Breaking barriers on special needs in Egypt

Omneya Yousry, Monday 13 Sep 2021

The Ataa Charity Fund is researching the social hurdles facing special needs students in Egypt while raising awareness and taking a wider lead for change

Abu Gharara
Abu Gharara (photo: Ahmed Haymen)

While special needs in education have become more recognised in Egypt over the last decade, students having special needs too often still do not get the acknowledgement and support they need from a society that is less than fully aware of them and may not understand their struggles and abilities. 

As a result, the Ataa Charity Investment Fund (ACIF) has initiated a campaign to raise awareness of special needs in education with a view to changing things for all concerned. ACIF is a private investment fund that directs all its profits to serving the disability sector. 

“The creative concept behind the campaign is to help people to visualise the barriers that all too often confront people with disabilities. Many people do not realise how simple actions could be barriers hindering the involvement of people with disabilities in various daily activities and their ability to live independent lives,” said Menna Ashraf, marketing manager at ACIF.

ACIF has collaborated with groups of people with different special needs to share their stories of struggle and success, and it has deployed such people as ambassadors to the wider society. “We are drawing attention to what the campaign ambassadors have managed to achieve in their own element. But looking at what’s behind people’s disabilities is what we all should do,” Ashraf said.

“Throughout the campaign, we aim to educate people about accessibility. But despite this term becoming more and more familiar, for many it just means installing ramps for wheelchair users,” she added. Yet, accessibility is about much more than this, as it means finding designs in which anyone can fit regardless of differences. Accommodations at the workplace may include ramps and lower desks for wheelchair users, sign language for people with hearing impairments, and special computers and braille for the visually impaired, for example.

Accommodation measures in schools similarly aim to promote the inclusion of students with disabilities, including equipping schools with the right tools and training students and teachers to think more about accessibility for students with disabilities. All this means that students with disabilities can learn beside students without, and all concerned can grow to become more familiar with societal differences and accommodate them in other domains.

Everyone has a role to play, and too often it is people’s attitudes and misconceptions that create barriers, while ignorance of accessibility measures can create bigger ones, Ashraf explained.

Yehia Kandil is one of the campaign’s ambassadors, and he has shown the world through his success in swimming and in other ways that people with Down’s Syndrome cannot only compete with others but also beat them too. “I don’t find it cool when people comment on how young I look. It brings up more distressing actions, as they treat me like a child. I keep asking people who smile at me or pat me on the shoulder not to treat me as if I am a child and not able to do anything. It is true that I may be a little slow and I need to take my time, but eventually I can do things,” Kandil commented.

Yehia Kandil
Yehia Kandil (photo: Ahmed Haymen)

“I hear sentences like ‘let me do it for you, as you can’t do it yourself’ or ‘shall I come with you,’ and I wonder why people say them just because I am different. I am a swimming champion, and I find my happiness and passion in competing, breaking barriers and winning international and local medals,” he added.

“I’m capable of many things. I was able to study in a normal school and got an American diploma. Now I am studying in the university. I finished the second year of business administration, and I will specialise in sports management next year. I would like to work after finishing my studies and see my Down’s Syndrome friends who have graduated working normally in things that they can show their skills at too.”

“It is not our disability that prevents us from achieving things, but society that keeps putting barriers in front of us,” Kandil said.

According to director of ACIF Amira Al-Refaei, “the fund works on accessibility for persons with disabilities to create a change in their ecosystem and empower them to live an equal life to non-disabled citizens.”

“It is currently focusing on empowering students with disabilities in schools and universities across Egypt. Forty five schools are being helped to be more inclusive and accommodating to students with visual impairments. An application is also being developed with Zagazig University for visually impaired students so that they can have the same access to academic materials as others and avoid situations that can happen to people with visual impairments,” Al-Refaei said. 

ACIF is working on providing customised wheelchairs for all public university students in Egypt to have better mobility and independence, together with making university campuses more accessible, starting with Ain Shams University in Cairo. This is being provided with ramps, elevators, elevated slopes and accessible bathrooms, so that wheelchair users will be able to have the same access to the campus as any non-disabled person, Al-Refaei continued. 

“We are trying to show that persons with disabilities have equal rights in all life aspects and that it’s only a matter of accessibility and accommodation. ACIF commits to serve and empower persons with disabilities as well as transform their ecosystem to create a suitable environment for them to thrive and live an independent life.” 

One person who has had experience of misunderstanding is Soha Abu Gharara, an ACIF ambassador for the campaign. “I was standing in a mall and suddenly there was someone approaching me and getting closer until he actually touched me. I freaked out, but surprisingly he did as well. He apologised and said he thought I was a doll. It’s true that I’m 120 cm tall, but I am not so small that people think I’m not real,” she said.

 “One of the situations that bothered me the most is when I was asked in a job interview whether I was able to work with my ‘health conditions’. I could not understand what they meant – I wasn’t applying to run a marathon! But these types of questions are the reason I have insisted on proving to myself that I am capable. I am now 35 years old, and I have worked for seven years as regional coordinator for the management of knowledge at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria,” she added. 

“They evaluate me based on my abilities, not my disability. People are sometimes surprised that I talk about what I have been through, as they think I might be shy to do so. But on the contrary, I have a passion to share my story and talk about my disability with everyone around me. I love it when I see eyes shining in response. Sharing my story and getting people appreciating it is what makes them stop looking askance the next time they meet someone like me in the street,” Abu Gharara said. 

“I’m strong because my parents raised me like that. They taught me how to appreciate my differences and see how beautiful I am because of them. I wish all parents of children with disabilities would help them to grow up with self-confidence and teach them to know their rights.”

“And it is also important that the view of some business owners about people with disabilities changes and that they realise we are capable and fit to work,” she concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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