Using sign language, Aya Mohamed, an ambitious secretary in a government-owned institution, explains that she is verbally bullied when she pursues simple daily activities, such as buying something.
Mute and deaf, 29-year-old Mohamed has only her lips and hands to use to communicate her needs to a seller, and is often met with scorn and laughter.
“They even gossip about me in front of me, thinking that I won’t understand what they’re saying because I’m deaf, but I read their lips,” Mohamed says. “And I’m helpless because this is the norm in my daily life.”
Mohamed says she faces the same treatment from public employees when she’s trying to access social services. Government and public institutions are not equipped to serve disabled people.
“If I need to renew my driver’s license or national ID, I’m faced with endless communication problems with employees, who insist that being disabled is my fault and end up speaking to me as if I’m not deaf,” Mohamed says.
Egypt has an estimated 12 million people with disabilities, according to a UNDP report, and they lack legal protection in multiple spheres of life, including education, public accessibility and employment. Egypt dubbed 2018 the “Year of Disabled People,” and, in February 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government issued a bill on the rights of persons with disabilities.
A year since the law — which promised key changes in the lives of disabled citizens — was passed, disability rights activists claim that nothing has changed.
The law replaces a 1975 law dealing with rehabilitation and employment that set a quota of jobs for people with disabilities at 5 percent for public sector institutions with a staff of 50 or more. Unlike that law, which failed to address other issues (to the extent it was often prejoratively dubbed the “5 percent law,”) the new legislation is more comprehensive, covering not only employment, but also health, education, work and political participation.
One of the drafters of the law is Rasha Earnest, a senior official at the National Council for Persons with Disabilities who lost the ability to walk in a train accident. She tells Mada Masr that results should be tangible “soon.”
The Cabinet did not approve the bylaws of the legislation until December 24, 10 months after the bill’s passage. The bylaws were supposed to be issued within three months and come into effect three months after that, says Mohamed Abu Zekri, a lawyer from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights who specializes in the rights of persons with disabilities.
Zekri says that lagging law enforcement is itself one of the government’s clear violations of disability rights. The bylaws began to be implemented in April.
They were previously discussed among representatives from Parliament, ministries, civil society, and other institutions, such as Earnest’s organization.
The National Council for Persons with Disabilities’s mission is to protect the rights of disabled citizens, promote awareness of disability rights, and direct discrimination complaints to government institutions for timely resolutions. It works hand in hand with the Ministry of Social Solidarity in implementing the law, Zekri says, raising questions about the council’s independence.
The new law mandates the integration of disabled students into all university faculties. Previously, students with disabilities were only admitted to a limited number of faculties depending on the nature of their disability, up to five in total, including literature, business and social services, according to Mahmoud Shalabi, a researcher on education and student issues at the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms. Applicants using wheelchairs were limited to programs like pharmacy with strictly theoretical curriculums, he said.
The Ministry of Higher Education is now obliged by the law to facilitate education access for disabled persons, including providing technological services, educational programs, and distance learning opportunities, thus complying with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sanction that Egypt ratified in 2008.
However, a different educational scenario is unfolding on the ground.
“The laws provided all educational institutions a one-year period, which ended in February, to grant equal educational rights, encourage the integration of disabled students, and provide customized learning facilities; however nothing has changed on ground to this day,” Shalabi says.
“Cairo University is the only higher education institution that partially facilitates educational access as it has a printing unit on campus that prints out Braille educational handouts,” he adds.
Shalabi also notes that there are no statistics on the numbers of disabled students in universities, “which the government should provide as part of the law’s implementation.”
Earnest says some school administrations “aren’t civilized enough” to cope with the new law, which allows disabled school students to be integrated with the nearest school to their homes and obliges school administrations to enroll classes in which at least 10 percent of the children have a disability.
“We received a complaint at the council recently about a private school that refused to admit a smart four year old only because her mother was blind. In such cases, the school board is penalized and forced to pay a certain amount to protect the mother against exploitation,” Earnest says.
Earnest struggled herself in college when she became paralyzed and unable to resume her academic year at Assiut University due to the lack of accessible facilities on campus. The university’s board addressed the issue by asking her to study at home and only attend exams, a disappointing arrangement that deprived her from her right to a college life.
“If implemented, the law penalizes faculty members and staff who show moral misconduct towards students. However, this penalty is only effective if complaints are received,” says Shalabi.
Regulations regarding university admissions for disabled people are expected to be issued under the bylaws. After submitting the required documents, the applicant is to be assessed by a committee of three faculty representatives who decide if he or she should be granted admission. Shalabi claims that due to the lack of educational facilities for the disabled, the committee tends to refuse a high number of applicants, adding that “the committee lacks members specialized in the affairs of disabled students, and thus a fair call is rarely made.”
“An improvement needs to unfold in universities as soon as possible to effectively protect disabled students’ right to education. Establishing a unit in every campus that is specialized in facilitations, learning technologies, and an easy admission process is an essential solution,” Shalabi says.
Some steps towards educating Egyptians nationwide about disabilities include teaching a standardized sign language and increasing technology uses across public service providers, Earnest suggests.
This includes allowing the use of video emergency calls to police and for the state to lift the ban on importing devices that could be of great use to people with different disabilities. Egypt bans those devices from crossing the border due to security concerns.
While the new law is in theory much broader than the law it replaces, disability activists argue it does not go far enough.
People with disabilities will be eligible for a 5 percent discount when purchasing residential units, for instance. But Zekri deems this inadequate.
“The government’s social housing projects don’t comply with architectural measures customized for disabled persons,” he says.
The law also offers people with disabilities diversified career options by enrolling them in tailored career training, and for those unable to work, it guarantees a monthly pension.
“We carried out a study at Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights assessing the financial statuses of Egyptians with disabilities, and concluded that 80 percent of them live under the poverty line. Thus, the rates set by the new law about financial pensions and wages need to be revisited,” says Zekri.
Other articles grant disabled persons a 50 percent discount on ticket prices on all forms of transportation. This does not fully address concerns of accessibility, however. Earnest says that modes of public transportation are barely feasible for disabled people, including the metro, despite a recent small enhancement.
“Workers in some public transportation sectors are obliged to assist disabled people by using different doors and elevators. However this is basically a minor portion of our demands. Accessibility is still not available for blind and deaf people, who could easily lose their lives due to the lack of safety measures in stations,” Earnest says.
Persons with disabilities in Egypt are viewed as medically impaired, Shalabi says.
“People are culturally impoverished, and due to a mainstream misconception that a person with a disability is incompetent from birth, it is hard to see any change soon, even if the law was enforced.”
“In Egypt, disabled people are dealt with as objects that can be moved without consideration and only to be sympathized with sad looks and groans,” Earnest says.
She believes that awareness about disability rights is essential when putting the law into practice, which will in return help break the practice of families “hiding” their disabled children.
A government engineer, 39-year-old Wael lost both of his arms in an accident in 2005 and has worked to develop his career skills in computer science through self-learning and endless practice. After several job rejections, he was lucky to find a supportive employer who supported his skills and helped him grow in the field of computing.
Wael believes that even policy makers lack education about disability, including understanding how to develop accessible buildings and roads.
“I am optimistic about the law but I also have to be realistic,” he says. “Egypt is filled with laws and provisions that were never implemented. I’m concerned that this law will take the same path.”