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UNDP Hosts a Design Thinking Workshop to Tackle the Issue of Access to 112 Emergency Services for People with Disabilities in Georgia

By Mariam Tabatadze
Monday, October 13
Lika is a 32-year-old deaf woman; she has a husband, a 6-year-old son and another one on the way. Her husband and her son went to play soccer on a sunny day and Lika stayed at home. She felt unwell and decided to call an ambulance. In an unfavorable twist of fate, her cell phone phone battery died and the electricity just went out. As a deaf woman, contacting the 112 emergency service proved to be particularly challenging. Her neighbors were not home and she cannot communicate with strangers on the street...what can she do?

There’s good news and there’s bad news, but there is also hope.

The good news is, this is a fictional scenario and there is no 32-year-old pregnant Lika currently in danger. However, the bad news is that this imaginary story is not too far-fetched from the truth. Currently, relatives and friends are afraid to leave the side of their family members with disabilities in Georgia, fearing that in case of an emergency, persons with disabilities have virtually no way of contacting 112 emergency services. The situation is perhaps ever direr for deaf and hearing-impaired persons, as they have trouble communicating their emergency situation over the phone and often, even via text messages. As we learned this workshop, a staggering majority of the Georgian deaf community is illiterate, due to serious gaps in the education system for persons with disabilities.

However, I mentioned that there’s hope – and indeed, the hope for a better future and a more inclusive society was palpable over the three-day design thinking workshop that the United Nations Development Programme organized this month with the help of the Swedish government. The workshop was a part of the global “SHIFT” campaign, which was a week-long initiative to encourage social innovation. The goal of this workshop was to come up with innovative ways for persons with disabilities to be able to contact emergency services quickly and efficiently. The workshop was attended by a diverse group of people, ranging from representatives of the deaf and blind community in Georgia, as well as, 112 employees, disability rights activists from the non-governmental sector and sign language interpreters.

The workshop was led by Janine Huizenga, who is the co-founder of initiatives such as, Creative Cooperative and European Street Design Challenge, and her partner Andrew Robert Bullen. They created a welcoming and open-minded atmosphere, while managing to firmly adhere to the organizational structure of the workshop. Ultimately, the step-by-step process proved essential in structuring the creativity and innovative idea flow of our participants.

The story of Lika, was created by one of our groups, in order to personify the general struggles of people with disabilities in Georgia and make it easier for workshop participants to map out specific challenges and their corresponding solutions. One of the first tasks for the groups was to come up with a set of values that the interaction between 112 services and persons with disabilities should be based on. While some were relatively expected, such as, a speedy delivery of the right assistance, others such as, developing a language and training 112 employees to use non-offensive language, was perhaps a bit less predictable. We learned that there are cases where people with disabilities are called offensive terms such as, “invalids” or “abnormal” – a practice which must be eradicated by training emergency services employees on the correct terminology and ethical behavior. Additionally, the availability of sign language interpreters was ranked as having paramount importance.

Subsequent tasks included building storyboards to show a normal day in the life of a person with disability, then create an emergency situation in this person’s daily life, then find the points in time when specific challenges or obstacles would arise and ultimately, find solutions to each challenge. A key aspect of the workshop was to imagine alternative solutions to similar obstacles, because technology often fails; finding many viable sources of communication between emergency services and persons with disabilities is extremely important. For example, if a cell phone battery dies or melts in a fire, then one cannot text the emergency service. In this case, the availability of social networking tools to use on laptops or GPS trackers with emergency buttons could save a person’s life.

Finally, after three days of intensive work, groups presented their imaginary characters using storyboards; they pointed out where potential problems could arise and offered a set of solutions for each obstacle. Their last task was to provide a set of recommendations to the audience, which included several suggestions, such as, raising awareness about 112 services among people with disabilities, using automated fire detectors in the homes of people with disabilities and possibly, providing the option of using GPS trackers with three emergency buttons for the police, fire and medical departments of the 112 services. The necessity of interpreters working in the 112 services was stressed again.

The audience was notably comprised of important decision-makers, such as the Director of the 112 Emergency Services in Georgia, Giorgi Bichashvili. He made a speech about the importance of including people with disabilities in the process of designing these communication methods and how Georgia’s European way is inextricably tied to building a more inclusive society. The UNDP Deputy Country Director Shombi Sharp also showed support for the workshop and stressed the importance of increasing access of people with disability to emergency services. Finally, the President of the Deaf Union of Georgia, Amiran Batatunashvili spoke of the meaningfulness of this workshop for the deaf community in Georgia and the significance that such events carry. He also mentioned that while there were challenges in communication, even during the workshop, as we had to translate in three layers English-Georgian-Sign Language, but where there is a strong will to affect change, there is always a way of doing it.