Among the most popular images from Egypt’s parliamentary elections last November were pictures of soldiers helping voters with disabilities at the polling stations. At the time, these images were used primarily as positive publicity for the armed forces, which had developed a negative reputation since the start of the Revolution. Away from the cameras, however, people with disabilities remain a marginalized and largely overlooked part of Egyptian society. According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities represent approximately 10% of the Egyptian population, or about 8.5 million persons. To put that number in perspective, Egypt’s Coptic population is approximately the same size.
Egypt’s disabled population is a considerable minority whose rights and livelihood were ignored by the last regime, and whose future lies in the hope that some attention might be brought to its concerns and needs after the Revolution. So far, the early signs have been positive. For the first time in decades, Egyptian politicians are beginning to integrate people with disabilities into their political platforms. This has partly resulted from the large number of people who became disabled as a result of injuries suffered during the Revolution, attracting more media attention to the problem. Whether this is something that will continue after Egypt’s presidential elections conclude remains to be seen.
The Many Faces of Disability
The issue of disability in Egypt is multifaceted, affecting the disabled population itself, as well as other segments of society. For example, children are often forced to leave school and find work in cases where the head of the household becomes disabled. Workers’ compensation rights are limited, and often not enforced. Disability also remains culturally stigmatized in Egypt. Rather than encouraging people with disabilities to become active members of society, cultural norms have often led to families hiding their disabled members and caring for them at home. Some Egyptian parents view their offspring’s disability as a form of divine punishment while others fear it may have a negative social impact on their other children. The effects of marginalization have also extended to public and private schools, where admissions standards often cause children with disabilities to be rejected. In state sponsored schools created for children with disabilities, the education provided is weak and few families can afford the extra costs for tutoring and teaching aids.
In general, government disability policies have two main goals: to support and aid full participation in society and to ensure that people with disabilities can live a decent life. Different countries have adopted different policies to achieve these ends. This has included monetary assistance, vocational services and training, anti-discrimination laws, quotas, and even isolated employment. In the United States, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids any employment discrimination based upon disability and requires employers to provide accommodations for disabled employees.
The Egyptian counterpart to the ADA is the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Law, passed in 1975. This law gives people with disabilities access to vocational training and employment, but does not outlaw discrimination altogether. The government policy for employing disabled Egyptians is based on a quota system (5%) for companies with more than 50 employees. According to most sources, however, this quota is not enforced, and companies will often have disabled persons on their payroll to meet the quota without actually employing these individuals. While there are many existing non-profit organizations focused on people with disabilities, they approach the issue as one of charity, rather than one of integration and employment.
Addressing Disability in Egypt
There have been several initiatives underway in Egypt, most sponsored by private companies as part of corporate social responsibility programs while others are government sponsored. For example, the Egypt Information and Communication Technology Trust Fund (ICT-TF), jointly established by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has several IT training and educational programs targeting people with disabilities. Other organizations, like Resala, have also focused on similar empowerment programs.
During the EgyptNEGMA conference held in Boston, in March of this year, people with disabilities inspired a number of entrepreneurial business proposals. The premise of the conference was to encourage and develop entrepreneurship and social/economic development in Egypt regardless of the country’s prevailing political situation. One of the conference’s main pillars was a competition between 10 entrepreneurs with development-focused business proposals. Two of these projects were related to people with disabilities.
The first was a call center founded by an Egyptian named Amr Deabes about two years ago, which won the competition’s first place prize. The call center currently has 40 employees and three major Egyptian clients. 60% of the company’s workforce is disabled, including the country’s first disabled call center team leader managing disabled and non-disabled employees. According to Deabes, his disabled employees are either as or more efficient than his non-disabled employees. “They are glad they have the opportunity to work as an equal, and not as someone asking for charity,” Deabes commented. The Center provides equal compensation to its disabled and non-disabled employees, based on a pay-for-performance model. Deabes has a building he is hoping to make completely handicap-accessible to expand his employee base to 400 in the next 5 years.
The second project was proposed by Karen Saba, an Egyptian-American and member of the Clinton Administration’s Task Force for the Employment of Disabled Persons. Saba, who is herself disabled, created a project to provide self-help and independent living/work groups for disabled people. In her view, self-confidence and self-reliance are important parts of ensuring that Egyptians with disabilities are integrated and empowered, thereby increasing their prospects for employment.
Both of these projects provide effective and valuable models for the integration of people with disabilities into Egyptian society as active and equal members. This transitional and formative period in Egypt’s history is the ideal time to start taking this significant, yet marginalized, sector of society into consideration. Egypt’s politicians are heading this call. For the first time in decades, prominent political figures in the country are proposing plans to improve the living standards of people with disabilities. Presidential hopeful and Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsy, stated that he plans to raise the employment quota for disable people to 10% and acknowledged that enforcement of the quota is needed.
Another issue that needs to be tackled in the coming years, on a large scale for all Egyptians and particularly for people with disabilities, is proper access to healthcare. Government funded healthcare for those who unable to afford medical care is either non-existent or very low quality. Cases of infected blood and lack of hygiene are frequent complaints in government hospitals, and long queues for those in need of operations or transplants are not uncommon. The high price of medicine is also a regular complaint. These issues are magnified for people with disabilities, who require constant care and medication. Amr Deabes noted that this is one problem plaguing his social business plan, as he is finding great difficulty securing health insurance for his disabled employees at a reasonable rate.
As Egypt pushes forward into a new stage, seeking democracy and social equality, the integration of people with disabilities is an issue that stands side by side with the integration of women and other marginalized sections of society. One of the first steps that should be taken toward this end is the representation of people with disabilities in the constituent assembly for Egypt’s new constitution. Another major step that should be taken to effectively tackle this issue is improving the collection of statistics. Thorough statistics are necessary to understand the parameters of the disability issue, and to ensure that new laws are laid down and enforced. While some suggest that dealing with these fringe issues should come after the “main” goals of the Revolution are met, these goals will not be satisfied without tackling all the issues collectively plaguing Egyptian society.
*Nancy Elshami is a staff writer at Muftah.