14 May 2015
Category : Opinion
Disability and revolution in Tunisia
FIIAPP employee Diego Blázquez tells how he faced the challenge of rolling out policies in Tunisia aimed at empowering persons with disabilities in a period of social and political convulsion.
When I arrived in Tunisia during the Christmas season in 2011, every aspect of life in Tunisia was political: how women dressed, how men wore their beards or hair, which mosque you went to, which radio station you listened to or newspaper you read… and also the issue of disability. The challenging context of the political transition and the vulnerability of disability policies, previously under the direct supervision of Ben Ali, resulted in disability ceasing to be a government priority. Nevertheless, in this same context of the Revolution, new organisations of young people with disabilities soon emerged that wanted to denounce previous abuses, reform existing institutions and, similarly, there was great dissent within the large classic organisations, new associative leadership structures being built, new demands for participation and transparency…
I left the country a year ago. I lived and worked there for two years and four months as a expert from the International and Ibero-American Foundation for Administration and Public Policies (FIIAPP). I had the tremendous professional and personal good fortune to live through practically all of the political transition from inside the Tunisian government and in direct contact with the country’s civil society, and more specifically with one of the most vulnerable groups: persons with disabilities.
I arrived in Tunisia in a privileged position as a resident advisor of a European Union project: a twinning, in the jargon of the EU. This is an institutional cooperation instrument of the European Commission, managed in Spain by the FIIAPP, which aims to encourage conciliation of government management and public policies among EU neighbouring countries. In my case, it was a question of developing inclusion policies for persons with disabilities in the new framework of the United Nations Convention.
I took advantage of the Christmas 2011 break to move and bring my family over. By early January, all five of us were there with the sensation of embarking on an adventure in all senses, despite being only two hours away from Madrid by plane. During those weeks we lived through the worst winter weather on record since Tunisia started collecting meteorological data, including the biggest snowstorm in the interior of the country in 40 years. It would turn out to be an omen that things were not going to be as easy as we thought.
After a very rough start in which we really couldn’t establish effective communication with our partners in the Tunisian government, little by little we were able to start orienting the work through a series of pilot projects in the areas of inclusive education and employment programmes. The progress we made was mostly thanks to the action of a group of civil society organisations which, following the model of the Spanish CERMI, formed a powerful lobby. This made it possible to regularise the employment situation of the workers in the nearly 300 assistance centres for persons with disabilities in Tunisia and make a pact with the Ministry of Social Affairs regarding a new stable financing structure based on quality objectives and indicators.
That moment was unquestionably the turning point in the project, as it made it possible to create a new environment because, despite the difficulties and discussions, a new basic structure had been generated.
Nevertheless, the overall context again made things difficult when the first wave of political violence hit in 2012. This would end six months later with the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a human rights lawyer and secular left politician, although perhaps in international terms the best known episode was the attack and destruction of the United States Embassy.
Personally, these experiences brought back memories of my childhood during the Spanish political transition. Seeing my children enjoying days off from school as a result of these situations reminded me of myself enjoying similar moments in Spain in the seventies. I wasn’t able to see the worry in my parents’ eyes then, as I hope my children didn’t see mine in these moments.
Finally we managed to create a national strategy document on disability; we formed a group of some 30 people to address the reform of special education, and we carried out pilot projects for this reform in five schools in Tunis and its metropolitan area. We included inclusive education for parents, mothers and teachers, educational inspectors in the pilot projects, and we gave opportunities to many people, like Kauser.
In the case of employment policies for persons with disabilities, we tried to break their marginalisation in the labour market by putting them in contact with companies, improving vocational training programmes, and raising awareness among business owners about the advantages of diversity in the workforce. The experience of Spain’s Inserta Foundation was key in this sense. And we trained a small socio-occupational team in each province to assist persons with disabilities in a coordinated manner.
Despite all of this, many things were left undone, but I left Tunisia with the satisfaction of knowing that I had done all I could in a very difficult context that the Tunisians shared generously with me and my family.
I left Tunisia with a great love of the country, of its people, its climate, its culture, its streets… And with the bittersweet feeling of wanting to participate even more and better in this spirit of reform that filled me two years and four months ago when I first arrived in the country. The future of Tunisia is the future of all of us who live on the shores of the Mediterranean. That’s why I suffered along with the Tunisians when the marvellous El Bardo museum was attacked. And that’s why I want to use these lines to invite everyone to support the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution by getting lost on its beaches, in it mountains, on its deserts this summer. Sharing its archaeological and natural riches. Drinking a glass of Kurubis wine or Celtia beer while watching the millenarian blue of the Gulf of Carthage, and in this way to help consolidate the liberty and dignity of our neighbours in addition to our own.
Diego Blázquez is an expert from the International and Ibero-American Foundation for Administration and Public Policies (FIIAPP). You can also read this article in Planeta Futuro.
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