Punishing the Disabled
By Samira Sai and Karima Marwani
Tunis, Tunisia, (Hakaekonline) March,2016- Nine years have passed, including a revolution, but the law that was meant to facilitate the movement of citizens with disabilities is not being fully implemented.
On May 30, 2006, decree No. 1467 was issued setting technical specifications for facilitating the movement of people with disabilities in public buildings, spaces, and common public areas.
The decree replaces a series of legal initiatives that sought to ensure the right of persons with disabilities to movement and access that were launched since 1981. A solitary chapter in the law on the advancement and protection of persons with disabilities emphasized the need for “civic buildings open to the public to be equipped with suitable and accessible ramp for easy movement of people with disabilities.”
The decree issued in 2006 seemed more feasible compared to all previous legislative initiatives. It was issued a year after Law No. 83 of 2005 was issued on the advancement and protection of persons with disabilities, which dedicated four chapters to issues pertaining to the preparation of public space to guarantee the right of persons with disabilities to easy movement.
Nine years after the issuance of this law, things have remained almost unchanged. The suffering continued, given the lack of access to services, the daily bread for people with disabilities, and what this entails in terms of exclusion and marginalization as was evidenced in the inquiry conducted by the authors.
Joy marred by lack of access
The joy experienced by Firas Zamzam, student at the Jammal Institute, Bani Hassan road, Monastir state, for passing the third secondary school grade was not complete. Because of a condition that affected his muscles, Firas cannot climb stairs to the first story of his institute, where physics and communications classes are located. Trying to do so in the past has caused him a lot of trouble. Many times he had to skip classes or sit for exams at the administration building by himself.
Like Zamzam, Ibtihal al-Zawawi’s joy for succeeding in the baccalaureate and graduation into college was incomplete. She was forced to move away from her family in the town of Menzel Bourguiba, to Bizerte near college.
Ibtihal, who is physically disabled, faces a lot of problems in public and private transport. Buses are poorly equipped for those who need wheelchairs, while taxi drivers often decline to take her claiming the trunks of their cars are too small or have a gas bottle and cannot take in her wheelchair.
Meanwhile, Saida Ghanimi, a disabled civil society activist in Menzel Bourguiba, has gone through a lot of trouble after Avenue Habib Bourguiba was closed on 10 September 2015, for security reasons.
Ghanimi was supposed to deliver a lecture that day at 11 in the morning at a hotel in the street, about her town’s experience in securing the right of movement to people with disabilities. Although she managed to reach the bus station at Bab Saadoun at 8:40, she could not reach the hotel except at mid-day after the session ended.
Firas, Ibtihal, and Saida are three out of 251,000 persons with disabilities in Tunisia according to the latest Ministry of Social Affairs statistics. But these statistics remain inaccurate, relying only on the number of disability cards that have been issued, while the real number of persons with disabilities is probably higher. Not all persons with disabilities have these cards, for one reason or the other, according to Khaled Amaimaya, President of the Tunisian Organization for the Defense of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Researching the number of persons with disabilities in Tunisia reveals very different numbers or very outdated ones. The first Tunisian report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was issued in 2010 based on statistics gathered in 2003.
The lack of accurate statistics raises questions about the seriousness of strategies aimed at providing necessary services for persons with disabilities, including those aimed at the application of the decree issued in 2006, which covers more than 15,000 public and private buildings, including educational and cultural institutions, municipal centers, and social, healthcare, financial, postal, and security services centers, in addition to roads and pavements.
A troubled dream ravaged by revolution
Larbi Choueikh, head of the Technical Office of the City for Everyone Association, said the decree issued in 2006 has not been well implemented, citing the lack of a public policy in Tunisia regarding mechanisms for enforcing the right to movement and access.
He said that the implementation committee run by Minister of Equipment stipulated in the law has not convened in a long time, and the same goes for the relevant municipal committees.
Implementing the law after it was issued stalled further after January 2011 revolution. Work has since stopped on implementing the 2008-2011 national strategy for access to public spaces, according to Ahmad al-Bulazi, director of Solidarity and Social Development at the General Directorate of Social Advancement.
Bulazi said that guaranteeing the right of movement to persons with disabilities is one of “the most difficult problems that we face in Tunisia.”
In light of the stalled implementation of the national strategy for access in public spaces, efforts to implement the 2006 decree were scattered as the number of people involved increased, in the absence of one leading and coordinating entity due to the failure of the law to specify one. As a result, problems emerged.
The decree issued in 2006 also did not specify a time period for the cases of retrofitting, leaving the matter severely disorganized. Even the building housing the Social Advancement Directorate, the key place for persons with disabilities in Tunisia, has not been retrofitted for improved access.
Bulazi said the building is old and not amenable to retrofitting. However, he pointed to other solutions such as installing lifts, something that has proven difficult because of administrative hurdles and the lack of suitable disability lifts in the country.
After a field tour in Tunis, both reporters discovered several deficiencies in the implementation of the 2006 decree. A great number of access ramps for persons with disabilities – though few in number — did not conform to specifications rendering them completely unusable.
Kamal al-Qamari, director of permit monitoring at the Tunis municipality, said in this regard: “The issue has to do with old buildings whose entrances are relatively elevated and the areas outside them are narrow, which does not allow access ramps that conform to standards to be installed.”
However, the same problem exists with new buildings, including the Electoral Commission building in the capital. Fares al-Damerji, who is in charge of reviewing building permits in Tunis’s municipality, said: “The certificate of conformity of the works is handed to the building owner after the building is complete, and after inspecting whether it conforms to the permit given and the specifications set forth.”
He added: “The owners of buildings require this certificate only if they want to sell the buildings. However, those who are going to use the building for their private use or for rent do not need to obtain the certificate, which facilitates abuses.”
The municipality of Tunis, tasked with ensuring roads and pavements fit the needs of the disabled, is working on building ramps for use by the disabled, especially near facilities frequently used by citizens. This is something that the authors noticed. But they also found out that there is an absence of signs pointing in the direction of these ramps. This makes it difficult for persons with disabilities to find them, a task made worse if cars happen to be parked in front of the ramps.
When confronted with this, Issa Buhajja, director of roads and pavements at the municipality of Tunis, acknowledged the lack of signposts, but said it would be easy to install them.
Another aspect of violations hindering daily activity for persons with disabilities is the exploitation of pavements despite the existence of restrictive legal regulations.
The phenomenon grew worse since the revolution, as pavements in Tunis became a place for street vendors, for parking cars and a “natural” extension for shops and cafes to sell their products and put their chairs and tables. This prompted civil society activists to launch a campaign “Leave the pavement”, aiming to take back pavements for pedestrians.
Despite the strong involvement of many citizens and entities in this campaign, it did not bear fruit as the owners of cafes, shops, and kiosks would soon return to their old habits.
Zuhair Bouglabia, municipality police chief, said the reason may be that penalties are “insignificant compared to the size of the abuses in some cases,” stressing that the municipal police department has made proposals to tighten sanctions.
The 2006 decree allocated parking spaces for cars belonging to persons with disabilities. The authors of the investigation counted six recently-built public parking lots in the capital, only two of which contained spots for cars of persons with disabilities that fully complied with the specifications in building permits.
The surprising thing, however, was that even these spots were not left vacant for the disabled. “There is no solution to this,” according to the garage official. He said: “Customers do not respect the signposts that clearly indicate the nature of the spots.”
The municipal police chief pledged to investigate the issue. He said parking in a spot for disabled persons without having the right to do so entails two offenses, one by the owner of the car and one by the owner of the locale for failing to enforce the law.
Governmental institutions: Ministry of Education as an example
There are 5970 primary and secondary state-run schools in Tunisia.
The ministry considers helping students with disabilities to integrate as a top strategic matter, and says it operates based on a human-rights approach focusing on the principles of fairness and equal opportunity.
In this context, before the start of every school year, the ministry asks its regional delegates to convene meetings to study the cases of students with disabilities, and direct them to regular schools when possible, according to Kamal al-Hajjam, director of the primary school division of the Education Ministry.
According to the official, the ministry considers all schools should be inclusive. All new schools must conform to specifications and if the schools are old then the ministry intervenes to retrofit them if they receive students with disabilities.
The ministry relies on Chapter 48 of the constitution, which requires the state to take all appropriate measures for the benefit of people with disabilities, to facilitate their integration into society.
The Ministry of Education must take additional measures to boost the integration into schools students with disabilities as parents of these children go through the same experience witnessed by one of the two reporters who worked on this investigation when she visited iine schools in the Mnihla delegation of Ariana Governorate.
During this tour, one of the authors posed as a parent of a student with disabilities in the fourth grade who needed a wheelchair. When she inquired about whether he would be admitted, the school refused to register the student even in preparatory school, saying the school could not receive students with mobility issues.
Transportation: major concern
The transport sector, be it collective or individual, remains the biggest concern for people with disabilities and the most difficult issue to address, according to an official at the Tunis Transport Corporation.
Mohammad Chemli, director of communications and external relations in the corporation, admits that the stops of light trail vehicles (metro) in the capital are not fit to deal with people on wheelchairs.
On the other hand, he explained that a program was implemented to retrofit main bus stations. However, getting on buses by people with disabilities on wheelchairs remains akin to a “mission impossible”.
There are many obstacles in the transport sector impeding the movement of people with disabilities: from the lack of conformity of transport vehicles to relevant specifications, to overcrowding and speed bumps.
Chemli said most speed bumps along the roads do not conform to specifications, and are a hindrance to low floor vehicles that allow people with disabilities to embark.
The chairwoman of architectural studies at the General Directorate of Civil buildings in the Ministry of Equipment and Housing, architect Ghada Jalali, estimated the cost of the installing an ordinary wheelchair access ramp at between 300 and 500 dinars ($150). The cost of installing a toilet for disabled persons is between 1500 and 2000 dinars ($750-1000). The cost of having speed bumps that conform to specifications is between 400 and 600 dinars ($200-300).
Compound abuses and no complaints
Despite the huge number of shortcomings and abuses, persons with disabilities rarely file complaints to get the laws passed for their benefit implemented.
Fares Damerji from the Tunis municipality confirmed this. He said he did not receive any complaints from disabled persons or their guardians, although he receives every day a large number of complaints relating to other abuses. Zuhair Bouglabia, municipal police chief, said the same.
While investigating the reason behind this, we found that a loophole in Decree 2006 is to blame: There is no mention of which authority is responsible for receiving complaints, as the law speaks vaguely of unspecified “competent authorities”. The law also omitted mentioning procedures that determine penalties — fines ranging between 50-100,000 dinars ($25,000-50,000).
The disabled Tunisians we met told us they choose to be patient and look for alternatives, such as moving closer to their place of work or study, or use modern communication to avoid commuting or having to use other services.
Only a few, usually civil society activists, cling to their rights and win their battles, such as Hayat Essid, mother of student Firas Zamzam.
In the three months it took to prepare this investigation, Hayat worked hard to secure her son’s right to education on equal par with his peers. She succeeded after several trips between the Regional Education Office and the school, compelling the latter to move the classes her son needed to the ground floor, where her son was able to attend the courses with his colleagues without being discriminated against.
Raising awareness and empowerment
Activists working for the rights of people with disabilities in Tunisia are counting on the empowerment of this segment of people and raising awareness among them to include them in drafting policies for their benefit.
Fatima al-Muqaddem from Disabled People International, stressed that Tunisia is in “good shape” in terms of legislation and law, and that an important aspect of the confusion lies in the people with disabilities’ lack of knowledge of their rights.
Rehabilitating and educating people with disabilities would certainly help them play the role of watchdog who puts pressure to enforce the law.
In this regard, Ahmad al-Bulazi says that we must understand that enforcing the decree issued in 2006 is a right and not a privilege. He said that civil society, particularly groups focused on the rights of persons with disabilities, must continue to act to enforce it.
Today, civil society groups are seeking to capitalize on existing laws to implement pilot projects to prepare public space in a way that facilitates the movement of disabled people. Among these projects that have been implemented are the ones in the towns of Menzel Bourguiba and Manouba. These pilot projects could become the model that state officials use to build on and develop, in order to allow the integration of people with disabilities without discrimination just like the rest of the citizens.
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism(ARIJ) — www.arij.net