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People with disabilities in Egypt: Towards accessibility

The lack of easily accessible transport and public spaces for the physically challenged in Egypt has been made more complicated by the coronavirus

Nehal Al-Ashkar , Monday 21 Sep 2020
Fathi
illustration: Fathi
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While the restrictions introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus have inconvenienced all of us, in some cases seriously, the lack of easily accessible public spaces and transport systems for the visually, hearing, and physically challenged in Egypt has been made significantly worse by the spread of the coronavirus.

Walid Farghali, a young man who lost his sight at the age of 20, is among those suffering from the lack of services for the disabled in Egypt.

“When I was young, the doctor told me that I would lose the ability to see gradually, and I became prepared for a monochrome life,” Farghali said. “However, I did not complain because I knew that I had nothing to do but to accept the fact that I would eventually be blind. Moving on was the best solution to forget this bitter loss.”

Farghali was advised to learn how to read and write in Braille. “This helped me a lot to communicate and to get educated,” he went on. “I believe that I’m lucky to have been able to achieve most of my goals now, and I have two Masters degrees, one of them from the UK. I was able to travel and to live alone for a whole year while I was studying.”

Life in the UK is also much smoother for the visually impaired, he said. “When I moved to the UK, I started to see the situation from a very different perspective. I understood that disability is not as it is sometimes defined and it is never an excuse for not achieving your dreams.

“I was able to live happily there for a whole year. People were so kind and understanding, and the country itself was kind and prepared to welcome me. It was in the UK that I came to the conclusion that the problem is not my abilities; it’s society that sometimes pushes me backwards. While I was there, I understood the meaning of being able to do things differently, and this may be a real skill,” he said.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), persons with disabilities (PWDs) are defined as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

In the latter respect, the lack of access to services plays a significant role in shaping PWDs’ various interactions and behaviour within their societies. An accessible environment means accessible buildings, schools, public spaces, workplaces, supermarkets, means of transport, sports clubs, social clubs, leisure activities, and so on. Unfortunately, not all societies have done enough to ensure that these things are accessible to the disabled.

According to Farghali, Egypt lacks accessible public spaces and transport systems for the visually, hearing, and physically disabled compared to the UK.

DEFINING DISABILITY

The concept of disability has evolved over the years in a way that now emphasises the values of social equality and human rights.

Medicine defines disability as “a functional or structural deficiency caused by physical, mental, or sensory impairment within an individual”. This definition, which includes both intellectual and physical impairments, has been adopted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which classifies a disability as “any impairment or lack of capacity to carry out an activity in the manner or within the range that is considered normal”.

By contrast, the social model of thinking about disability emphasises the contacts between disabled people and a world full of physical, attitudinal, cognitive and social barriers. It supports the need for improvements in the physical, attitudinal, and social environments of people with disabilities, so that they can contribute more to society on an equal basis with others.

In short, the social model adopts a rights-based approach to disability, intending to make society more accepting for people living with disabilities and emphasising accessibility, or “the provision of flexibility to match each individual’s needs and desires”, with a view to creating a more-inclusive society for all.

The emphasis on accessibility also bridges the gap between PWDs’ special needs and the acceptance of their social, economic, cultural and political climate. Any location, room, object or service, whether physical or virtual, should be looked at to make sure it can be easily accessed, reached, entered, exited, experienced, understood or otherwise used by persons with different disabilities.

Accessibility plays a vital role in helping PWDs to carry out day-to-day operations and work as members of the community. The UNCRPD guarantees the right of PWDs to access public spaces and houses, housing, transportation, workplace, entertainment, sports and cultural areas, education and information and communication technology.

A lot of this has to do with physical mobility and the ability to move around freely without constraints, as well as in public facilities and spaces inside and outside. The UN’s disability-rights approach to disability upholds the right of PWDs to use public facilities equally with others, if necessary by architectural modifications. In various countries around the world, regulations have been enforced to incorporate PWDs who might earlier have been considered by architects and planners as different from normal people and creating so-called “special-for-the-disabled accessibility standards.” Today, the aim is for maximum inclusivity.  

Accessible transportation aims to allow PWDs to use travel resources, pay for them, and be told about them equally with other people. It aims to tackle impairment-based inequality, as it increases freedom and consequently improves perceptions of disability. “Transport disability is the needless exclusion of persons with disabilities from existing forms of transport,” the UN says, and it can cover all forms of transport such as buses, trains, taxis, ships, ferries, and private vehicles. Research shows that at present any or all modes of transport cannot be used by 12 to 13 per cent of the world’s population, and it is therefore important that policy-makers take into account any factors that may contribute to discrimination against PWDs in transport.

Moreover, such issues do not only affect transportation. In a globalising world where more and more emphasis is being placed on accessible facilities, many communities are still lagging behind when it comes to services for disabled people. Due to inadequately accessible travel facilities, many disabled people are deprived of equal employment opportunities. For the same reasons, many are not able to shop, socialise, enjoy leisure or spiritual activities, or even leave their own homes.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 earlier this year, the situation has in many cases become even more complicated for PWDs, who may have more healthcare needs than others, both standard needs and needs connected to being disabled, and they may feel powerless in the context of low-quality or difficult-to-reach medical services. Compared to people without disabilities, people with disabilities can have multiple needs. In a survey of disability services in 43 nations, 42 per cent of people with incapacities versus six per cent of people without inabilities saw their well-being as poor and made worse by their disabilities, for example.

Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra, for instance, has reported on the struggles that PWDs may sometimes face in exercising their rights. His older sister Rania, who had a mental disability, passed away earlier this year as a result of Covid-19, and Samra posted two emotional posts on social media revealing the struggles his family had faced to secure appropriate medical assistance for her.

He wrote on his Facebook account that “in the last two days before her passing, we could not find one hospital bed for her. We were told that those with special needs, especially those with severe mental [disability], needed to be treated at home. And that her trained carers would not be allowed in with her.

“I don’t know if a hospital would have saved her life, but I know that she should have got better care, and medicine should have been more readily available,” Samra said, calling on the government to develop protocols for special needs and disability cases in the context of Covid-19.

However, although there is little doubt that many disabled people in Egypt are not currently receiving the care they need, and the situation has been exacerbated by the outbreak of Covid-19, steps are being taken to ensure greater access to facilities and services for PWDs.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology’s Centre for Services for Persons with Disabilities has launched its “Wasel” mobile application to allow hearing and speech-impaired people access to information on Covid-19 around the clock, for example, helping those with disabilities showing symptoms of the virus to reach necessary health services.

The application also helps individuals with hearing and speech handicaps to reach crisis services, among them rescue vehicles and firefighters.

LACK OF ACCESSIBILITY 

According to US author Diane Driedger, a professor of disability studies, “worldwide figures suggest that approximately 80 per cent of PWDs come from developing countries.” According to the WHO, in Egypt PWDs constituted around 12 per cent of the population in 2015.

UK social-affairs journalist Saba Salman wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian recently that even in the UK many government and private buildings still do not have available pavements, accessible public transportation, and lifts or slide ramps for PWDs. This inaccessible environment can deprive PWDs of access to equal education and job opportunities, leading to higher poverty rates among PWDs compared to the non-disabled, with almost 19.6 per cent of them living below the poverty line, she said.

In Egypt, the constitution states that “the State shall guarantee the health, physical, social, cultural, entertainment, sporting and educational rights of persons with disabilities and seek to adapt public facilities and their surroundings to their particular needs.” But there are still many obstacles to inclusion, including sometimes inaccessible buildings, public transport, public spaces, hospitals, and so on. This can quickly affect the ability of PWDs to fully experience the social, economic, and political opportunities of their community.

The implementation of accessibility measures in Egypt has long relied on the 1979 Rehabilitation Act, which defines a PWD as “any person who has become unable to rely on him/herself while performing his/her work. His/her inability to do so is the result of a physical, emotional, sensory, or congenital disability.”

The act emphasises the need to “provide social, psychological, medical, educational and professional assistance to all persons with disabilities and their families to help them to resolve the negative effects of disability.”

Likewise, building codes for the design of outdoor spaces and buildings for the use of disabled persons in Egypt describe an impairment as “a loss or damage caused by accident, illness, or incapacity that impairs or restricts the normal functioning of one of the senses. This prevents the person concerned from achieving his optimum level of performance”.

The codes state that there should be at least one entrance, ramp, parking slot per 25 parking spaces, and toilet for both sexes for the use of the disabled in all new building designs. The numbers in elevators should be raised if Braille is not used. Nonetheless, the codes are only voluntary guides to public and commercial service-providers wanting to offer reasonable accommodations for PWDs.

Today, the 1979 Rehabilitation Act has been replaced by the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 10/2018, which assesses disability based on deficiencies of bodily functions or structure resulting in the impairment of the ability to operate either with assistance or without aid.

The law stipulates that all public buildings should be fitted out for PWD use, and it sets special tariffs for PWDs on public transport. Nevertheless, the legislation does not address the physical modifications that should be made to buildings for the use of the handicapped, and nor does it apply to the need for accessibility requirements in private buildings and business services or other aspects of life.

Definitions of disability are limited and concentrate on functional impairments and depend primarily on a medical model. There is no reference to the social model in framing disability policies and regulations in Egypt, which still focus on assisting PWDs rather than making sure that their rights are fully met.

According to Heba Hagrass, a disability advocate, Egyptian policy-makers tend to perceive disability as a rehabilitation problem, and so there is a tendency among them to ignore disability issues.

COMPARISONS 

In these respects and others, the situation in Egypt is a far cry from that in many developed countries.

In the UK, for instance, whereas only 11 to 15 per cent of the population have a disability, the laws guarantees that they “must have physical and social access to the same buildings, public spaces, and any other places as well as reasonable adjustments that make their lives easier”, according to the country’s Disability Discrimination Act. There has been an increase in the number of open underground stations in London, and passengers with disabilities can seek a mentoring service to help with their journeys through old or inaccessible stations.

The concept of “reasonable adjustments” referred to by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) means including “steps to avoid substantial disadvantages for disabled persons caused by physical features. This includes removing the physical feature in question, altering it, or providing a reasonable means of avoiding it.”

But even the UK has some way to go in meeting PWDs’ expectations of accessibility. It is estimated that nearly three-quarters of people with disabilities cannot participate in any sport, physical activity, social life or family services because one stage of their journey to them may be problematic, for example. Many British high streets are inaccessible to the disabled, especially in older neighbourhoods. Accessible journeys in trains and underground stations may be much longer and more expensive than inaccessible ones as well.

Today’s situation for PWDs in Egypt contrasts to that which existed in ancient times, when prominent rulers were often disabled. The Pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, who ascended to the throne of ancient Egypt at the age of nine some 3,300 years ago, suffered from disabilities.

According to a report in the US magazine National Geographic, “a new DNA study says that king Tut was a frail pharaoh, beset by malaria and a bone disorder, his health possibly compromised by his newly discovered origins.” But this illness and disability did not prevent him from being the king, and he was accepted by others.

Today, while technology has improved the lives of many PWDs, social attitudes can still be a challenge, as there may be a reluctance among some to fully accept the disabled. The implications of the medical perspective on disability are still largely prevalent in everyday life as well as in recent legislation, and there is a need to integrate the social model of disability into mainstream policies worldwide and not only in Egypt.

While the law in Egypt refers to the concept of an accessible environment for PWDs, there is not enough implementation of it on the ground, unlike in the UK and some other countries. The definitions of disability in Egypt need to be revisited, and there is a need for greater awareness-raising of accessibility issues.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title Accessibility not disability
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