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Belinda working on an art piece; Raor at the opening of CIVICUS, Paintings by Art Trek artists; A group of artists from Art Trek; Lakkis
In a spacious gallery in Glasgow, paintings of boats and water form part of an exhibition titled "Living with the Sea".
Such artistic beauty, came as a part of a parallel learning exchange programme, run by CIVICUS. Five Scottish artists with special needs together, under the umbrella of the non-governmental Project Ability, created Art Trek Artists, which is indeed a rare find in today's cynical world. Art Trek is a successful example of how people with disabilities are capable of becoming professional visual artists and art teachers, running their own non-profit organisation while generating employment opportunities. Set to mark their collective's 10th anniversary in February 2007, the five artists explained how their work has already toured Europe and the United States, and now catering for around 300 people weekly. Having a disability once badly limited the artists' job opportunities, and consequently, "Art Trek provided an alternative for those of us who want to go out and work," they agreed.
But such avenues haven't always been open to people with special needs in Scotland. According to Elizabeth Gibson, artistic director at Project Ability -- run by the Centre for Developmental Arts/Trongate Studios -- difficulties faced by minorities as well as those with special needs were particularly harsh up until the 1980s. "Catering for people with special needs was not so popular at that time and we were among the first few NGOs" to do so, Gibson told Al-Ahram Weekly. "However, in the mid-1990s we created a unit with all sorts of visual arts. We started out with a group of 10 and now we have an average of 80 people per week," she added, explaining that in Glasgow, the number of people with special needs is proportionately higher than the global average.
While one in 10 Glasgow residents would be qualified as having special needs, there has been considerable progress towards addressing their needs. Ten years ago they would have been permanently hospitalised and cut off from society. Later, due largely to the impact of human rights and youth movements, decrees were issued ordering that such institutions be closed down.
In a spacious well-lit studio that forms a part of Project Ability, artists with mental disabilities are given a space in which to colour their worlds. On one side of the room stands Belinda, busy as she comes close to finishing her current piece. "They told me I couldn't do it, but I managed to finish this in just two days," Belinda, who is dyslexic, boasted as she showed off the collection set to be shown at the national art gallery a few weeks from now.
Recent developments promise significant improvements for people with disabilities in Scotland. "The year 2006 witnessed a major shift in Scottish employment legislation, whereby the work environment grew to enhance physical adaptations, thus catering for those with special needs," Gibson told the Weekly. However, much remains to be done until they attain all their rights. "Children with special needs go to separate schools in Glasgow, and the numbers of special needs students registered in colleges remain very low."
Recently, a successful medical intervention became the centre of a major controversy in the Scottish social arena. News broke that scientists could genetically engineer babies during pregnancy targeting some of the disabilities they could be prone to. "The handicapped movement is generally against both abortions and such genetic interventions, for they deny the child's right to be born," Chairperson of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union Silvana Lakkis, explained.
Lakkis is not alone in imploring for the fundamental rights of the handicapped, who number about 600 million globally, to be recognised. Across the world, much remains to be done before effective measures of inclusion are introduced. Even the United Nations Millennium Goals fell short of highlighting their social plight, Lakkis said.
In Egypt, the fight for inclusion has been a long one, said Naaima Saleh, chairperson of the Right to Live Association. "The Right to Live Association was the first NGO in Egypt to cater for people with special needs," she explained. First established by a collective of parents of children with disabilities in 1981, they started off babysitting for each other. They then managed to convince the Delivrond School in Heliopolis to host their meetings within the school premises, after which they launched a small-scale educational programme for children with special needs, focussing on what they can do in order to enhance their life skills in accordance to their mental and physical capacities. "Seventy per cent of our students are severely disabled," said Saleh, adding that approximately 10 per cent of Egypt's population has special needs. The Right to Live now has 180 direct beneficiaries, and has also succeeded in reaching out to thousands of others. Throughout the course of more than 20 years, the NGO grew to become an umbrella organisation and a partner in establishing and training staff at the relevant schools across Egypt, as well as aiding several others. "I believe that conditions of special needs population have drastically improved especially over the past 15 years," said Saleh.
In light of the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, United Nations 1971, the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, United Nations 1975, the issuing of the Egyptian child's law in 1996 and the immense governmental and non-governmental efforts, supported by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, the situation has no doubt improved. Awareness has risen, as has the drive to work to cater for people with special needs. People with disabilities are now automatically excused from military service, whereas they once had to "prove" themselves physically handicapped while being drafted.
On the other hand, being in a constant need of a guardian remains a problem, for there remain cases in which guardians are not best suited for the task. Perhaps the creation of a board of trustees' to decide in the person's best interests might be a solution.
"Our NGO provides for zero age and onwards. Speech therapy, physiotherapy, awareness classes and workshops," said Saleh. "One of our achievements is a line of handicrafts that people with special needs work and are paid for, thus turning them into breadwinners. We have our own production line in a soap factory and we employ our students there."
Meanwhile, some of the NGO's students are employed in secretarial jobs, and they are assisted by a teacher who visits them at work once a week. Inclusion might not be absolute, but then again having sports and arts days as well as school trips with other school children might just do the trick.
Some years ago an idea that essentially backtracked on all global trends emerged in Egypt, namely to create a village in which people with special needs would live. Though eventually frowned upon, the idea of segregation has its own social roots. According to Lesely Labiabidi and Nadia El-Arabi's book Silent No More: People with Special Needs in Egypt, "prior to 1970, people with mental and physical disabilities in Egypt were not of particular concern to the community at large... There were social pressures accounting for this behaviour. Families were fearful that the community would shun not only their disabled child but also exclude his or her sibling as well... They feared that the search for a suitable marriage partner for other family members would be slow or unsuccessful if the community knew of their intellectually disabled members. Because of this, children with mental disability were protected, often hidden, by their parents and commonly led a life of total seclusion and isolation. However, in the past 20 years, new principles in the field of mental retardation and developmental disabilities have encouraged families to adopt a different perspective."
But what makes this social tendency so ironic is the fact that, according to Alaa Shukrallah, pediatrician and chairman of the Association for Health and Environmental Development, the philosophy of care of those with mental and physical disabilities has roots in the Pharaonic, Coptic and early Islamic eras. This idea was manifested in the presence of a hospital with a ward for patients with mental disorders, well before any such institutions existed in Europe.
Despite all global efforts, the world is yet striving for the inclusion of people with special needs; an act that defines how we perceive the other, and by default ourselves.