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What The World Can Learn About Diversity and Inclusion From Portugal

''NOOOOOOOOO!!’’ My three year old son screeched in a blood-curdling, ear drum piercing howl that reverberated through the entire departure hall of Lisbon airport.

He was in a ‘drop-to-the-floor-eyeball-popping-saliva-dripping-flailing-limbs-head-banging’ tantrum. Just as a tsunami, these episodes have no real early warning system and each wave of outburst just grows with intensity. It cannot be reasoned with nor spoken to. The only thing to do is to get out of its path and wait for it to subside.

Like a force of nature a full blown tantrum is not to be reckoned with!

While my son was in his ‘Attack' mode, I went into my ‘Defensive Parent' mode, ready to ward off any disparaging looks or judgemental comments (disguised as ‘advice’) that may come from bystanders.

‘Great, just great’ I thought as I saw airport security approaching. In light of the recent terrorist attacks in France and at Brussels airport, there is a heavy security presence at European airports. They were armed to the teeth with assault rifles. No doubt they were coming to investigate if I was kidnapping this child (after all, I have been mistaken for being his babysitter in the past and that was under less contentious circumstances).

By now my son was foaming at the mouth and thrashing like a demon spawn rather than the sweet little angel he is 99% of the time. As the security forces got closer I braced myself for the worst.

Ma’am, is he afraid of the escalator?’ one of the security officers asked in a friendly voice. ‘No, he is just tired’, I replied. ‘What is his name?’ he continued. ‘Marcus, from Marcus Garvey’, I answered. He then bent over and started to whistle. This distracted Marcus and he slowly calmed. Outstanding. It was like this man was the Baby Whisperer!

Another security officer took my suitcase while the Baby Whisperer carried Marcus to the Check In Counter. I found it touching to see these heavily armed ‘muscle-ripping, tattooed-macho-men’ who could kill a man with their bare hands, exercising such tenderness.

I told my new friends goodbye and proceeded to check in without further incident. Marcus was back to his angelic self, like nothing had transpired a few minutes earlier. We were now on our way to the Security checkpoint when I saw a uniformed man beckoning to me. ‘What now?!’ I thought in exasperation.

I mustered a smile as I walked over to him. ‘Ma’am please follow me to our express security check point for travellers with children.’ ‘Wow!’ he must have read my mind. I was eager to get Marcus to the Departure Lounge as he was clearly tired. A long queue at the normal checkpoint may agitate him and trigger another tantrum.

As I followed my ‘Moses’ who was leading me to the Promised Land, I saw signs with arrows and the words ‘This Way to the Security Check Point for Travellers with Children and the Disabled’. It was a separate section of the airport that was designed for wheelchair accessibility. I sure felt like a Very Important Person (VIP) as we sailed through the short line at this section.

Finally, the boarding gates were in sight. I could not help notice underway that there were two sets of water fountains next to each other; one placed at the ‘normal’ height and another at a much lower level for a child or for someone in a wheelchair to access. Then it dawned on me that there were wheel chair ramps and hand rails all over the airport.

Anyhow, nature called and I had enough time before boarding to make a quick dash to the ladies room. I entered the toilet stall and I could not believe my eyes.

There was a baby seat (with a seat belt) secured to the wall of the toilet stall. So handy for the mom who is travelling alone with a child. She can strap her baby on the wall, while she did her business.

What kind of magical place was this? I seemed to have entered a realm where the needs of women, mothers and the disabled were addressed. The security forces are empathetic, there are express security checkpoints for the disabled and travellers with children, accessible water fountains, wheel chair ramps and hand rails all over as well as toilet facilities that accommodate mothers. It must be airport regulations why all these provisions are in place.

Then it hit me like a lightning bolt!

This was far more than just airport regulations. I had a flashback to five days ago when I landed in Portugal.

I was invited by the Arcil Foundation to conduct a dual language (Portuguese and English) Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) workshop for its staff and partners in Lousa, Portugal.

Participants from ARCIL and the ADFP Foundation at the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Workshop, April 2016

I vividly remember being impressed by the meal during the workshop’s lunch break. Once I communicated how delicious the meal was, I was told that the entire restaurant personnel were disabled. The restaurant was opened once a week to give vocational training to persons with physical and mental disabilities. This equips them with skills to increase their employability. Members of the community told me that they religiously dined at the restaurant because the food was simply delicious (and the fact they supported a good cause was a bonus).

There were several such restaurants operated by the Arcil Foundation throughout Portugal. These restaurants were so embedded in the social fabric of the communities that they were known simply for the quality of the food and service and not as ‘the restaurant run by disabled people’.

Then I had another flashback.

I remembered passing a school playground with João Canossa Dias, one of the workshop organisers. He remarked that he has speech therapy sessions with some of the children at the school. I then asked him if this was a school for “special children”.

He was quick to reply, ''Oh no, those institutions were abolished years ago’’. “Here all children (non-disabled, disabled) go to the same school, with disabled children having more specialised teachers or extra classes based on their needs…there is no such thing as ‘special schools’ or segregated learning institutions in this country’. He continued that Portugal and Italy were the more progressive European countries with regards to inclusive education.

I took a minute to reflect on the potency of his words.

It occurred to me that by not having separate institutions for ‘special children’, it reduces stigma, feelings of ‘’Us versus Them” and also reduced the sense of(in) difference of one social group towards another. By having all children attending the same schools, learning and sharing together, it is more likely that as adults they more tolerant of each other. This fosters a more inclusive and empathetic society.

Anyhow, after pondering the foregoing, I went on to have a successful workshop. Marcus also enjoyed the child-friendly activities that were arranged for him. He was so well-behaved and a picture of serenity that when I was invited by Fernando (one of the workshop’s participants) to visit his organisation, I took Marcus along.

Fernando worked for the ADFP Foundation. This organisation provided care and support for the elderly, disabled, chronically ill, migrant population, the homeless and victims of violence, women and children in various parts of Portugal. On the visit we were joined by his colleague Nancy.

I was impressed with their facilities; the shelters they had for young girls, women and victims of violence, the vocational training centre for people with disabilities, the museum that they operated, the botanical park etc. All these beautiful images that would win any photo competition and look well in their promotional materials.

However, from my visit, what resonated with me the most was what I saw when I went to ADFP’s main office.

As I entered the building I saw that most of the Front Desk staff had a visible disability. Then we went into the Finance Department, once again, I saw persons with some form of disability. On to the HR department, same occurrence; most of the staff there had a disability.

Wow! I have never personally witnessed such levels of Inclusion and Workplace Diversity within a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). At all levels within the organisation there seemed to be adequate representation of minority groups. The only other place I saw something like this was during my tenure at the UN.

At ADFP, I saw no tokenism or filling of quotas, just an inclusive recruitment practise of hiring competent people for the position.

From my personal experience a large majority (though not all) of NGOs working with marginalised and vulnerable groups tend to only practise inclusionary practises within the remit of their programming.

For example they have a project on ‘Women Empowerment’ to improve the economic livelihoods of women in a certain community, yet they don’t transfer these same principles within the internal operations of the NGO itself. If one examines the NGO’s governance structure, it reveals that there are not many women holding decision making positions within the organisation itself.

The same is true for organisations working with Migrants, Refugees, and Minorities etc. They actively lobby for the formulation of non-discriminatory policies and yet, how many of these NGOs have former refugees or ethnic minorities on staff at HQ level?

It was refreshing to see ADFP practising what they preached. The disabled were not just confined to being ‘beneficiaries/recipients’ within their programming, but were actually recruited to be on staff and they held key positions within the organisation. The actual staff members who I met are seen in the photo below.

At the time I thought this inclusive approach to development was unique to Arcil and the ADFP Foundation. But as I stood waiting to board the airplane it dawned on me that it was the approach of the Portuguese in general.

They realised that once you have inclusion for all, it removes the need for integration. Can you imagine if globally the foreign, immigration and public polices of governments followed this approach?

I could not help thinking that any organisation serious about development issues such as Diversity, Social Inclusion and working with Vulnerable/Marginalised groups should really take a trip to Portugal to witness first-hand how it is done.

Marcus was now asleep and we had to board shortly. I would have to wake him to strap him into his seat for Take Off. He is not going to like the fact that I woke him or the pressure on his eardrums during Take Off. I was right, he started to cry. As soon as the seat belt sign came off, the flight attendant wasted no time to tell me in a stern voice, ‘Ma’am could you please stop the child from crying? He is disturbing the other passengers.’ And with those words I knew I was definitely not in Portugal anymore.

Author’s Note:

I dedicate this article to the great team at Arcil and the ADFP Foundation. Your work has touched and inspired me in a profound way. Thanks for being such great hosts and for giving me an experience I will never forgot.

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About Arcil Foundation

ARCIL is a large 40 year old charity organisation that supports people with different types of disability (motor, sensory, intellectual, multiples) in all aspects of their lives and across their life span; in other words, an early intervention may be started with a family and that same person and family are supported throughout their lives.

ARCIL has therapeutic services, a school inclusion project, and occupational centers for adults with disability, residential support, protected employment, labour market integration, home-care support, professional training for young adults and other more specific and/or temporary community services. ARCIL also has social enterprise where they employ people with disability. For more information on ARCIL's work please get in touch with João Canossa Dias and/or visit,

About ADFP

ADFP defends the right of children, youth, adults and seniors of both sex, with emphasis on the needs of people with disabilities or mental illness, the homeless, pregnant or women with children, victims of violence, immigrants, and ethnic minorities

It supports inter-generational sociability and the integration of distinct social groups, with special attention to people experiencing social exclusion and/or in poor economic conditions. For more information on ADFP's s work please get in touch with Nancy Rodrigues, or visit

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