Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cairo — a city for all

The aim of a recent conference held in Cairo is make the city more welcoming to all people, reports Amira El-Noshokaty

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Everybody in this room is different. It makes us all unique, and it’s something to celebrate,” said Bob Nolan, head of subsurface and wells support for Shell Global, the multinational oil company.

Nolan has worn hearing aids all his life. Ten years ago, thanks to new high-tech hearing aids, he was able to hear birds for the first time. He has also been losing his eyesight since he was 20 and went to his first concert for people with hearing disabilities back in 1976.

“The BBC interviewed me, and I had a lot of enthusiasm when I saw children with hearing disabilities coming to dance for their very first time and feeling the rhythm,” he said.

Nolan was one of 50 disability advocates from 16 countries at the first conference on accessibility for persons with disabilities held in Cairo last month under the title “Cairo 2016: A City for All”.

There may be millions of people with special needs in Egypt, though the exact figures are not known. “Over a billion people, about 15 per cent of the world’s population, have some form of disability,” according to a 2015 World Health Organisation report. “Between 110 million and 190 million adults have significant difficulties in functioning.”

Rates of disability are increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. People with disabilities have less access to healthcare services and therefore experience unmet health care needs, the report adds.

Trying to use the energy and skills of this huge number of people is part of a dream that would like to see them fully integrated into society, something that Helm (Dream), a non-profit organisation established in 2014, would particularly like to see.

Under the patronage of the ministries of communication and information technology, civil aviation and social solidarity, the Informal Settlements Development Fund and Giza governorate, over 150 company representatives and 50 NGOs attended Helm’s first conference in Cairo. It managed to convey the simplest and most profound truth about human nature — its endless inventiveness and its various abilities.

Breaking the cliché that tells people with disabilities to train to mix into the normal work environment, Helm did things the other way around. Adopting the concept of ability other than disability, the organisation believes that it is the work environment that should be trained to be more inclusive of those having disabilities.

Helm is the brainchild of Amena Al-Saie, the organisation’s president, and Ramiz Maher, its vice-president and projects manager. “The companies that came to the first conference were very cooperative, and they listened and implemented changes, hence playing a big role in the success of our training programmes,” Al-Saie said.

Helm aims to promote the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, and specifically to facilitate their employment and ensure that private and public premises are accessible to all. It won first prize at the Negma Social Entrepreneurship Competition at MIT in the US in 2013, and was awarded a Rise Egypt Fellowship at Harvard University for 2014-2016.

By law in Egypt there must be a five per cent quota of people with disabilities working in the public and private sectors, but too often the reality is still otherwise. Many companies either refrain from recruiting disabled people altogether or are happy to pay the fines for not doing so, or provide only a non-inclusive environment that is unable to make optimum usage of the energy of its special needs employees.

As a result, Helm aims to connect people with disabilities with different job opportunities, helping them to identify their career goals and training employers to create inclusive working spaces that can help both parties use the capabilities of each other. The results have been notably successful thus far.

One success story has been that of Mohamed Sobhy, who contracted polio when he was just two years old, causing him to lose the function of his legs and potentially interfering with his later passion for sports. Sobhy still remembers how hard it was for him as a boy to be denied the right to play sports by an unaware teacher. But today, backed by his family’s support, Sobhy is Egypt’s champion in wheelchair tennis, a form of tennis specially adapted for wheelchair users.

“I have been part of the Helm programme for two years, since my graduation in 2007. Finding a job was quite hard as I was denied several job opportunities because of my disability. Sometimes what people said was quite subtle, but at other times they were more blunt. But I got through that phase, and through Helm I took a training course and am now no longer treated as part of a five per cent quota. Now I work in a company like anybody else,” Sobhy said.

In the multinational company that Sobhy started to work for after taking the Helm training programme the work atmosphere is inclusive. “They said that they had learnt a lot about the dos and don’ts of treating a person with a disability correctly, letting the person with special needs ask for help instead of imposing it, for example. They have also made a lot of improvements in the way the workplace is designed, using internal ramps in my case,” Sobhy said.

“In addition, the company I work for is currently pushing to implement the ‘Entaleq’ (Go) programme as part of its community service by asking supermarkets to make their spaces accessible for people with disabilities,” he added.

Entaleq is the latest phase in Helm’s accessibility projects, the idea being to use interactive and easy-to-use Android and Ios mobile applications to enable persons with disabilities to navigate and locate accessible places in Cairo. This project is being rolled out in partnership with one of the leading mobile phone companies in Egypt.

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