Member of Parliament (MP) Heba Hagras and former secretary general of the National Council for Disability Affairs (NCDA), has demanded that the Ministry of Solidarity to quickly issue an executive bylaw for the law of the disabled as it would make a great difference in the lives of disabled citizens.
In her interview with Daily News Egypt, she said that she supported this law since the beginning because the former law put forward 41 years ago did not address the lives of the disabled except for the issue of hiring them.
She explained the advantages of the law and the phases of its issuance.
Moreover, she also spoke about the details of her issue with the Department of Psychology at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Arts and how the Higher Education Ministry dealt with it. The transcript for which is below, lightly edited for clarity:
First, what was the issue that took place between you and Ain Shams University?
I asked the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the university, as well as the university’s president to carry out immediate investigations of the violation of the Department of Psychology of the constitution for discriminating against students with special needs only because of their cases, as the department refused to allow them to join higher studies.
We are against any discrimination against special-needs students, which prevents them from joining university at any level, whether to obtain a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a PhD.
I was surprised by how such leaders allowed themselves to discriminate. What would they say when they know that hundreds of students with special needs have been able to successfully obtain their master’s degrees and PhDs in Egypt and abroad as their disability never stopped them from exceling in their fields? Is the department really not aware that this is a crime in both the law and the constitution? If this crime was proven, would it make sense that they would remain in their positions?
The sad part about the issue at the Psychology Department is that those leaders have proven that they are living in isolation of the events around them that they easily discriminate against special-needs students during the very same year, in which the president dedicated for individuals with special needs as they celebrated the issuance of a law that acknowledges their rights, especially, at all education levels.
What happened after you raised that issue?
I met with Dr Khaled Abdelghaffar, the minister of higher education and scientific research, in order to present to him the obstacles and issues that students with special needs face when they attempt to join Egyptian universities and faculties as well as issues they face during their studies.
After the meeting, the minister issued a decision to eliminate the committees, which were established within each faculty to address the issues of disabled students regarding their admission. He promised that he would follow-up himself on the decision to eliminate all kinds of negative discrimination against special-needs students concerning their admission. He decided to appoint university presidents to immediately clarify the internal bylaws of universities and faculties about decisions, which embody this form of discrimination and immediately terminate the decision of the Psychology Department at the Faculty of Arts in Ain Shams to refuse enrolling disabled students into the higher studies programme just because of their cases.
The minister considered the decision of the department a flagrant violation of the rights of students to join the faculty they want and a clear violation of the constitution and the law. He decided to admit students of special needs into all Egyptian universities just like all other students without any restrictions, thereby enforcing the law. He also directed all departments at all colleges to admit students with special needs into them without any restrictions. The minister then said that he would personally refer the person or entity who would violate that law to court, as it would then be considered a crime against the constitution.
How many people with special needs are there in Egypt? And why are there discrepancies in figures?
The reasons for the discrepancies are many. First, there is the reluctance and refusal of many families to reveal that they have a child with special needs. Moreover, outdated methods for statistics are being used, resulting in inaccurate figures. During my tenure as a secretary general of the NCDA, I organised with a technical team the methods used to collect information on persons with disabilities. We added the most developed types of questions that may bring forth relatively accurate information. We believe it is best to adopt the method of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which state that about 15% of any country’s population are people with special needs, and there are factors which increase that percentage, such as poverty and marriage between relatives.
With a simple calculation, we could easily figure out that there are about 12 million people with disabilities, and the number is susceptible to increase given the aforementioned reasons pointed out by the WHO.
Why did we need a new law for the disabled?
Because the law in place was formulated 41 years ago and was slightly amended in 1981. It only addressed the hiring and rehabilitation part, while ignoring the various other needs of disabled individuals. Realistically, it cannot be followed in neither the private sector nor the public sector. While 20% of services are located in cities, the remaining 80% are distributed in villages and smaller regions. This means we must have a law that preserves the rights of these individuals and ensure they receive the services they deserve to make their lives easier, especially, since Egypt is part of an international agreement for disabled people, which it signed in light of a respectable constitution that takes into consideration the rights of these people. This is just as important as having an atmosphere that supports people with special needs. The president shows this support significantly. It is also important to note that there are nine people with disabilities in parliament.
What are the advantages of the new law?
The new law is full of benefits for the disabled. It includes putting forward the first inclusive and comprehensive definition for people with disabilities. It also includes all disability categories and forbids anyone from taking over the rights of special needs individuals. The new law ensures that these individuals are allowed to practice all activities and use public transportation, as well as benefit from education methods without exclusion or discrimination. It preserves their rights to get married and start a family as well as occupy leadership positions and have unified identification issued to prove they are disabled. They also get insurance, 10% of the total available residential places in university campuses and have their work hours per day reduced by one hour, in addition to being exempted-or first-degree relatives who look after them- from income taxes. They also get 5% of the residences established by the state, and a 50% discount on all public transportation. Moreover, people who carry out illegal sterilisation, castration or abortion for people with special needs will be subjected to rigorous imprisonment, and a six-month imprisonment period or a fine of EGP 10,000 in the case of impersonating a person with special needs.
Additionally, employers who refuse to hire the legal 5% of people with special needs will be severely punished, either by being imprisoned for six months, up to two years, or by paying a fine between EGP 10,000 and EGP 50,000. A person who is involved in depriving a child with a disability from getting education will be deemed a criminal and will be subjected to legal penalties.
Does the issue of disabled persons being unable to perform some tasks play a role in the issues of people with disabilities?
Yes, it does. This is why we say that vocational training is extremely important, especially, that we have noted that people with disabilities who receive education are 2.8% of the population, which means that this is the only way for some people without degrees to get jobs. The problem is when vocational training is actually provided for them, it is usually in fields that are not demanded in the labour market, such as training to use looms, pottery, and bamboo. The result is when the person finishes their training and still is unable to find a proper job. This is why we demanded their rights in receiving proper training and rehabilitation for the labour market. This should include fields such as mobile, computer, motor maintenance, and modern packaging.
The new law also forces the Ministry of Manpower to provide training for normal people, as well as another for people with disabilities, whereby everyone receives equal opportunities in the same fields, such as painting, electricity, and others.
Has the new law taken into consideration disabled women given that their suffering is more?
There are aspects that the new law included for special needs individuals and there are other elements concerning women we are doing our best to include into the criminal law. It is part of our plans to impose harsher penalties on crimes committed against women, such as rape of course. As for now, the law includes aspects such as not physically harming people with disabilities, so a hysterectomy, castration, or abortion is a crime, especially that many families and parents practice this on their own children with special needs, claiming this is to protect them from getting pregnant, especially women. Such crimes are inhumane and violent and the criminals must be punished.
What is the reason for delaying the issuance of executive regulations for the law?
The Ministry of Social Solidarity is mandated to issue the law’s executive regulations. Its issuance is expected to achieve an unprecedented leap in the facilitations provided by the state to persons with disabilities.
I demand from the Ministry of Social Solidarity to quickly issue the regulations which were approved by President Al-Sisi in February, especially, that the six-month period previously approved by the constitution to issue the regulations is over.
What do you think of the proposal by PM Margaret Azer to establish a National Council for Orphans?
We have over 90 institutions for orphans in Egypt, and a large number of parliament members have proposed several projects to establish national councils for seniors, street children and others, including two laws for children.
The National Council for Motherhood has been performing remarkably well until it started working under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health. We are currently discussing its re-independence with legal texts, in order to restructure it to properly perform its role.
However, I am against distributing children throughout several councils because this would be catastrophic, especially, that children come from various backgrounds for numerous reasons, whether they are street children or merely orphans. We must deal with this based on the children’s law and the Universal Child Agreement.
The lack of care for different children, whether they are street children or orphans, has made many people feel that it is necessary to establish a number of national councils. This could happen by establishing several units under the umbrella of children within the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood.
What about the law some people proposed to protect maids?
I will certainly approve this law after seeing it and we might even add something to the law.
The existence of the law to protect marginalised segments and house maids and organise the work between the person serving and his or her employer is extremely important. Protection for everyone’s work must exist, because what happens between housemaids and work owners happens in an informal frame without a pre-agreement between both parties.
This relationship includes many inputs and outputs. It requires clear legislations that protect all parties. Sometimes the maids are subject to mistreatment and sometimes house owners’ houses get robbed, and it is important to address and prevent these issues. Both parties must specify work hours and the tasks to be carried out. If there is a desire to legalise this relationship, it must be discussed by all sides to protect all parties.