Helping the hearing and speech impaired

Mai Samih , Tuesday 28 May 2024

The government and NGOs are working together to help integrate the hearing and speech impaired into education, the workplace, and the wider society, reports Mai Samih

Eshar campaign team
Eshar campaign team


With 4.2 per cent of the Egyptian population being either hearing or speech impaired, according to Ministry of Social Solidarity figures in 2023, a number that translates into 11 million people according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), greater efforts are being made to help them integrate further into education, the workplace, and the wider society.

The government and NGOs are making efforts to raise awareness of the issues faced by such people, advocate for their rights, and encourage greater opportunities in the labour market.

One group of young people decided to start a campaign called Eshar (sign) this year with the aim of teaching people sign language to help them to communicate better with the hearing and speech impaired. 

The group also aims at raising people’s awareness of the issues and advocating for their rights. It has organised online lectures by psychologists to help the public understand what a hearing or speech-impaired person may go through on the psychological level.

“We are a group of 15 students, and we started the Eshar initiative when we were in year two. The idea came after one of the founders was in the metro and was unable to communicate with a hearing impaired person nearby,” said Shad Sinara, one of the co-founders. 

“We decided to organise a campaign to teach people sign language so that they are better able to communicate,” she added, saying that the idea had later developed into the group’s graduation project. 

“Our main aim is to teach people sign language through simple educational videos that we have divided into topics like education and government services, as the latter mostly do not have someone able to communicate in sign language.”

They have also produced posters showing the signals a speech-impaired person might use when talking to a doctor or a dentist. “We hang the sign language for headaches, stomachaches, etc., in hospitals to help the doctors as not many hospitals have sign-language translators,” she said. 

When they first started their videos, they would use a sign-language translator. This year, they decided to make the videos themselves after they attended a sign-language course, however.

“After we make our videos, we have them revised by specialists to make sure everything is correct and understood correctly by the audience,” Sinara said. 

Though the group’s work is currently restricted to Cairo, they are extending to other governorates through a Facebook page and videos.  

“If the topic is about education, we show the problems that the hearing and speech impaired can encounter in education. We use the technique of storytelling to inspire people, like showing examples of people who have overcome their difficulties. These videos are then translated into sign language.” 

The group also posts videos about the psychological troubles people with hearing or speech difficulties may face. “We posted a video two years ago that targeted this audience, aiming to raise awareness about how a person might feel when he cannot communicate with others. This can easily give rise to a state of isolation or even depression.”

 “Imagine a person talking on the phone and unable to hear who he is talking to. This can be what it is like to be hearing impaired, and for this reason it was very important that we explain what they can suffer from.”

The group has organised various events in Cairo to publicise their activities. 

“We organised an event at the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University, in which we played interactive games with the students using cards with images of words in sign language and QR codes to teach them sign language.    

“We also went to a private school, as we want to raise the awareness of schoolchildren about the issue so that they grow up with knowledge of sign language and become aware of the issues,” she said.

The group has organised seven events so far and produced 39 videos to educate people about sign language and raise their awareness of the needs of the hearing and speech impaired. 

They are seeking government support for their campaign to obtain more recognition. “We are applying for honorary sponsorship from the Ministry of Sports and Youth since we as students are not allowed financial support. We want to use their logo and have access to media coverage for our events and activities,” Sinara said. 

“We want to hang up more posters in hospitals, including government hospitals. We are constantly asked on social media about sign-language courses, and we need a dedicated teacher specialised in the field to help us teach people full sentences and phrases as well as words since we are not experts.”

The overall aim is to raise awareness in the larger population. “There are many hearing and speech impaired people who are not aware of their rights, like their right to five per cent of the jobs in a government institution. More communication would help them become aware of these rights, as some hearing and speech-impaired people are hard to reach.”  

“Another difficulty we face is that sign language in Egypt is not unified and the signs may differ. We would like to see all government agencies follow the example of one of the leading Egyptian banks that has already taught its staff sign language or at least provide each building with a sign-language translator,” she concluded.

TEACHING CRAFTS: The Moasseen Mostaqbal Al-Nagah (Founders of a Successful Future) Foundation is an NGO in the Basateen area of Cairo that focuses on teaching people with disabilities crafts to enable them to make a living and become independent. 

Chair of the foundation Nevine Hassan said that it was founded in 2022 and has grown since.

“We first started by asking a certified Quran reciter from Al-Azhar University in Cairo to help members memorise the Holy Quran. Then we started providing meals and then a cultural centre for those with special needs, especially those with hearing impairments. We are currently investing in art therapy,” Hassan said.

The foundation trains individuals in crafts with the aim of helping them make a living. “We work on crochet, lace, macrame, embroidery, leather bag and wallet making, carpet making, and other areas, and we use ancient Egyptian designs in our work,” she said, adding that the foundation also calls upon the skills of specialised trainers.   

“When I teach the children who come to us, I try to think outside the box in terms of merging many crafts into one to make it look unique. For instance, I might use beads when making a lace tablecloth,” as a way of adding uniqueness to a product and as a way of marketing it.

The foundation targets women, especially widows and divorced women, to become independent by making such products.

“We have been training the hearing and speech impaired in art sessions. We first worked on making accessories out of beads and then on macrame and curtain making since it is a simple type of craft and in making key chains,” Hassan said.

“There are seven children with hearing impairments in the current training sessions. Some of them come from outside Basateen, and the ages of the young people attending ranges from 14 to 28.”

The foundation also offers families meals and clothes, especially those with hearing impairments. Hassan is waiting for permission from the Ministry of Social Solidarity to start speech sessions.

“We need more funding for the Foundation to be able to work as it would like to. It currently depends on funds from myself, my friends, and my relatives. I am currently working with 60 families. We need more volunteers to train the people who come to the workshops, as it is a difficult task with the limited number of trainers we have,” Hassan said.

 “If there was more financial support, we would be able to increase our activities.” 

“We would like to build a medical centre for the poor and a rehabilitation centre for those with special needs. If we are given financial support from the government, we will also build an orphanage and a nursing home for the elderly,” she concluded. 

SOCIAL LIFE: In order to encourage greater participation in the life of society more generally, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has started a new phase of its National Project for the Egyptian Family (Mawada), which aims to decrease the number of divorces through raising the awareness of Egyptian young people about the rights and duties of marriage.

The project includes those with disabilities in its training sessions, including by providing special services for those with hearing impairments such as sign-language translations.

The Mawada programme, launched in 2019, is a response to CAPMAS statistics on divorce rates that indicate that these may reach 15 per cent in the first year of marriage and 30 per cent over the first three years.

Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Qabbaj launched a digital family consultation service last month called Esaal Mawada (Ask Mawada) that aims to enhance communication within young families and provide support and assistance to their members. 

She signed two cooperation protocols with two private companies to offer benefits to those about to get married, a ministry press release said.

Al-Qabbaj said that the total beneficiaries of the Mawada programme are estimated at about one million young men and women reached through 15 initiatives implemented across the country. 

The project has implemented a variety of media activities that have reached more than 25 million beneficiaries, she said. 71 per cent of the users of the platform are females, and 29 per cent are males, mostly from the age group between 21 and 30. 

Advisor to the minister and Director of the Mawada project Randa Fares said that “the Mawada inclusive initiative for those with disabilities is under the umbrella of the larger Mawada project that started in March 2019 and was implemented by the ministry on the instructions of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

“It came after statistics issued by CAPMAS indicated that Egypt has high divorce rates, with the project setting out to discover the reasons and circumstances behind this phenomenon.

“We started in three governorates, Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said, since they had the highest divorce rates, according to CAPMAS statistics,” Fares said. The project focused on those aged 18 to 25 years old, as divorces tend to occur during the first couple of years of marriage. 

“We wrote up the scientific content with the help of experts in the field and the UN Population Fund in Egypt,” she said.

“We then started a second phase in which we carried out four main initiatives, preparing trainers inside universities, implementing training courses inside five universities in the aforementioned governorates, training army recruits, and training civil servants.

“While we were working, we discovered some segments of society who needed special training, so we decided to develop the project. Every time we discovered more issues, we would start a new initiative, and these include the Mawada inclusive initiative for those with disabilities.

“This is a new phase of the project in cooperation with the German Agency for International Cooperation,” and it now provides services for young people aged 18 to 35 years old in all the governorates in 27 state universities in both urban and rural areas.

The training is carried out through seven training networks by 1,612 specialised trainers. The training sessions are composed of interactive games and brainstorming, meaning there is maximum interaction between the trainers and the trainees.

 “Inside the lecture halls, there are sign-language translators for those with hearing disabilities,” Hassan said, adding that in December 2021 they also launched a version of the Mawada online platform in sign language. There are also leaflets in brail.

TARGETS: The platform targets those about to get married, married couples, and families suffering from familial problems. 

Responses are provided by distinguished experts like Islamic and Christian clerics, reproductive health doctors, and sociology and family stability experts within 48 hours in complete confidentiality and for free, in addition to a bank of answers to the most common and recurring questions.

“We have added subjects and protocols for those with hearing and speech impairments,” Hassan said, adding that the lectures feature those without disabilities side by side with those with disabilities. 

According to Fares, having young people from different backgrounds working side by side generates tolerance for people with disabilities. “It is very important for those without disabilities to know how to deal with those with disabilities. For instance, they must know what the nature of these disabilities is, what the problems the people with disabilities face, and what their needs are.

“We are trying to abolish some misconceptions about these segments of society,” she said, adding that the sessions last for 18 hours over three days.

They are helping those with disabilities and changing the wrong ideas about them that may circulate in society. “We get feedback from the participants who have attended the sessions saying that they have changed their views about the disabled, learned information that they had not known before, and are now able to deal with people better.

“Some participants have made friends with participants with disabilities, and there are trainers in the initiative with disabilities as well. This is almost unprecedented and is very inspiring to anyone who enters the lecture hall,” Fares said.

The platform provides specialised scientific training content that was made available in sign language in 2021. It was approved as one of the optional graduation requirements for university students in 2022, and the Ministry is making every effort to make Mawada training one of the requirements for marriages in the near future.

Mawada has also launched a new initiative targeting people in border areas with the aim of integrating various groups and geographical regions better into the interventions and programmes implemented by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. 

The initiative’s first training was launched in the Nubia region of Upper Egypt, and it is planned that 20 training courses will be carried out during the pilot phase in the areas of Siwa, Marsa Matrouh, Kharga oasis, North and South Sinai, Halayeb and Shalateen.

“During the earlier sessions, some men from different governorates did not attend with their fiancées, as they sometimes do not like being told what to do at home. To overcome this, we made partnerships with local NGOs that are able to attract young people to attend,” Fares said.

The partnerships they have made with private companies to provide household supplies for brides and bridegrooms to be are also an incentive for them to attend the lectures. 

“After the beginning of the sessions and after the instructor starts talking to the attendees and breaking the ice, the male participants actually ask the most questions and interact the most,” she said. Those with special needs communicate with each other through groups on social media, spreading the word about the training sessions.

Some 49 per cent of the participants have some form of disability, Fares said. 

“The ministry now intends to launch a new initiative called Sana Oula Gawaz (the first year of marriage) that targets newlyweds, since the first year of marriage can be a difficult year full of challenges and different problems for couples.

“Indicators say that the first year of marriage is the year in which divorce mostly occurs. Accordingly, we have designed special material for the training sessions to come that is currently being revised by experts,” Fares concluded. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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