Short description:

The qualitative research described in this paper was focused on deafblind women, in order to reveal their own perspective on the status of deafblind women in Croatia. Without understanding of their real needs, interests and rights, the development of aproppriate support services is impossible, which was another motive to start this research. 

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Scientific publications

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Tarczay Sanja

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Long description:


In Croatia, the project “In the Abyss of Discrimination: A Program of Emotional, Cultural and Social Empowerment of Women with Sensory Impairments” was funded by the European Union and implemented by the Croatian Association of Deafblind Persons Dodir, during twelve months between year 2010 and year 2011.

The motiv to develop and implement a project dealing with discrimination of women with sensory impairments was the fact that discrimination against women is still present in our society, despite the efforts of many conventions and declarations. Discrimination in all forms – against women, against women with disabilities, against women with sensory impairments, especially the deafblind women, should be fought against, with help of international documents, such as UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (1979), many Directives from European Council (Directive 76/207/EEC, Directive 200/43/EC, Directive 2006/54/EC) and a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000). From the list of documents stating that rights of women should be equal, it can be concluded that the general concern about the welfare of women does exist, but the real world doesn’t always offer such opportunities.

The qualitative research described in this paper was focused on deafblind women, in order to reveal their own perspective on the status of deafblind women in Croatia. Without understanding of their real needs, interests and rights, the development of aproppriate support services is impossible, which was another motive to start this research.

Quite some time ago, in the last century, the deafblind author, activist and lecturer Helen Keller (1880.-1968) was well-known as a fighter against discrimination of persons with disabilities. Her early work in this field left a mark in history and she is to this day an inspiration to many persons with disabilities, especially women who consider her a role-model. Her ideas and beliefs transcend time, which is why they will be with us as an inspiration in this paper, where I will share with you the results of our research, as well as solutions to empowering us, the deafblind women, to create a new vision of modern deafblind woman.

One of the results of our research is the sad and devastating find that many women with disabilities do not recognize some forms of discrimination and consequently, do nothing about it. On the other hand, even when they do recognize discrimination and harassment, much too often still don’t act against it, often finding justification for not doing anything in their own acceptance of their disability as determinant of their identity.

The analysis of interviews revealed indications of many different forms of discrimination, but it was possible to detect four main kinds of disriminations in lives of deafblind women in Croatia. We believe that this pattern is not specific only for Croatia, but also for many other countries and societies.

The fourthfold discrimination of deafblind women

Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye. (link is external)

Helen Keller (link is external)

The deafblind women represent the population succeptible to various endangering influences, which makes them one of the most vulnerable groups of citizens. They constantly face various forms of restrictions in development of their real potentials and abilities, starting in their family, but continuing in the education process and employment, which can gradually lead a woman to complete and total isolation.

The results of our research indicate the existance of fourthfold discrimination against deafblind women. When speaking of the term “fourthfold discrimination”, we refer to four main factors as bases of being discriminated against:

  1. on grounds of gender
  2. on grounds of disability
  3. on grounds of sensory deprivation
  4. on grounds of socio-economic exclusion

Each of this factors can and will be explained in more detail in following chapters.

Gender discrimination – Being a woman

We can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough. (link is external)

Helen Keller (link is external)

Being a member of still unequal gender, I myself can testify about the effort that women have to make in this society, that is still dominated by men. Our whole society is organized in an old-fashioned way, with men dominating politics, with their perspective still more revered than womens’, with only men being taken seriously. Even when we don’t see it, there are hints of discrimination in the way we behave every day, sometimes without realising it.

During interviews with deafblind women, many accounts of being discriminated against were gathered. Substantial number were descriptions of people not taking them seriously because they were women, with examples of situations when the deafblind women were required to make a decision regarding themselves, but could not do so because the other party considered them not to be competent enough to make such decision. On the other hand, many women claimed it would not be like that if they were men. What deafblind women also reported is discriminatin in number of job opportunities given, which is something reported by other researchers in the field of rehabilitation sciences (Brstilo, Haničar, 2011).

There are many reports by the women with disabilities themselves, that they don’t feel included even in the activities organized by feminist movements. This means that women who fight for their rights don’t always include all the subpopulations of women for whose rights it should be fought for. What needs to be done is raise the awarenes that women with disabilities are also in need of participation and exercising their rights as every other woman. By taking a strong and united stand, women themselves can show the world that they should be appreciated, without discriminating the ones with disabilities.

Disability discrimination – Being a person with disability

Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. (link is external)

Helen Keller (link is external)

Although there are organizations of persons with disabilities that invest significant efforts in informing the public and spreading awareness about the special needs of women with disabilites, there is still too few women with disabilities on prominent positions in the society. They are still not seen and their words are often not heard in places where they should make impact and work on changing situation for the better.

Being members of the group of women with disabilities, deafblind women face difficulties in receiving proper treatment and recognition from the society. Attitudes of employers towards persons with disabilities are still negative and result in very little number of persons with disabilities employed. This leads to very low numbers of persons with disabilities with some work experience, which leads to long-term unemployment of many persons with disabilities, thus reducing even further their chances of ever being employed (Kiš-Glavaš et al., 2008). This puts deafblind women in a position where they cannot provide for themselves and remain in a permanent state of being taken care of. This further reduces their chances of showing their strength and ability.

The deafblind women are often considered less worthy, which makes their influence, even in context of family, little or non-existent. The deafblind women who have children are often put in a position where their own mothers take over “motherly duties” and the role of a mother altogether. Moreover, the deafblind women are much more exposed to physical, emotional and sexual abuse (Smith, Strauser, 2008), due to such discrepancy between their life of a woman and norms of society on what a women should be like. This way, they represent a great shift of norm and stereotypes, which is often very difficult for society to recognize and respect.

Despite the efforts of both international and national organizations to improve the status of persons with disabilities, there is still much work to be done in practice. The rights of persons with disabilities as stated in the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities are often disregarded, especially in developing countries, such as Croatia. Often with the excuse of financial restraints, changes are overlooked and postponed, but not all change requires money. The real change needs to happen in hearts and minds of people. This way more doors would open to persons with disabilities, men and woman alike.

Sensory discrimination – Communicate in a different way

All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming. (link is external)

Helen Keller (link is external)

In a world of the Deafblind, prejudice and stigma are still very present and a part of everyday living. There are three major problems all deafblind persons face – communication, mobility and receiving information. (Goransson, 2008)

Due to their hearing and vision loss, the deafblind persons are forced to use alternative methods of communication, because their residual hearing and sight usually don’t allow them to use speech and hearing in a conventional way – the way the majority of society is used to. This means that methods of communication of the deafblind usually differ substantially from the majority of population, which makes them vulnerable and often left out from the conversation, due to either fear from everything different and unknown or due to prejudice that prevent people from even trying to start the conversation.

The Deafblind are a heterogenous community, with many different communication methods and needs (Tarczay, 2007). Ways to establish communication without sight and sound are: tactile sign language, close vision sign language, visual frame sign language, clear speech, speech-to-text communication and finger spelling or manual alphabet communication. Most of them are unknown to majority of population, which significantly reduces the number of possible interactions, due to different communication system. This is the reason most deafblind persons need interpreters for the deafblind – specially trained proffesionals with competences in interepreting of speech, mobility support, environment describing and with knowledge of communication methods of the Deafblind (Eriksson, 2009, AADB, 2009).

Amongst the described communication and interpreting methods, there are more and less discriminated ones. Sign language, as a distinct characteristic of the Deafblind community, represents another ground for discrimination. During many years through history, it has been considered primitive and rudimentray, not at all like spoken languages. Unfortunately, communities that use it, the Deaf and Deafblind, have also been considered primitive and incompetent of understanding the world. The path to recognizing sign language as a proper language is still not over, but more and more countries are issuing Legal Acts that recognize sign languages as minority languages. What is even more important is the recognition and respect for the members of the Deaf and Deafblind community, which would make them equal members of the society, without the stigma of sign language and prejudice.

The importance of the right to communicate equally lies in the fact that all humans are social creatures, which makes interaction natural and necessary. Unfortunately, lack of communication is a part of everyday living for many deafblind persons, which makes them prone to becoming isolated. Years of restricted communication opportunities makes the person vulnerable to physical and emotional problems, that can lead to serious health problems and reduced quality of life. Regardless of communication method of the deafblind person, the opportunities for interactions are quite reduced due to mobility restrictions and lack of information from the environment, which makes the process of communication indeed difficult. This is the reason persons with deafblindness should receive support in the form of interpreters, who could maximize their communication efforts and act as a mediator in situations where there is language barrier.

Socio-economic discrimination – Being marked as a deafblind woman in the society

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. (link is external)

Helen Keller (link is external)

As members of the Deafblind community, deafblind women face society whose laws, regulations and environment are not adjusted to meet their needs, which prevents complete and active participation in education, employment and social activities. Most deafblind women are destined to have either inadequate job positions or no job at all, excluded from the society, outside of the social life and forced to keep spending their time in confined house environment, usually without proper activities.

The situation is similar in all of Europe, according to numbers that state that the number of unemployed women with disabilities is greater than men with disabilities. The stigma of deafblind women as incapable and incompetent is still present, which makes the process of finding employment a rare success of only few exceptional women. With society deeming them incompetent and helpless, the opportunities are growing smaller and smaller, with the end result of actually becoming helpless and believing herself that she isn’t capable of achieving success. By the time this happens, the deafblind woman is already dependent on others – family members or caretakers, which makes the process of becoming independent more difficult.

The end result of the deafblind woman being treated with low respect and without giving proper chance in life, is that such woman will eventually start believing in those things herself. This process should be stopped as soon as possible and replaced with the process of empowering women and making them believe in themselves. Only women with high self-esteem can fight for their rights and achieve proper independence in our society.


Radical change that should happen is too great to be achieved overnight, but by taking small steps, we can contribute to positive changes. Steps to be taken in order to promote the status of deafblind women, should start from the deafblind women themselves. By accepting their sensory impairment, by increasing awareness of their own potentials and abilities, empowerment in achieving their goals can be achieved. This way women themselves can get a clear picture of what their rights are and how to demand proper treatment for themselves.

It goes without saying that society also needs to make adjustments and help deafblind women to achieve the status in the society they deserve. The shift has to happen not only within official politics, but also within hearts and minds of ordinary people, because they are the ones whose behaviour influences everyday life of persons with disabilities.

What is it we can do to speed up the process and make it more efficient?

  • organize education workshops with various themes relevant to deafblind women (rights of persons with disabilities, independent living, self advocacy, cultural and language workshops, educational opportunities training)
  • promote higer visibility of deafblind persons in public – organize activities that promote public awareness and positive attitudes towards persons with deafblindness
  • establish couselling center for deafblind women (a place where they can get counselling on various topics)
  • develop partnership with educational and cultural institutions
  • organize conferences at Europe level with international paritcipation
  • establish organizations of deafblind women within existing organizations – both national and international

Now it is up to us – can we follow Helen Keller’s vision? Although she lived in another century, her ideas remain modern and worth following. As s good example of a woman who fought for her rights, she opened the door for many future Helen Kellers. There are many deafblind women in Europe, who could become european Helen Kellers, but we have to give them a chance to show what they are capable of and what they can achieve if they are given a proper chance.

Instead of closing with my own words, I would like to end this paper with Helen Keller’s words that should remind us of the value of women working together:

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. (link is external)


Brstilo, I., Haničar, E. (2011): Trostruka diskriminacija žena s invaliditetom na tržištu rada. Hrvatska revija za rehabilitacijska istraživanja. Vol 47. No. 1. 87-97.

Eriksson, Linda (2009). “What Is Deafblind Interpreting?” Croatian translation by Marija Čulina published in: Dodir, 37. Zagreb : Hrvatska udruga gluhoslijepih osoba Dodir; p. 8–9

Göransson, Lena (2008). Deafblindness in a Life Perspective. Strategies and Methods for Support. Translated by Emma Leonard & Anna Aronsson. Finspång : Mo Gård

Kiš Glavaš, L., Majsec Sobota, V., Sokač, K., Gavrilović, A., Sobota, I. (2008): Zapošljivost nezaposlenih osoba s invaliditetom, Zagreb: Program Ujedinjenih naroda za razvoj (UNDP) u Hrvatskoj.

Smith, D. L., Strauser, D. R. (2008): Examining the impact of physical and sexual abuse on the employment of women with disabilities in the United States: An exploratory analysis, Disability and Rehabilitation, 2008; 30(14): 1039 – 1046.

Tarczay, Sanja (2007): “Gluhosljepoća – jedinstveno oštećenje”. Ljetopis socijalnog rada, 14. 143-153.

UN (United Nations) (2006). United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Adopted on 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. English text available at: (link is external)
Croatian text available at: (link is external)
Accessed on 1 March, 2013

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import from Sensage project