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Pension or disability assistance: an unfair choice in Georgia?


Last week marked the 15th Session of the Conference of States Parties (COSP) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Guest blogger Esma Gumberidze writes for us fresh out of several COSP side events. 

Inspired during our recent inclusive social protection training course, Esma shares her experiences from Georgia on the situation of social protection for older people with disabilities in the country. Her research under her Center for Inclusive Policy (CIP) fellowship makes the case for ‘double’ benefits for older people with disabilities.

When COVID-19 restrictions were first put in place in spring 2020, the Government of Georgia provided aid to different groups. Unfortunately, this was done in a way which left many people out – in particular, penalising older people with disabilities, a particularly vulnerable group who face not only non-working, no-income years, but also the additional costs that come with living with a disability.

Despite being confronted, the government failed to reconsider its approach. In Georgia, an older person with disabilities has to choose to receive either a disability benefit or an old-age pension. At the start of the pandemic, the old age pension payment was higher than the disability benefit, and was increasing faster, so of course many older people with disabilities chose to receive the pension. 

However, when the government announced they were providing a temporary COVID top up for people with disabilities, the value of the disability benefit exceeded the pension, and so naturally people who met the criteria wanted to move to the disability benefit.

But in Georgia, there is no registry for people with disabilities per se; there is only a registry for those already receiving the disability benefit. Older people with disabilities therefore had to go through the process of applying for disability benefits in place of their pension and to do that, they had to file special applications proving their disability status. 

For a few months during the pandemic, the Social Service agency was operating remotely, and people were not sufficiently informed of the application procedure. To make matters worse, the online application portal was not universally accessible, and applicants could only receive the top up from the date of application – any missed months were not reimbursed. 

With many older people with disabilities having difficulties accessing and navigating the internet, hundreds of them lost the first few months’ top up payments they were entitled to. 

This prompted a larger discussion, beyond the pandemic, on how fair it is to make older people with disabilities choose between two benefits that have very different purposes.

In August 2020, I launched a petition on the government’s web portal demanding cabinet ministers address parliament with the required amendments in legislation to allow older people with disabilities to receive both benefits. Though the petition gained only a few dozen signatures – it needed 10,000 per month for the government to be obliged to consider it – the chairman of the organisation for people with disabilities, Movement Accessible Environment for Everyone, addressed the Ombudswoman’s Equality Department calling for the existing social protection system to be recognised as discriminatory towards people with disabilities.

At the time I was a member of the Consultative Council on Monitoring of UN CRPD Implementation, Protection and Promotion with the Ombudswoman’s Office, and we discussed this issue in one of our sessions. I pointed out that according to the CRPD, disability benefits should serve as compensation for the extra costs people incur because of their disabilities, while a retirement benefit is an income replacement. Because older people with disabilities face barriers to employment and additional costs stemming from both age and disability, both needs should be addressed. 

We, the council members, raised other examples where benefits are not mutually exclusive. For instance, older people still receive Internal Displacement compensation alongside their pensions. They are also eligible to receive targeted social assistance. Thus, older people with disabilities should be receiving at least the top up, if not two full benefits.

While the government has not yet changed its policy to allow older people with disabilities to receive both benefits, the pandemic has served to flag the issue and we are starting to see increased awareness as a result. In February, the newly appointed Prime Minister’s Adviser on Human Rights and Gender Equality said that he was aware of the Ombudswoman’s recommendation for disability benefits and pensions to be distributed in tandem – and even promised to start work on it. 

This blog post is written by Esma Gumberidze, an activist for rights for people with disabilities. The responsibility for the opinions expressed in this article rests solely with its author, and publication does not constitute an endorsement by the organisations to which they are affiliated.