Being Deaf in Tunisia, Being Excluded?


Tunisia, where the protests and demonstrations of the Arab Spring began, is in the process of democratic transition. Since 2011, Tunisia has faced a number of challenges in the process of building a democratic government and stable economy. But 2014 heralded a significant moment in its history with the creation of a new constitution. This constitution will provide the legal framework for how Tunisia will be governed and guarantees that fundamental rights including human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of information will be protected; and the rights of people with disabilities is no exception.

The new Tunisian constitution, Article 47 states that, ‘Children have the right to be guaranteed dignity, health, care, education and teaching by their parents and the state. The state shall provide all forms of protection to all children without discrimination according to the best interests of the child.’ In addition, article 48 says that, ‘The state shall protect persons with disabilities from all forms of discrimination. Every disabled citizen shall have the right to benefit, according to the nature of the disability, from all measures that will ensure their full integration into society, and the state shall take all necessary measures to achieve this.’ The 2014 national census found that 2.3% of Tunisia’s population (around 252,000 people) have a disability, 37% are children and 16% have auditory disabilities.

The Tunisian government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, and ratified it and its Optional Protocol on April 2, 2008. The Convention covers a wide category of people with special needs and reasserts that all persons whatever their disabilities are entitled to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It identifies areas where adaptations must be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated. The convention also shows where protection of rights must be substantiated. Yet there seems to be a serious disconnection between legal policies and common practices so that persons with disabilities remain largely segregated from society, suffering discrimination and not enjoying the same rights as other citizens. 

Furthermore, the first Tunisian municipality elections held in May 2018, prescribed specific disabled access rules to enable people with disabilities to participate in the voting and to stand as candidates in the elections. All election offices had to be made accessible for wheelchair users and ballot papers and other materials made available in a format suitable both for people with visual and auditory disabilities. 

Notwithstanding all these positive developments, deaf people still suffer discrimination and this is particularly noticeable in the field of education. Tunisia has a two-track system of education: one run by the Ministry of Education, which provides mainstream schooling, and one controlled by the Ministry of Social Affairs, which provides education for children with special needs. The two tracks are completely different. The schools under the Ministry of Social Affairs are known as centres or associations and don’t follow the same strategy or programme of education as mainstream schools. In addition, people with hearing impairment have to study six years in these centres and then go on to follow a vocational training programme; although their certificates are not held in high esteem by the government. Each centre has a different focus and goal although they often share similar methods and ideologies. However, if you visit the centres for the deaf and hard of hearing, you may find autistic, profoundly deaf, hard of hearing, and mentally ill people together in the same centre. This only exacerbates the problems as their behaviours and needs are completely different and require different kinds of care. A shortage of specialists in Sign Language and special educational needs is the problem, attests Wassim ben Dhiab, a deaf person himself, an engineer, and a previous member of the Association Voix du Sourds de Tunisie (AVST), the oldest Tunisian association for the deaf. 

The majority group ignores the needs of this minority group. Wassim believes that there is a need to raise awareness among the hearing community. For instance, Tunisians ignore the CRPD convention so he suggests, ‘There should be workshops to introduce the convention to everyone tailored according to their needs.’ Even the deaf are not fully aware of their rights and duties but as the illiteracy rate is high among the deaf community, they are unable to read or understand these conventions and articles so everything should be translated for them. There are no up-to-date statistics about the number of deaf people living in Tunisia but as it stands the infrastructure is not working and needs to be adjusted to accommodate people with special needs. 

The Tunisian deaf community faces numerous challenges in order to survive within the hearing community and deaf people today still encounter discrimination, stereotyping and misconceptions, such as the perception that they are dumb and incapable of learning. As an invisible minority group in Tunisia, several students find they are not able to carry on their studies in school taking a vocational path such as hairdressing or sewing in order to make a living, very often not fully exploring and exploiting their intellectual and human capacity.

Integration into the job market for the deaf minority in Tunisia is poorly recognised and provides another challenge not only for the deaf, but also the majority of disabled people. In terms of employment, companies’ enthusiasm for adhering to the quota of hiring 1% disabled employees is promising. The Tunisian government offers an incentive allowing the wages of disabled employees to be paid out of taxes. In practice, however, the quota is rarely implemented. The low rate of integration into the job market is perhaps also a reflection of the relatively poor quality of education offered in specialised centres.

However, we cannot ignore the role associations have to play in the improvement of the quality of life of disabled people. As a minority group excluded from the majority group, people with disabilities find refuge in these associations as they encounter like-minded people speaking the same language who treat them as equals. When you visit AVST, for instance, you will find a new culture with a new language, Tunisian Sign Language. 

Those associations do not only provide a refuge but can also improve the lifestyle of people with disabilities. From a medical perspective AVST in collaboration with the ministry of healthcare, and Doctor Amira Yaacoubi, founded a hospital in Djbal Lahmar for the deaf and hard of hearing where they can have a medical consultation in Tunisian Sign Language. In terms of education, AVST is the first association to deliver lessons in English, in Tunisian Sign Language, by the first and only teacher of English in the MENA region, Manel Bergaoui; they also teach French and Arabic. In the cultural sphere, AVST has organised a number of activities to raise awareness among the Tunisian community, like World Deaf Day which was celebrated for the first time in Tunisia in 2017. In addition, AVST team filmed the first movie in Tunisian Sign language in Tunisia in 2016. The film’s name is Bardo and is a German production. 

‘Café signes’ is another cultural activity created by the deaf themselves in AVST in 2015. This is an event that brings deaf and hearing people together in a café to introduce deaf culture to hearing people and share unforgettable moments together. The deaf community is certainly working hard to make their voice heard by everyone.

AVST not only plays a crucial role in the development of disabled people, but also other associations like Ibsar for blind and partially sighted people as well as Handicap International (HI). For example, in 2011, HI launched an inclusive local development project that aims to improve the access of disabled people to the environmental sector to boost their full participation and integration into Tunisian society. Indeed, each association, has in its way, contributed to the development of their community and the Tunisian community in general. However, as Wassim ben Dhiab mentioned in his interview, there is a lack of information. The media has a key role to play in the sharing of information, in sensitising society. Accurate media coverage of disabled people living in depressive situations only began after the revolution. A documentary about an isolated and forgotten family with four disabled children in North Eastern Tunisia gained particular attention. However, this is still very limited. On Tunisian TV the news is only signed once a day, at noon, on one channel. Moreover, there are no programmes translated into Tunisian Sign Language which shows a real exclusion of people with hearing disabilities.

A Personal Contribution to Make Deaf People in Tunisia Speak English
In 2015, Manel Bergaoui delivered the first English lesson for the deaf and hard of hearing in Tunisia in the AVST. It was the first time that deaf students in Tunisia had had the opportunity to study English. However, there are no appropriate textbooks for deaf students and there are no teaching-methodologies for deaf people in Tunisia. There is also no provision to enable deaf students to learn a foreign language widening their access to a whole body of knowledge through reading online.

Frustrated at the lack of materials available for teaching English to deaf and hard of hearing students in Tunisia, Manel invented Let’s Handspeak English. The Professional Fellow Programme sponsored by the United States Department of State enabled this book to be produced. It is the first English textbook for the deaf and hard of hearing in the MENA region. Manel started using her book to teach English in 2017 in Amideast (a leading American non-profit organisation engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa), they offered their space and help. It was a successful experience as their level of English improved. In 2018, she also invented the first educational mobile application for the deaf and hard of hearing, the application is called LETSapp and is fun and helpful, providing an opportunity for the deaf to play and learn at the same time. As Manel stated, ‘I do hope that the deaf community in Tunisia will have equal opportunities in education and within Tunisian society’. 

In conclusion, we cannot assume that civil society can give meaning to the legal texts in place if the population is not well informed about the situation of people with disabilities. As mentioned above, deaf people in Tunisia believe there is a need for society to be sensitised and the media are well placed to play a key role in the dissemination of greater and more accurate coverage of issues related to persons with disabilities. The roles of civil society, the government, and the media are catenated and influence each other. In order to make Tunisia unreservedly a better place for disabled people, it is imperative that all three actors are held accountable for making this issue a priority and that they take a step forward to bridge the gap between legislation and reality. If we really want to change our system and policies in Tunisia to comply with Articles 47 and 48 of the 2014 Constitution, we can no longer tolerate communities of people being excluded because of their special needs.