From Assistance to Active Citizenship

by Alberto Borghi

Effects of the crisis on assistance to persons with disabilities and citizens in situations of disadvantage. Interview with Professors Andrea Canevaro and Giovanni Maria Mazzanti.

On the margins of the "Mostrare la rosa al cieco" convention (show the rose to the blind), held in Bologna last May, we asked two presenters, both professors at the University of Bologna, Prof. Andrea Canevaro, Chair of Didactics and Special Education, Faculty of Education Sciences, and Prof. Giovanni Maria Mazzanti, Professor at the Faculty of Economics, if it was possible, in a context of cuts that aim at eliminating waste and dysfunctions, to imagine the review of the concept of "assistance to persons with disabilities" itself, with a strong specialization of skills and, consequently, of services to offer this category of users; or if, on the contrary, we are heading towards a systematic and generalized elimination of funds that are, in the end, in contrast with constitutional precepts. The question is directed either to the pedagogue or the economist according to their own areas of specialization.
Does welfare in Italy today remain true to constitutional precepts?
Prof. Canevaro: We can consider constitutional precepts as something that must be held on to. We can even consider them as a future to be built. Let us try to go towards that perspective. Our Constitution places labour as a fundamental element. Therefore, welfare has to be linked to the founding theme that is labour. Labour could consist in the meeting point of those who have a project and are passionate about it. They can create their project, their passion, and, at the same time, contribute to the common good. Some organizations are doing that, taking into consideration the different cycles of human experience, and also including the difference based on ageing. Organizations that create objects for a quality of life "despite" disability, despite ageing, etc., have an added-value for the market and contribute to the fulfilment of our Constitution. We could give other examples, including the building industry, which can anticipate special needs, and this way create a larger market. At the centre of all this is passion for one's own work, that not by chance becomes a contribution to the common good which is at the heart of the Constitution.
Prof. Mazzanti: Italy is the European Union's country which has the longest life expectancy at birth and, among large countries at the international level, it comes in second after Japan. This is the extraordinary result of a farsighted investment in our welfare model. The risk today is to fall back in previous models of welfare of corporate type that identified in the individual's work conditions the main gate of access to services. The challenge is to continue updating the answers to the needs in a coherent way with a universalistic vocation and rediscovering also the importance of the spontaneous organization of citizens in a Republic founded on labour.
Can the actual economic crisis lead to the redefinition of the concept of social equity itself?
Prof. Canevaro: It is the opportunity to do so. Social equity is the alliance of social, health, cultural and educational services, and of the social web. We need to try to outline, to profile the competent identity, which is an identity that connects, integrates. We need to be part of a larger group, overcoming categorization, in other words we need to do things in a way that a person with a disability, for example a deaf person, feels that she does not only belong to the deaf population. Let us go beyond this aspect, to realize that the sense of belonging of a deaf person is not linked only to deafness, but citizenship, and participation. Categories become part of a plural, competent identity, able even to organize itself in a social belonging.

Picture - Prof. Andrea Canevaro

It is important and fundamental to have needs and competence meet. It means overcoming these mechanisms of assignment of agents and subsidies who are now only busy establishing an hourly fee on the basis of the possibility of spending, and not on the response to needs which, if they were answered adequately, would allow the passage from assistance to active citizenship, and from subjects with unearned income to active and proactive subjects.
Prof. Mazzanti: To avoid that the reduction of public funding result in the automatic increase of unequal access to services, it is necessary to introduce reforms in favour of equity. The greater incidence of private spending for the acquisition of services creates in fact discrimination of income, exclusion on the part of citizens, and greater inequity. For the same resources used, it is necessary that the system of fiscal incentives reinforce tools such as fiscal exemptions which in regards to deductions are allowing us to move benefits in favour of lower income brackets.
How is it possible to reconcile the necessity for financial and accounting rigour with the fundamental rights of citizens? Are there limits to insuperable cuts?
Prof. Canevaro: It is said, and justly so, that if everyone paid their taxes, it would be possible to be less heavily taxed. It is more important to do things in a way that the tax burden be converted in traceable expenses. Cuts without the traceability of an expense can lead to enormous risks. And can lead to more spending. Virtuous dynamics is necessary. Let us begin, for example, by professional outlines of teachers and, in particular, teachers who have the specific duty of specialization by integration. Let us not stop there: in parallel, let us try to have the same attention for the figures of social educators, in other words the professional figures already talked about who are not part of a health system in a strict sense, it would make sense to call them education professionals, as the decree by the then Health Minister Bindi had indicated, making the distinction between social educators part of the non-health sector strictly from an administrative point of view. Certainly, the treatment of health, linked to quality of life, is not a duty fulfilled only by health people but also by people in the social sector. The health system interacts with the education system forming one system only. It is interesting to use this way of expressing ourselves by using the term health not in the strict pharmacological and medical sense, but with the wider meaning of "taking care of" as in providing a quality of life to people and society. We have to remind ourselves that while "abilities" bear

Picture - Prof. Giovanni Maria Mazzanti

a dimension that is basically individual, "competences" are social or they are not.
Prof. Mazzanti:
The proper administration of public and private funds is a right of citizens to help them to have those rights that they themselves in the democratic exercise identify as being relevant. The funding of public expenses is part of the citizenship pact and of an equilibrium in constant evolution. In general, for the same public resources, relevant improvements in the offering of services whether public or private would be available if in our country we could create a greater organization of the demand of services on the part of citizens.
Can interventions in favour of disabled people in particular gain greater efficiency, paradoxically, as they are better targeted because of the reduction of resources?
Prof. Canevaro: Demand refers to a phenomenon that needs to be clarified. The efficiency of the targeted intervention remains to be demonstrated. It is useful to recall, to avoid the risks of specialism, the story of the eye of the frog. The eye of the frog has a targeted specialty, and is unable to see what does not move. What it can see is the slightest movement. Even surrounded by dead flies, the frog can die of hunger if there is not even some breeze to move the delicious food around allowing it to see that. The perspective of inclusion cannot be reserved for a category: it is open to all. It is an element that reinforces the necessity that such a perspective should be taught in the basic training of some professions, possibly the greatest number of professions. A closed skill may cause damages which we may not see; or at least have such defense that they are not comparable, out of any comparison and evaluation on the part of those outside of the competence.
Prof. Mazzanti: In itself, the reduction of resources poses the risk of increasing the fragility of those who can obtain a minor benefit from the economic resources. Such risk is still more relevant, if the major specialization leads to abandoning the dimension of inclusion, with an approach that loses sight of the advantage of inclusion in front of the immediate and future disadvantage of segmentation and segregation. There is space for innovative tools based on the principle of solidarity and mutual assistance that take the shape of specific products and services designed for disabled people, privately funded and integrated to actual public services.

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