As partly deaf, I was brought up in a hearing world in Tunisia, knowing very little about my disability and much less about D/deaf community. Luckily, I had an opportunity to be friends with a deaf youth and suddenly this unknown world was opened up to me for a period. From my short encounter, I was able to understand the beautiful aspects of the D/deaf community in my country and the terrible challenges they face. My deaf friends in Tunisia, much like many other Tunisians, were inspired by the uprising that sparked in December 2010, which led to the fall of an old regime and the fleeing of Ben Ali with his family to Saudi Arabia. This event marked a turning point for all Tunisians and, in particular, the D/deaf community.
An invisible community
Before the revolution, the deaf community, as reported by most of my friends, had been considered as an ‘invisible community’ – the deaf had been feeling neglected, alienated and excluded from ‘hearing’ society; they were often viewed as dumb and unable to speak, despite the considerable amount of speech therapists put at their disposal in several hospitals – much to the consternation of others. Though they were able to study in the mainstream schools from a primary level, most didn’t manage to reach high school level, due to the lack of adequate measures, the absence of sign language translators and the presence of communication barriers. The majority of deaf eventually followed a more vocational path, such as hairdressing, sewing or design, in the hope of making a living. Unfortunately the unemployment rate among the D/deaf remains high, as they are facing discrimination and false stereotypes.
One of the main reasons for my admiration for the deaf community is that during the pre-revolution period, they maintained a strong bond with each other. They used to join cultural activities organized by the deaf associations – apparently these associations seemed to be the only place where the deaf felt more at ease, able to communicate through Tunisian Sign Language. Tunisian Sign is largely influenced by French and International Sign Language, due in a large part to the absence of local programs to protect the unique language of the Tunisian Deaf. Sadly, however, it is certainly not allowed to be used to communicate with parents, siblings or other family members. So, these havens were sought out where they could express themselves in a language that means something to them: their identity.
A time of transition
During the social turmoil, the D/deaf community felt an intense need for self expression, after seeing their rights flouted by the government and the society for so many years, thus they joined the protest to appeal for social justice and their legitimate rights. Sadly, this resulted in the death of their two members after a strenuous clash with the police forces in January 2011. In the resulting aftermath of the uprising, landmark improvements were made. The D/deaf were able to practice their right to vote for the first time, after having been banned for more than 50 years. The Tunisian Electoral Commission provided sign language interpreters during the electoral campaign, advertising on TV programmes, which was excellent to see. They did, however, encounter some difficulties in interpreting specific political terms, but overall the programme was made accessible.
Tunisia is now going through a transitional period and on its way to becoming a Democracy, despite ongoing controversies. Yet, the most notable achievement of Tunisia is to introduce the rights of persons with disabilities in a draft Constitution that states that the government should guarantee full access for all persons, to have the right to health care, education, employment opportunities, and to reinforce its commitment to provide the adequate measures to make information and services accessible for all persons with disabilities. Most of my deaf friends report that having been through the revolution; they have learned several new ideas and have a better understanding of the underpinning issues, such as equality, social justice and respect of human rights. From this perspective, they seek to foster democracy and social justice by bridging the gap with the hearing world, and change people’s perceptions that might be damaging. Nevertheless, it was clear that they were still fearful of the risk of being manipulated by the outside world.
Their true challenge currently lies in proving to both society and decision makers their committed responsibility to contribute to building a new Tunisia, based on democracy, human rights and respect of the natural diversity that can be realized through effective communication. One of the most important things that I personally learned from the deaf I have met and their shared example is that communication is a basic platform for building relations and in gaining understanding. Despite their efforts, the deaf are still feeling left out of conversations. Communication is a process that requires both parties to be committed, in order to obtain a mutual understanding. I look forward to watching this bilateral partnership being fostered and it flourishing in the years to come.
This article is contributed by Mona Belhouane, who is currently working with Deaf Unity as an In-Country Researcher in Tunisia.