Egypt’s new constitution, enacted in 2014, requires the state to integrate people with disabilities into society in accordance with the principles of equality and equal opportunity. But the policy for admitting students with disabilities to public universities often limits their choices to arts and humanities colleges. This policy is based on the idea that these students are not able to meet the physical requirements of many disciplines, especially practical ones, because of their disabilities. The focus is on students’ disabilities rather than their abilities and skills. Universities must develop a new approach that focuses on students’ abilities instead.
The policy for university admissions is not that different from practices used in other areas of Egyptian society regarding people with disabilities. Such policies and practices are strongly dominated by the traditional medical model’s perspective of disability, which considers people with special needs unable to participate in normal life. The social model, by contrast, sees social customs and structures as the main obstacle hindering the integration of people with disabilities into various life-changing activities and experiences.
Egypt’s policy for admitting people with disabilities to universities is based on two systems. The first allows the admission of blind students in five colleges only—arts, sciences, languages, law, and social service—provided that the students have obtained at least 50 percent of the total grades required for the secondary-school certificate. These students are also subject to special review by a committee of three faculty members from the medical school at the same university, which decides which program they may enter. Students with other disabilities, however, fall into a single category and can be admitted to an even fewer number of colleges: arts, law and commerce. They are subject to the same academic requirements and committee review. Students can appeal the medical committee’s decisions to a central committee formed by the Supreme Council of Universities. (Read the related story: “Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian universities“).
This system attempts to help these students by allowing them to enroll in university at the minimum total grades needed to pass the secondary education. At the same time, however, these students, regardless of the type of disability, are considered eligible for a very limited number of colleges only. The problem here is that this system generalizes that provision on all types of disabilities, despite the wide disparity between them. For example, a person with a speech disability can become a surgeon, while a person with visual impairment may not be able to practice that profession. But under the current system, even the person with a speech disability cannot get access to a profession that may require sight but not perfect speech. This is the result of a system that makes generalizations about those with disabilities and funnels them all into the same colleges.
The second system for admitting students with special needs is very similar to that used to admit ordinary students in different colleges. The student with a disability chooses the literary or scientific discipline he or she wants to study, and a committee of three faculty members evaluates the student’s ability to meet that program’s requirements. If the committee does not agree to enroll the student in his or her chosen college, the student will be nominated by a government coordination office for admission to another program, potentially at another university.
In theory, students with disabilities have more options under this system, but in reality, many factors contribute to their exclusion from certain fields. Two problems in particular contribute to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from many faculties. The first is the formation of the committee that decides whether the student is eligible to join the college. The committee does not include any experts in the field of disabilities, it only includes faculty members. The presence of these experts and their knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies to assist people with disabilities could help to determine more precisely the degree to which a student is eligible to attend a particular college.
Another problem is the lack of technology needed to facilitate these students’ learning in practical colleges. For example, Manal Maher, a vice dean of Cairo University’s pharmacy, issued an administrative publication for the 2015-16 academic year stating in its introduction that pharmacy is a practical college. Therefore, the publication stated that the college would not admit students with various types of disabilities that interfere with the effort required by students to succeed. The publication also said that for students with special needs, the college’s facilities are only suitable for those with disabilities that impair their walking.
Such policies need to be changed. They are highly exclusionary because they do not apply the same admission criteria to all students. They also illustrate the necessity of developing actual plans for better integrating people with disabilities into the educational system, from schools to universities. As a start, I propose changes in the admission of special-needs students to public universities through the following steps:
- Parliament must pass a legislation to criminalize discrimination based on disability at institutions of higher education, obliging universities to take all necessary measures and provide technological aids to help students with special needs.
- The Ministry of Higher Education must change the annual decision on rules for the admission of people with disabilities to public universities, so that all students will be subjected to the same admission rules. In addition, students with disabilities could be enrolled in one- or two-year preparatory programs in both literary and scientific disciplines to support them in studying the fields they want.
- All public universities should establish a new administrative apparatus with an independent budget for people with disabilities and provide all the necessary requirements to support their education (such as printed text readers, devices to enlarge the fonts in text, text-to-speech software, Braille printers and hearing aids), in addition to training and qualifying faculty and staff members so they can deal optimally with people with special needs.
Such changes will improve the education of thousands of Egyptian students and enable them to reach their right guaranteed by the Constitution, and then take advantage of their skills and qualifications to serve and develop the country.
Mahmoud Shalabi is a researcher on education and student issues with the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, a nongovernmental legal organization in Egypt.