As the Law for Persons with Disability goes into effect this month, March 2019, will it bring an end to their agony?
“When 2018 was announced in Egypt the ‘Year of Disability’, I was optimistic,” said Shaimaa’, a young woman with visual impairment who comes from the southern city of Qena. “But several months and scores of initiatives later, we are at a standstill; on the ground, no progress or achievement has transpired that would benefit persons with disabilities.” Shaimaa runs a small business which she dreams of developing and expanding. “We seek a law to ensure we are able to live dignified lives. A law for persons of disability was indeed passed in December 2017, but we had to wait till 23 December 2018 for its executive bylaws to be issued, and even then it included many ambiguities.”
The Nation Council for Disability Affairs (NCDA) adopts the motto: “Towards full participation and equality in rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities”. It is the national government agency mandated to formulate policies and coordinate the activities of all agencies, whether public or private, concerned with disability issues. As such, the NCDA is the lead agency tasked to steer the course of programme development for persons with disabilities and the delivery of services to the sector.
The year 2018 was almost the starting point for the State to take an obvious interest and adopt an active role in issues of people with special needs. Before that, there was rudimentary legislation that ensured specific rights for persons with disabilities, and special State schools to give them an education. Apart from that, it was up to civil society and NGOs to tackle the needs of the disabled; more often than not, these needs were seen in the light of charity work. Human development of persons with disability on the grassroots level did not surface in Egypt till the 2000s. Before that, it was up to individual efforts by wealthy Egyptians to adequately educate their disabled children; in a few cases the families of children with disabilities launched NGOs for the development of the less fortunate children who belonged to families with limited means. By and large, however, this was the exception not the rule.
The 2000s saw better societal awareness of the issue of disability and the human development of persons with disability, but this was still spearheaded by the non-official sector in Egypt. The general outlook remained that it was through charity work that disability could be tackled. In this light, the 2017 law for persons with disability was a significant leap forward.
According to Dalia Atef, Director of the Department for Women and Children of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, and member of the Committee on Women with Disabilities at the National Council for Women, “the law was issued to govern work through the NCDA, and to confirm its role in setting policies and in decision-making.” Under supervision of the Central Auditing Organisation—a State body established in 1942 as an instrument of public finance control—the NCDA is financially, administratively, and technically independent. “I wish that NCDA members would be chosen according to competency and positive changes they make in this field. I hope to see members who are themselves persons with disability,” Ms Atef, herself a person with disability said.
Watani talked to Ahsraf Marei, general supervisor of the NCDA. Dr Marei sees that the passage of the law itself is a giant step forward, ensuring a better future for persons with disabilities. “Persons with disabilities can now effectively demand legal rights once the bylaws go into force next March.”
The law, Dr Marei said, ensures the convergence of efforts of the government, cabinet ministries, specialised national councils, and parliament; all of which are bodies concerned with the needs and rights of persons with disability.
He said the NCDA would follow up, through the authorities concerned, on complaints sent by persons with disabilities. An office is being established in each of Egypt’s governorates to interact with and respond to persons with disabilities. This had been a demand voiced by these persons throughout the past year, said Hanan Ibrahim, an employee with disability from Assiut but, as she said, it never transpired.
Just the beginning
“The main achievement so far on the disability front,” said Muhammad Mukhtar, lawyer and director of citizens service department at the NCDA, “is that the law has been passed. But we must bear in mind that this is just the beginning; efforts should not end at that.”
Mr Mukhtar commended Egypt’s Ministry of Labour Force for being among the first to pay attention to persons with disability; it has trained and employed numbers of them. Transport authorities have also been considerate of the needs of persons with disability; they offer them railway and metro tickets at reduced prices, and have equipped railway stations so as to render them disability-friendly.
On another significant front, however, very little success has been achieved where the interests and rights of persons with disabilities are concerned. Schools in general are not able to integrate disabled children in their programmes, owing to lack of means, shortage of teachers, and absence of teacher training on educating children with disabilities. An increasing number of private schools is actively including children with special needs, but these are schools that cater to the needs of the well-to-do. It still remains to see public schools offer such services among their free-of charge education. Officials in the Ministry of Education have acknowledged the right of children with disabilities to inclusion in schools but, on the ground, the mountain of obstacles is too big to tackle swiftly. According to Rasha Ernest who heads the Department of Culture and Arts at the NCDA: “We hope that the future brings in curriculum development, teachers adequately equipped to implement inclusion and, more important, better awareness on the part of parents, schools, and peers of the significance and acceptance of inclusion of children with disabilities in schools.
Shift in attitude
Parents of the persons with disabilities need to see their loved ones happy, productive members of the community, living with dignity.
Mariam Amin, mother of a little girl with disability, said: “We parents endure hard times, financially and morally, as we attempt to make something of our children’s lives. We constantly encounter people who have no idea our children can be achievers; they pity them or look down on them.”
Yet, slow but sure, Egyptians are getting more aware and better educated about the issue of disability. Time was when a typical Egyptian would wish to do anything in his or her power to help with the plight of persons with disability but, “I don’t know how to interact with them,” they would say. A study by Watani’s Michael Victor in 2008 confirmed this to be a general public attitude of every good intention but deplorably low awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities.
Today, however, public transportation includes seats allocated to disabled persons; many official bodies take decisions that include persons with disabilities; paralympics draw public applause; a few TV programmes feature translations in sign language; and the first TV presenter with Down’s Syndrome, Rahma Khaled, catches an enthusiastic public eye.
And during the 50th Cairo International Book Fair which ran from 23 January to 5 February, a special pavilion was allocated for the NCDA.
Watani takes the initiative
For its part, Watani has since 2004 attempted to do its bit. From 2004 to 2014, it issued Watani Braille a monthly paper in Braille that included a selection of the material printed in the original paper. It was discontinued, however, owing to rising costs and an increasing shift to online reading. The Braille version of Watani was spearheaded by a young reporter, Sherifa Massoud, a bright, witty, elegant young woman who is herself blind; and was strongly supported by the Editor in Chief, Youssef Sidhom.
In 2009, Watani initiated a weekly section Ehna Maak (We are with you), edited by this writer. It has been targeting persons with disabilities and aiding them throughout the last ten years, and will continue to do so in the future. We can testify to the increasing awareness among persons with disability and their families to demand their rights, not merely public sympathy as in past times.
Sherifa Massoud, who is now a PhD in Psychology, has for years worked in the field of human development of persons with disabilities, and now does so through EDU Foundation, a foundation she has established for just that purpose. She sums it all up when she says: “Even though progress in the field of disability in Egypt has proceeded in incremental steps, it has been slow but sure. If we look back ten years ago and compare matters to now, regarding public awareness and efforts done in the disability field, we cannot fail to see that despite the many unresolved problems, we’ve come a long, long way.”
13 March 2019