As though orphans cannot compare to ‘normal’ children! The last time Egypt marked Orphans Day Egyptians were inundated with news and announcements of so many events and concerts held to ‘celebrate’ the orphans. I couldn’t fight off a feeling of repulsion. The little orphaned children were paraded as, amazingly, persons not totally devoid of human faculties, but possessed of gifts or abilities. One event had the temerity to go under the theme “Orphans, too, got talent”. It strongly brought to my mind the same attitude more often than not adopted by the media to honour the International Day of Persons with Disability (IDPD), termed in Arabic the Day of the Disabled. I take exception, though, with this year’s IDPD which was preceded with the opening of the 2014 Special Olympic MENA Regional Games in Cairo by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. But other than that singular, splendid event, IDPD is usually marked, to put it mildly, with condescension. Being myself a person with a disability I am then infuriated, no devastated.
For what purpose?
Ever since its foundation the United Nations (UN) has recognised that the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the basis of freedom, justice and world peace.
This set the basis for the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disability (IDPD) in 1992 by the UN, it was then called the International Day of Disabled Persons, to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It sought to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disability in every aspect of the political, social, economic and cultural life of a community.
Since 1998 the UN has elected themes every year to mark the year’s objectives vis-à-vis people with disabilities. Among these themes, the UN chose ‘Arts, culture and independent living’ in 1998, ‘Making information technologies work for all’ in 2000, ‘Keeping the promise: Mainstreaming disability in the Millennium Development Goals towards 2015 and beyond’ in 2010, and ‘Break barriers, Open doors: for an inclusive society and development for all’ in 2013.
But how do we in Egypt deal with the IDPD and, likewise, the Day of the Orphan?
Do we strive to recognise that these persons have needs which must be met in order to achieve social justice? Do we exploit these days to spread the word to adequately integrate them in the community, entitling them to the same rights as others and giving them the opportunity to do the same duties? In short, are such occasions used to bring the disabled any closer to living productive lives where they are active members in the community instead of being a burden on it?
As I saw it
What I only ever saw through these yearly events was media propaganda that presented an opportunity for public figures and senior officials to make an appearance then quietly disappear without exerting any effort to enhance the situation of the disabled.
Some in the civil sector have even turned the cause of the disabled or the orphaned into a lucrative business through founding NGOs that pay lip service to the cause but do nothing to further it on the ground. They focus on the disabled as the ‘other’, exploiting their ailment or plight to move public sentiment.
Even as a child the ‘celebration’ of the IDPD used to upset me. I could never understand why we—the visually impaired—were treated differently. On that day every year we used to be taken down to the school playground where a party would be held ‘for us’. But we never actively participated in the party. Children who were not visually impaired would come from other schools and perform songs and dances before presenting us with gifts and sweets. They would then leave. As I grew up, the eternal rebel in me refused to attend these parties, upon which one or other of the teachers would try to talk me into attending. When I argued why we couldn’t go visit those children in their own schools and present them with gifts as they did with us, I was given vague answers that implied that this was just no bright idea. Worse, I felt that my query threw my teacher off balance, and I could never understand why.
The better and the less better
To date, my concept of these ‘celebrations’ has not changed. They send only one message, that society is divided into segments: the best and the less, the strong and the weak. It appears as though everybody draws strength from the weakness of others.
However, and lest I impose on readers my own ‘prejudiced’ view, I sought the opinion of other people with disability, as well as orphans and psychiatrists, in order to get to the bottom of the matter.
“Celebrating Egypt’s Day of the Disabled is a show of power from those who have no disability,” Youssef Makram Bishry, a visually impaired university student who comes from Minya Upper Egypt said. “They think that we need their sympathy and compassion, but I don’t care for this nonsense. I recognise the IDPD in a way which, I believe, achieves the important objective of changing the outlook of the community towards the visually impaired,” Bishry pointed out. He explained that every year he organises with the visually impaired in his hometown a ‘march with the white stick’. Participants walk the streets distributing flyers that explain the importance of the white stick and the need to respect it as a right of the visually impaired. Bishry stresses that it is crucial for the IDPD to take a turn from a mere media show to a day for the awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities.
“Happy Orphans Day!”
As for Orphans Day, I stand bewildered before those who look at orphans as pathetic creatures, voicing phrases such as “even though they’re poor orphans, they’ve got remarkable talent.” Don’t those who voice such exclamations know that orphans are as normal as other children?
Watani’s Madeleine Nader shared the following story, which happened with a young niece who had recently lost her father. On Orphans Day, the orphans were called out of their classes and asked to go to the principal’s office, not knowing the reason why they were called in, and wondering if they were to be reprimanded for a violation of school rules they might have committed. Once inside the principal’s office, he gave each a colouring box. Stunned and bitter, the children went back to their classes with their Orphan Day’s gift, where they were asked by their comrades why they had been given these gifts. The tears in their eyes said it all.
What’s the point
‘Celebrating’ Orphan Day is a taunt at the orphans’ sentiments. They already feel devastated at having lost a mother or father, without having to be reminded of it. What is the purpose of recognising Orphans Day this way?
There is usually an objective behind the decision to recognise a certain cause. The objective of the International Day for Diabetics is to spread awareness of the disease, how to treat it and live with it. But what is the purpose of Orphans Day?
Psychiatrist Heba Essawy, agrees with me that the usual ‘celebration’ of both IDPD and Orphans Day is a mere media show. She believes that the public figures and senior officials who participate in these events are the sole beneficiaries. These celebrations help put their conscience at peace, as if they are playing their full role towards the people with disabilities or the orphans. But in effect, Dr Essawy wonders, how do the persons with disability or the orphans benefit from these celebrations?
On the ground in Egypt, Dr Essawy says, IDPD and Orphans Day establish negative discrimination towards these groups, since we segregate them from the community at a time where the whole world calls for their inclusion. They have the right to be included in the society and the society must respect and provide for their special needs.
On the flip side, negative discrimination could help generate violent personalities. Psychology tells us that violence is born to children and adolescents because of psychological deprivation or too much focusing on the problem, or the loss of a parent. We should be aware that those children need continuous compensation not just to focus on them on a particular day.
It is not that everybody who joins in celebrating such occasions is after some benefit; many are well-intentioned individuals who really try hard to make others happy. And this, in a nutshell, exposes the dilemma of the Egyptian community vis-à-vis the ‘weaker’ members of the community. Persons with disability are seen almost as another species who need people with special skills to deal with them. They are not seen as persons with normal abilities who are disabled in one area or another. My work with a human development association, which works on training young blind or visually impaired individuals to gain skills needed on the job market, then placing them in jobs, has proved how able the ‘disabled’ can be. In one case where an employer agreed to offer jobs to a number of visually impaired individuals, he called us at the association to say: “The blind workers are so dedicated and efficient; they have put to shame those who have normal eyesight.”
Sadly, however, I have to admit that our experience in human development for the disabled is a lone effort that needs wider acknowledgement. More importantly, the logic behind it needs to spread among Egyptians at large if the disabled and the community are all to benefit. If orphans and persons with disabilities are given the chance they will prove that they are capable of giving the community more than many others.
All year round
Apart from the rare human development efforts or the even scarcer efforts at changing the community attitude vis-à-vis the disabled, and even if we assume that well-intentioned, one-day celebrations might make a person with disability or an orphan happy, what then? Must we wait for a full year to pass in order to make someone happy again?
Is it not better to take initiatives such as a cheerful visit to an orphanage once a week, or taking a visually impaired person to a garden and reading a book aloud, or helping him or her do homework or shopping?
We must reach the realisation that those with special needs, among them the orphaned and persons with disability, can neither be separated from the community nor can the community hold up without them.
10 December 2014