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The right to normalcy
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 07 - 2008

How can current legislation provide equal rights for the disabled? Reem Leila seeks an answer
While providing equal rights for all citizens, current legislation does not include sufficient provisions for the effective inclusion of the disabled in social, economic and recreational activities. This was the focus of a two-day conference on "Media and Citizens with disabilities" organised by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). The gathering was held under the auspices of NCCM Chairperson Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and attended by NCCM Secretary-General Mushira Khattab, Minister of Manpower and Migration Aisha Abdel-Hadi, UN Regional Advisor on disabled issues Sheikha Hessa Bint Khalifa Al-Thani.
The conference was a forum for people with disabilities to convey their experiences first hand stories, and also played movies dedicated to children and adults with disabilities.
There are few places in Egypt where disabled children can learn to cope with their disabilities. For the most part, families with disabled children have little or no support, and the social stigma associated with disability can leave families isolated from their communities. The daily lives of millions of people suffering various forms of disability is challenged by "accessibility" and lack of adequate space to express themselves and contribute to their self and community development.
"We are currently drafting a new disability law which will foster principles of inclusion and empowerment of disabled citizens, to ensure that they are no longer a marginalised sector in our society," stated Khattab. Addressing participants, Khattab announced that 10 per cent of Egypt's population or almost eight million citizens are with disabilities. Some 74 per cent of these suffer mental disabilities, seven per cent suffer visual impairment, four per cent hearing impairment, and 15 per cent physical disability.
Accordingly, Khattab urged that sessions must include demands to the international and national communities for the protection of the rights and well- being of disabled children. The national community should fulfil its commitment towards children with physical or mental disabilities, and shoulder its responsibilities to reinforce the basis of international partnership for development, she noted.
The conference is considered an opportunity for representatives to address some key challenges facing governments and make use of exchanging views. Participants believe that children who suffer either mental or physical disabilities deserve to be in a quality learning environment, where access to technology and information networks is part of their future.
According to Sheikha Hessa, today we must be honest in our appraisal of progress made for children by identifying both weaknesses and untapped resources. Above all, Sheikha Hessa believes that low health awareness leading to late disability detection, and inaccessible rehabilitation programmes still heavily impact the disabled child's life opportunities as well as prospects of progress.
Children from poor families in many countries of the region are likely to have less access to healthcare, insufficient health facilities, and poor training for medical personnel working with disabled children. Moreover, lack of rehabilitative services for disabled children and insufficient provisions to designate public space, public institutions and transportation services allowing children with disabilities to have access to services and move freely and safely top the UN regional office's agenda.
"Swift solutions are to be taken in cooperation with Egypt, as well as other countries in the region," added Sheikha Hessa.
Other problems faced by some disabled children in the region are stigmatisation, social exclusion and isolation. Khattab stated that a study by NCCM on child disability revealed that society generally tends to reject disabled people. Some families perceive children with disabilities as deficient and dependant, while some disabled children are vulnerable to maltreatment, particularly those living in rehabilitative care.
Abdel-Hadi told participants that a unified stance will create a better atmosphere for disabled children, renewing commitment to childhood rights, welfare and better living conditions. The minister asserted that the government's goal is to change the image of the disabled in the minds of the people and society; protect children from abuse; and raise awareness about the right of the disabled to live in equality with other citizens.
"The government has obligated its administrative bodies, the public and private sectors to employ five per cent of their workforce from the disabled, in order to enable them to integrate in society," revealed Abdel-Hadi. Labour Law 12/2003 does not discriminate between normal and disabled people in rights, duties and salaries, she added.
According to a UNICEF report, about 650 million people around the world are either physically or mentally disabled. The number continues to grow because of raging civil wars, and more than 65 per cent of the disable worldwide suffer ill- treatment, humiliation or pity.
"Disabled people do not want our pity or sympathy, they need our respect, help, cooperation and understanding," argued Sheikha Hessa. Negative stereotypes about disabled people, especially in the media, can be largely attributed to lack of proper awareness, she said. Hence, education is key to ending this phenomenon. "Education must actively participate in strengthening the social fabric by fostering mortality and promoting awareness," asserted Sheikha Hessa.
There is no investment that yields greater returns than the education of disabled people, especially the children, believes Khattab. Finding ways for all children, especially those with disabilities, to attend schools deserves more attention; in Egypt, only 15 per cent of children with disabilities receive education in regular schools. "There has been significant progress which continues to set higher targets for the coming years," she said. "The focus is on those communities where children do not attend school."
In the past few years, according to the NCCM secretary-general, several achievements have been accomplished in the areas of the protection and implementation of child rights, as well as child welfare and development. "According to Article 76 of the child law, children with disabilities are to be integrated in the national education system," stressed Khattab.
She further revealed that NCCM and all concerned authorities have created partnerships with governments, NGOs, communities and parents to promote the education of all children with physical or mental defect. This has come in the form of community schools which provide innovative types of education, free of charge to disabled children.

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