“I took part in this seminar as courtesy to a friend, but I now feel I have lived my life committing a number of sins which I am not ashamed to confess. I am a businessman who deals actively in public life but I have always regarded physical or mental disability as some remote occurrence that strikes other people but not me or my family. Disabled persons were other people whom I generously helped but who were nonetheless not really ‘real’.
“As owner of a number of pre-school nurseries I used to feel relieved when a disabled or slow learning child was dismissed.
“I employ a number of disabled persons to fill the 5 per cent quota of my workforce that ought to be allocated to the disabled according to the labour law. I pay them minimum wage; they are required to do no work, merely to show up at the end of every month to get paid. I thought that by doing so I was actually doing them a favour.”
The words were said by Hatem Saleh, a businessman who took part in the conference “Turning disability into energy” the first such conference held by the NGO Wayana (With us) for businessmen, with the aim of campaigning for the empowerment of disabled persons by integrating them in the work force. Wayana coordinates efforts with the International Labour Organisation to achieve that end. Mr Saleh ended his words by promising to directly change his attitude towards the disabled.
The need for awareness
Hala Abdel-Khaleq, who heads Wayana, says she began campaigning for the integration of the disabled in the community when she came back to Egypt after years spent in the United States. Abdel-Khaleq has a young daughter with Down Syndrome; whereas in the US the girl was able to lead a normal life, in Egypt she was almost completely excluded from any normal activity. “Our community persists in seeing disabled persons only as individuals who warrant feelings of pity and deserve to be aided. We are as yet unable to see that disabled persons possess capabilities that allow them to lead reasonably balanced lives. Instead of integrating them in schools and work places where they can be productive members in the community, we condemn them to a destiny of inability, feeling it is good enough to be generous to them, not realising that this ‘generosity’ finishes off any capability they may already have.”
Minister of Administrative Development Ahmed Darwish, who attended the opening session of the conference, said that anyone who dealt with the disabled realised they possessed abilities that were sometimes even out of the ordinary. The disabled, he said, were entitled to full citizenship rights as all Egyptians are and, in this capacity, ought to gain them.
The conference ran three workshops to discuss the three axes of interest. The first, attended by members of the written and audio visual media, concerned the media’s role in spreading awareness of the reality and normalcy of the disabled. The second concerned the work opportunities that may be opened to them in the business sector, and thus involved the participation of businessmen.
The third session dealt with the work of NGOs in this field, and called upon them to spread awareness among the disabled themselves of their possible contribution to the community and the rights they are entitled to.