The Nascent Disabled-Rights Movement Steps Out in Egypt
CAIRO—The journey to completing higher education does not seem possible for many students with disabilities in Egypt. Many of those students face increasing challenges, including university facilities that cannot accommodate them, the lack of the necessary educational preparation, and laws that limit their educational and employment opportunities.
All of these challenges, along with the opportunities to overcome them, were discussed in a conference held by the American University in Cairo (AUC) last week called “Removing Barriers in Education Settings to Create an Inclusive and Accessible Society.”
“We are trying to spread the methods of supporting students with disabilities in society and, in particular, at universities, in order to promote their educational opportunities,” said Alexandra Gazis, Student Disability Services Executive at AUC, at the conference.
She pointed out the importance of reaching out and training administrators and teachers on ways to promote the access of disabled students to universities.
“There are simple, inexpensive methods starting from school to university that can help create a campus environment in which students would be looked at on the basis of their abilities rather than their disabilities,” said Gazis.
During the daylong conference, a number of students with disabilities spoke about their experience studying at AUC.
“My education has been always a stressful journey, for me and all those around me, because of the lack of adequate facilities and educational means needed to teach people with disabilities, like myself,” said Arsani Medhat, a third-year student at AUC’s Faculty of Political Sciences and History who is blind.
Thanks to the support of his family, Arsani has managed to pass his high school exams, but despite his passion for studying mathematics, he was not able to join the faculty he wanted at a public university. University rules excluded him because of his disability.
“Later on, I decided to join the American University in Cairo,” said Arsani, “because of the support provided by the university, from the presence of qualified facilities to e-books that enabled me to study alone without the help of anyone.”
AUC has facilities that ease the way for students with disabilities. Wheelchairs can be used all around the campus, and the university offers adaptive technology, including innovative computer software and components to help visually impaired students by, for instance, reading text aloud to them.
But such services are not available at most other Egyptian universities, particularly public ones, which attract much larger numbers of students. (Read the related story: Offers for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities).
Despite the fact that Egypt’s constitution guarantees the right of education for all citizens without any discrimination, the undergraduate majors available for students with disabilities are limited to five academic theoretical specialties only: Arts, Sciences, Languages, Law, and Social Services. Faculties of arts and law stipulate that the disability should not interfere with students’ ability to move around or record lectures. This regulation excludes all blind students and those with movement-related disabilities.
“There is a vast difference between what the constitution states and what is happening on the ground,” said Ghada Mohammed, chairman of Ebtessama Foundation, a non-profit association for people with disabilities.
“Students with disabilities are deprived of their most basic rights at formal educational institutions, such as private corridors and lifts, as well as wheelchairs and e-books, not to mention their marginalization in the labor market,” she added.
Khaled Dahawy, AUC’s vice president for student affairs, suggested that the reason behind the lack of attention to people with disabilities at public universities is that the government does not particularly care about its citizens in general, and that with the large number of students in public universities, the professors did not always communicate personally with any students, much less disabled ones.
In Egypt, there are more than 7 million people with disabilities, according to the latest data provided by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2013. Heba Hagras, a member of the Egyptian parliament and an AUC alumna who represents people with disabilities in the parliament and uses a wheelchair herself, rejects proposals to establish special educational institutions for people with disabilities.
“Developing existing educational institutions in a way that contributes to integrating people with disabilities would be significantly less expensive than founding special schools for them,” she said. “Besides, allocating special schools for them would increase the isolation of these students.”
Last week, Cairo University announced that it will exempt students with disabilities from tuition and dormitory fees. The university will provide three cars to transport students from the university gates to lecture halls and appoint a coordinator in each faculty to help disabled students.
So far, only Cairo University has made this decision. Meanwhile, Mohammed Abu Talib, a blind graduate of the college of Islamic studies at the University of Sohag in southern Egypt, is preparing to bring a case in Egyptian court against his college after it rejected his request to enroll to pursue a graduate degree.
“They say I am not qualified because of my disability, so I do not have any other choice than going to court,” he said.
There is still a lot of work to do to achieve equality in education, Mohammed, chairman of the Ebtessama Foundation, believes.
“We lack the presence of a clear strategic vision to deal with group in special situations, individuals with specific needs and capacities. This is the problem that must be worked out so as everyone can have equal opportunities for education and work later on,” she said.