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Enabling the disabled
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 08 - 2018

For the 16 million people with disabilities in Egypt, the good news is that 2018 has been proclaimed the Year of Persons with Disabilities and a new law has finally seen the light that guarantees their rights. A Convention on Communications and Information Technology to Enable Persons with Disabilities was also concluded last week that should lead to promising results.
Since the 30 June Revolution in 2013 Egypt has taken many strides to achieve a strategy compliant with the 2007 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Together with 81 other countries, Egypt was signatory to the first comprehensive human-rights treaty of the 21st century and the first human-rights convention to be opened for signature by regional integration organisations. It entered into force on 3 May 2008.
Article 8 of the convention's Optional Protocol, adopted on 13 December 2006 at the UN headquarters in New York and opened for signature on 30 March 2007, says that the convention's “states parties undertake to adopt immediate, effective and appropriate measures to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding persons with disabilities, and to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities; to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on sex and age, in all areas of life; [and] to promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.”
Until 2008, according to Mohamed Abu Taleb, a blind man in his 30s who resides in Upper Egypt's Sohag governorate, “we were regarded as people who couldn't look after themselves and were unable to handle their lives like other people. We were not allowed to enrol in regular schools, and university education was conditional upon various regulations.”
Today, such problems are being swept away. Yet, Abu Taleb, an activist for people with disabilities, laments the still sometimes sad state of affairs for those with hearing impairments. “The state doesn't acknowledge sign language as an official language. Employees in government bodies and the public sector still know nothing about international sign language. If they did, communication could be easy to facilitate working with people with disabilities,” he said.
Moreover, until only a few years ago “prostheses were not generally available to people with physical disabilities to enable them to go about their lives independently. People with mental disabilities need proper education to empower them to be independent, creative and productive in society. And children with autism have to receive appropriate education as well,” Abu Taleb added.
People suffering from dwarfism, he said, “are often ridiculed in films with complete disregard to their rights as normal people.”
However, over the past five years the state has taken steps to transmit positive messages on people with disabilities, and these have now been crowned by the recent decisions. Prime among these messages is the need to “enable” disabled people to help them function in society.
The measures Egypt is taking are in line with the 2007 Protocol to the UN convention, and they underline the need for “initiating and maintaining effective public-awareness campaigns designed to nurture receptiveness to the rights of persons with disabilities; to promote positive perceptions and greater social awareness towards persons with disabilities; to promote recognition of the skills, merits and abilities of persons with disabilities, and of their contributions to the workplace and the labour market; to foster at all levels of the education system, including in all children from an early age, an attitude of respect for the rights of persons with disabilities… [and] to promote awareness-training programmes regarding persons with disabilities and the rights of persons with disabilities.”
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been careful to translate these measures into facts on the ground. He has insisted that people with disabilities should be positively perceived and have their rightful place in society. During a televised interview with Moneim Saadeddin, a basketball player who qualified for the Olympics, Al-Sisi told him that “I am here to protect you and the people like you. We have not always given you your rights. I remind people that the Prophet Mohamed said of people with disabilities that ‘through them you live, and with them you are victorious'”.
Al-Sisi also accepted Saadeddin's invitation to attend the opening of competitive games in support of people with disabilities.

GREATER ATTENTION: The president's involvement has been the trigger for state institutions to pay more attention to people with disabilities and to enforce Article 81 of the 2014 constitution that says “the state shall guarantee the health, economic, social, cultural, entertainment, sporting and education rights of people with disabilities.
“It shall provide work opportunities for such individuals, and allocate a percentage of these opportunities to them, in addition to equipping public utilities and their surrounding environment for them. The state guarantees their right to exercise political rights and their integration with other citizens in order to achieve the principles of equality, justice and equal opportunities.”
During the Third Youth Conference in Ismailia in 2017, a young man asked President Al-Sisi to declare 2018 the Year of Persons with Disabilities, in a similar way to the earlier designation of 2017 as the Year of Youth and 2016 as the Year of Women. Al-Sisi also warmly embraced Yassin Al-Zoghby, a young man with one leg who had toured several governorates on his bicycle to collect people's views to present them to the president at the conference.
In October 2017, Al-Sisi accepted for the first time the request of a civilian with a disability to join the Armed Forces. Ahmed Raafat then started working at the Armed Forces Conference Hall in the Fifth Settlement. At last week's Sixth Youth Conference in Cairo, Al-Sisi honoured a group of young people from different fields, including Mohamed Omar Khairy, a student at Zagazig University's Faculty of Law who has quadriplegia.
These gestures are in line with the 2007 UN convention, which was “intended as a human-rights instrument with an explicit social-development dimension.” Its protocol reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must “enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.”
MP Heba Hagrass, head of the members with disabilities group in the House of Representatives, Egypt's parliament, added that “the rights people with disabilities have acquired in the past five years were not available to them in the past. The most important is the law concerning persons with disabilities, which is the first law that guarantees their rights. It closes a legislative loophole touching the lives of more than 16 per cent of Egyptian society. The previous law was more than 40 years old, and the new one was prepared by a joint committee from the National Council for Disabilities and the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”
Rasha Abu Ragila, a woman with a physical disability, does not underestimate the gains people will acquire from the new law, but she looks forward to more being done for women with disabilities in particular, including healthcare and their right to work in the state administration.
“Another right gained by the disabled is contained in the Ministry of Education's Decree 252 that grants the integration of people with disabilities in regular schools in order to make it easier for pupils with disabilities to enrol in schools closer to their homes,” said Hala Abdel-Salam of the Ministry of Education's Central Authority for Special Education Affairs.
Abdel-Salam also applauded the opening of the Faculty of Disabilities at Zagazig University.
“This is the first faculty in the Arab world to specialise in the sciences of disability and rehabilitation. This state-of-the-art school includes seven specialisations and is based on two programmes. The first has to do with educating leaders on teaching people with disabilities in public and special schools. The second is dedicated to training specialists in rehabilitation and altering behaviours. The curriculum at the faculty is divided into language and communication disorders, autism, mental and physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairment, and difficulties in learning,” she explained.

Athletics: “The state's interest in athletes with disabilities over the past few years can also be easily seen,” said Ahmed Adam Al-Shandawili, a member of the board of the Egyptian Paralympics Committee.
“The national team won a bronze medal in football at the 2017 Olympics for deaf people held in Turkey. In this tournament, 16 teams from Asia, Europe and the Arab world participated. Other medalists won in individual sports, such as Sherif Othman, Fatma Omar, Mohamed Al-Sayed, Aya Abbas and Tarek Wahdan.”
Othman, a weight-lifter with a physical disability, said “there has been discrimination against athletes with disabilities in, for example, the bonuses we receive from the Ministry of Sports. Physically-well athletes receive five times what athletes with disabilities get.”
Othman wants sports officials to keep a close eye on disabled athletes at all times, “and not only during competitions, even if this requires changing the laws regulating sports for the disabled.”
Ahmed Mustafa Shalabi, a rights activist, believes that civil society organisations and the private sector should join hands with the state to offer better services to people with disabilities. “Civil society should have an effective role to play. Many charities and syndicates exist on paper only at the moment, and only a fraction of these organisations is truly helping the cause of the disabled due to the absence of monitoring and follow-up on the part of the ministries concerned,” he said.
“The private sector can also help decrease the number of unemployed people with disabilities. The five per cent employment for the disabled stated by the law is not enough because the number of disabled is on the rise. Factory and company owners should allow more people with disabilities to be employed. Having a job is one of the most important human rights,” Shalabi added.
The Protocol to which Egypt is signatory “takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects' of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects' with rights who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions on their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society,” he said.
Ahmed Farouk Amin, a visually impaired researcher who acquired his Masters in special-education technology from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, explained that such technology “allows, through modifications, the disabled to use equipment and software.” He added that “the Convention on Communications and Information Technology to Enable Persons with Disabilities signed by Al-Sisi is a qualitative leap in dealing with the disabled and an important sign that we are heading in the right direction.”

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