshops where sightless children would learn how to
make wooden handicrafts, like baskets and brushes. After graduating from
the school many of them would stay, working as a craftsmen at the
school workshop. The craftsmen worked for free, as the whole revenue
from the wares was going to the specially founded Blinds’ Society. Many
of the artisans had to also beg to make living.

In 1930s, the Soviet government allocated land outside of Tbilisi and
presented it to the Blinds’ Society. There, the society built a few
dormitories and a factory, where all the artisans were inhabiting and
working. At first the factory continued producing wooden handicrafts,
but later on more complicated products, like automotive air filters and
simple furniture were added to the product list.

In 1960-1970s the settlement gained a library, a cultural center, and
a monthly newspaper. The current head of the library Amiran Ghoghadze
worked for more than four decades for the Blinds’ Society, that was
renamed to Georgian Blinds’ Union in the 1990s. He says that the
settlement united the visually impaired people, and made their life more
comfortable as they lived close to the factory.

When asked about the purpose of the wall around the settlement,
Ghoghadze said: “well, every private area was supposed to have a wall
back then.”

One of the residents of the district, Levan Jegadze, had worked in
the factory till its closure in the beginning of 1990s. Born in 1940,
Jegadze lost his eyesight in an accident when he was ten years old.
First, he was transferred to the school for the visually impaired, but
already at the age of 17 he found a job at the factory and moved into a
small dormitory room. Since then, he has been living there. Jegadze
says, that he has worked in every possible workshop in the factory, and
he really misses those days. “We’ve been making our own living back
then,” he said. “Now, during the day, you might not see many blinds
around – many of them are out in the city, begging.”

Luckier than some other residents of the district, Jegadze and his
wife, also visually impared, have children who can see and take care of

In order to preserve the non-functioning factory building from a
gradual decay, Georgian Blinds’ Union, has sold the 49% of its ownership
to a private school and also rented the former workshops. While most of
the workshops nowadays are rented by car mechanics and locksmiths, one
still produces brushes and brooms. Gia Kimetsadze, the workshop’s
tenant, used to work as a manager at the factory back in the day. In
1990s he was among the first to rent a workshop in the non-functioning
factory, and the only one to re-employ the blind. Until last year, a
blind couple worked in his workshop just like in old days. But first the
wife and then the husband died and since then Kimetsadze has been
working on brushes on his own. He still plans to hire more blind
employees in his workshop.

“They’re perfect for the job, and the brushes come out perfect,” he says. “They work with their fingers, not eyes.”

Editor’s Note: 

Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.


Originally published by EurasiaNet.org


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