The Egyptian parliament is currently discussing a first-of-its-kind bill in support of people with disabilities submitted by the Solidarity Committee on May 24. If passed, the bill would work to integrate individuals with disabilities into society, provide them with proper living conditions and eradicate disability-based discrimination.
Per the bill, people with disabilities will be issued identification cards that will grant them many privileges such as shorter working hours for themselves or those taking care of them at all governmental and nongovernmental institutions. Disabled ID card holders will also be provided with suitable housing and transportation. Educational institutions shall prioritize the integration of disabled individuals, and governmental and financial institutions shall be better equipped to accommodate them and facilitate their access to services.
Disability rights activist Nada Thabet expressed relief at the bill's contents, which civic associations and civil society organizations took part in drafting along with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the parliamentary Solidarity Committee.
Thabet told Al-Monitor, “A law governing the rights of disabled people is better than all the ministerial decrees issued previously to this end.” But Thabet was concerned that some governmental institutions would not fully comply with the new bill due to barriers such as the lack of experts in dealing with disabled people and the financial crisis the government is going through. Noncompliance for these reasons could make it harder to renovate institutional buildings to accommodate these individuals.
“I am worried that the government won’t be able to provide adequate funding for the law,” she added, explaining that monthly aid for people with disabilities will come at high cost for the treasury. Thabet argued that such aid should be limited to those who cannot work, and the government must organize professional rehabilitation programs for those who can work. She stressed that she had already witnessed people with disabilities who received professional training and then went on to work at factories where they perform their duties like everybody else, and sometimes even better.
Article 81 of the Egyptian Constitution states, “The state shall guarantee the health, economic, social, cultural, entertainment, sporting and education rights of dwarves and people with disabilities. The state shall provide work opportunities for such individuals and allocate a percentage of these opportunities to them," as well as ensure that public facilities and other locations people with disabilities go can adequately accommodate those with disabilities. It goes on, "The state guarantees their right to exercise their political rights.”
Since educational institutions are ill-prepared to integrate people with disabilities, Thabet believes that the process will take time and require larger efforts. She pointed to previous ministerial decrees, such as the decision to integrate students with disabilities into regular schools, with which many educational institutions failed to comply for reasons including ill-equipped buildings and a shortage of disability experts. For Thabet, successful integration must first start with teacher training programs, which have yet to prepare instructors to deal with disabled students.
In this regard, Article 80 of the constitution stipulates, “The state guarantees the rights of children who have disabilities and ensures their rehabilitation and incorporation into society."
Former Secretary-General of the National Council for Disability Affairs Housam Masah considers the new bill a minor step toward reaching the ultimate goal of making his organization a Cabinet-affiliated institution. Nevertheless, Masah admitted that the new law would grant the disabled privileges that would make their lives easier.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Masah said, “People with disabilities have yet to see the true fulfillment of their rights as guaranteed by the constitution.” He added that nearly 13 million disabled Egyptians contributed to the drafting of the constitution and approved it, but until now they haven’t been granted all the privileges supposed to have been provided them in the areas of labor, education and an independent national council to protect their rights.
In line with Article 214, the new bill stipulates the establishment of a Cabinet-affiliated national council for persons with disabilities, guaranteeing its technical, financial and administrative independence.
Although Masah deplored the daily suffering of the disabled and their need to fight for their constitutional rights, he admitted that the government has, for the past three decades, been showing increasing interest in this issue, most notably at the level of representation in parliament and local councils.
“I believe that persons with disabilities will be gradually granted their rights, leading to full integration,” Masah said, adding that including deputies with disabilities in the Egyptian parliamentary delegation that met members of the European Parliament in April 2016 is indicative of the image Egypt wants to project to the West. For Masah, Egypt seeks to portray itself as a country with a plan to fully integrate people with disabilities into society.
Mansoura University law professor Salaheddin Fawzi argued that the government should have upheld the rights of persons with disabilities in vital areas such as labor, civil service, social security and representation at public institutions instead of enacting a separate law. Fawzi explained that the enacting of a separate law suggests the need for another one with regard to dwarfs.
In his interview with Al-Monitor, Fawzi argued that though the constitution provides for the rights of the disabled and guarantees them preferential treatment, this population may not see all of these rights fulfilled. Fawzi expressed concerns about barriers within public institutions, which could hinder the application of some of the bill’s clauses.
At the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference on March 19, Egyptian Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali stated that the constitution is not enough to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities, and that special laws would be more efficient.
For her part, Thabet called for government agencies to spread awareness on how to deal properly with persons with disabilities. She holds that the government should use all the tools at its disposal to this end, especially the state media, which currently depicts this population in a negative and derogatory way. But Thabet praised some programs that highlight the skills and potential of people with disabilities.
Thabet said, “The degree to which a certain people is considered civilized can be measured by its attitude toward people with disabilities.” She stressed that Egypt is on the right path and expressed hope that Egyptian society and institutions will build on the progress made so far until disabled Egyptians achieve full equality.