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Champions on the margins of society

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Away from the glare of the Paralympics spotlight, the everyday reality of people with disabilities in Egypt is not that rosy.


Soha Farouk
16 September 2012

With a total of fifteen medals at the London Paralympics of 2012, forty Egyptian physically- challenged athletes have aroused unusual interest among their compatriots. Unlike their 191 abled-bodied Olympian counterparts who only secured two medals, their breathtaking and inspiring photos were widely shared on the online social networks. At Cairo airport, they arrived back to a heroes' welcome as a crowd of Egyptians and political parties were gathered to greet them with posters, acclaim and loud cheers. But away from the glare of the Paralympics spotlight, the everyday reality of people with disabilities in Egypt is not that rosy.

"We need Jobs; we need houses; we need equality". Those were their main demands during their protests, marches and sit-ins, before and after the revolution. Egypt has always been a hostile environment for the disabled, full of barriers and dangers. The cracked roads, broken and impassable sidewalks, missing footpaths and ramps as well as inaccessible buildings and public transportation increase their isolation. Either, they have to stay at home or struggle in a daily obstacle race. Moreover, their exclusion is clear in their access to education, employment and healthcare. The majority of children with disabilities don't go to school given the limited number of schools for special needs.

Furthermore, the official quota system requiring 5% employment of people with disabilities in the public and private sector (companies with fifty or more employees) is rarely enforced. They are offered modest careers at best, working for charities with less salary and benefits than their workmates. In addition, public healthcare and rehabilitation centers offer very low quality services while the private centers are unaffordable. The situation is even worse for disabled women who are at the bottom rung of the ladder of deprivation and discrimination.

Although Egypt ratified the UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, it did not incorporate this into the Egyptian legal framework. Hence, no comprehensive laws exist to protect their fundamental rights and facilitate their access to the basic services. A council for the people with disabilities was created in the wake of the revolution to look after their interests. Yet, it remains a bureaucratic, primitive structure, with a very limited budget, providing few rehabilitation and skills development services, but no promotion of disability rights. The advocacy groups formed exclusively for the disabled have instead   intensified their segregation.

People with disabilities are loosely estimated at about 11% of the population, equal in number to Egypt’s Coptic population, and increasing with the many injured during the revolution. A new sense of awareness of their needs, a change of the social attitude and the government's commitment could together create a just and inclusive, rule-of-law based society for them, where they can live normally and independently like everyone else, treated equally to all other people.

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