Portugal has a disability champion: Jose Antonio Bourdain

a photo of a smiling Gretchen Kingma

by St. Cloud State University Student: Tera Brooks

March 2022 will commemorate 34 years that Jose has worked with people with disabilities. It has been a long and winding road that he has traveled to get him to where he is today. Jose grew up in an asperous neighborhood in Lisbon, where, as a youth, he lost many friends. Because of the tremulous circumstances that surrounded him, at the age of 16, he made the decision to quit school and get a job to help support his family. It was during this time that he started to work at a college for people with disabilities. He soon found that he had a great interest and fondness working with this population. When Jose was 30, he attended the University of Lusíadas to obtain a degree in human resources management and at age 34, he attended the University of Lisbon and obtained his master’s degree in political science. When asked what life experiences prepared him to be an advocate for the disability community, he simply replied with a smile, “almost none”. He felt that it was by chance that he chose a profession working with disabilities, but when he reflected further, he believes that his first work experience attributed to his career path.

 In 1998, Jose became the founder of a non-profit organization, CERCITOP, which is a major social cooperative and one of the biggest organizations in Portugal. CERCITOP provides homes for people with disabilities and offers home health care. They oversee two hospital facilities and a rehabilitation clinic. CERCITOP (non-profit organization) services receive funding through the Portuguese government. Customer’s fees are based on their salaries, making it equitable for all clients.

Through Jose’s work in this organization, he realized that his country didn’t have services in tourism for folks with disabilities. He wanted to provide tourism for the Portuguese, as well other countries, to experience the travel opportunities in Portugal. Tourism for All was established in 2013 and it opened doors for many people as a travel agency and tour operator. Jose’s plan was for everyone to travel without limits, including individuals with disease or disabilities. The organization consists of a fleet of vehicles, medical equipment, staff to assist with care and, of course, with knowledge to create leisure programs with accessibility.  Some of the services Tourism for All provides includes accessible accommodations, daily care, monitoring by a nurse, physiotherapist or medical assistant, visits and tours, and various activities. Stephen Hawking, the well-known English theoretical physicist, has utilized Tourism for All services. When Jose was asked what his first venture was with this organization, he shared that they started on cruise ships. Initially they had one driver that was also a caregiver, and they operated as a tour guide showing buildings and monuments and explaining the history of Portugal. Jose says that as the CEO for CERCITOP, it is important that he manages the organization, but also works in the field at Tourism For All (profit company) with customers so he can see what can be improved.

 In order to stay abreast of what is relevant in working with individuals with disabilities, and to promote Portugal as an excellent accessible tourist destination, Jose attends tourism and abilities fairs and occasionally attends trainings in the United States. 

Aside from being the founder of two organizations, Jose’s major accomplishments have included being the President for the National Association of Continued Care Units. These are secondary hospitals who receive patients from primary hospitals, and they offer rehabilitation and long-term care for people with disease and disabilities. Jose’s role with this association is to meet with the government, attend parliament, and conduct interviews with the media. Jose is currently overseeing projects that include building a kindergarten for children with disabilities and establishing a new home for people with disabilities. Jose views partnerships as building blocks for organizations. If people can work together, they can achieve better results. 

When asked what excites him about being the founder of his company, Jose said he is very grateful to contribute and make a difference in people’s lives. Whether it is a smile on a client’s face or learning that 50-year-old man is traveling for the first time in his life, he finds it very rewarding. In regard to what the next 10 years look like for people with disabilities who want to travel independently, Jose sees biotechnology offering people with disabilities a better quality of life. He foresees people with disabilities will have the opportunity to parachute, parasail, and scuba dive in tourism. Jose feels that all of us need to be more inclusive. People don’t want to be treated differently. They want to be treated like everyone else and have access to facilities to conduct their lives. This includes sidewalks, ramps, elevators, and rooms. It is about allowing people to live a free life. Jose strongly believes that the world is our home, and we must take care of it and take care of each other.