Cairo – Egypt’s disabled citizens are expressing high hopes over the passage of a bill of rights for the handicapped into law.
The measure, approved by the parliament on December 5, would give the disabled — who make up nearly 15% of Egypt’s population — tax cuts and require the government and private sector to allocate 5% of job vacancies to workers with disabilities. The new law would also require transport service providers to dedicate space for disabled commuters. Under the bill’s mandate, the disabled would receive free medical treatment at state-run hospitals.
Mohamed Abdullah, a 45-year-old blind resident of Cairo, said there are anti-discrimination protections on paper in Egypt but since the laws are not enforced, the situation has not improved. “There is a lot of talk about laws but the conditions of the disabled have remained the same over the years,” he said.
Hani Morgan, a member of parliament’s Solidarity Committee, which approved the bill, described it as a milestone towards making the lives of disabled citizens easier.
“The bill paves the road for disabled citizens to enjoy full rights,” said Morgan. “It presents the necessary legal framework for protecting them against violations and exploitation.”
The bill’s approval by the parliamentary committee had coincided with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. Measures have been accumulating over the years in Egypt to protect the rights of the disabled but few of the articles of the laws were enforced.
Egypt established its first disability law in 1959, giving disabled citizens the right to education and vocational training. Laws enacted in 1964, 1971 and 1982 gave disabled citizens additional rights but advocates say they are mere ink on paper.
Mahmud Ibrahim, the head of the disability section at NGO Manshiet Nasser Youth Society, attributed the failure of the government to enforce such laws to a “lack of will.”
“The lack of this will on the part of successive governments produced an intolerable situation for millions of disabled people,” Ibrahim said. “To be disabled in this country means you will be left out of all services and brave all types of discrimination alone without any social or state support.”
Abdullah’s story is an embodiment of problems disabled people face in Egypt even after getting an education. He was born blind and received religious education at the schools of al-Azhar before earning a bachelor’s degree in commercial studies.
He tried to land a job for many years after graduation but no employer he sought out was ready to hire a blind worker, despite a current disability law committing employers to specifying a percentage of jobs to people with handicaps.
Abdullah has depended on his sweet-sounding voice to try to earn a living. He recites the Quran at funerals, earning the equivalent of $8.50 every time he is invited to do so. Abdullah said he earns about $68 a month, far from enough money for him to feed his wife and two children.
“We have to stick to the very basics to keep going,” Abdullah said.
He married a blind woman after being snubbed by sighted women he had been interested in.
He says he faces humiliation whenever he goes out on the street. A fruit seller once tried to swindle him by giving him spoiled apples. When Abdullah objected, the seller and passers-by laughed.
“I have to take these situations very easily because I face them every day,” Abdullah said.
Under the new law, discrimination against or exploitation of the disabled will not be taken lightly, those who drafted the legislation said.
They said, apart from monitoring the new law’s implementation, efforts will be made to ensure that the social attitudes regarding people with disabilities change to help end discrimination.
This, they added, would be done by introducing new materials in school curricula and initiating a nationwide media campaign about the rights of the disabled.
“Disabled people suffered greatly over the years and this suffering cannot go on forever,” Morgan said. “This is about time a real change was made.”