CAIRO—A new law passed here in February makes wide-reaching reforms to the legal rights of disabled people in Egypt and requires for the first time that educational institutions adopt policies that ensure equal opportunities for disabled students.
The Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the first legislation affecting people with disabilities to be put into effect in Egypt since the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act, which had remained unamended since it was passed in 1975. The new law was enacted on February 19 by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the country’s president, after ratification by parliament.
The new law provides a wide range of legal rights and protections for disabled people. These include rights to non-discrimination in employment, health, political activity, rehabilitation and training, and legal protection. The law also includes provisions for the rights of persons with disabilities in education at all levels.
A quick look at the new law reveals many positive reforms. For the first time, there is legislation requiring that educational institutions adopt policies to support disabled people, and that they provide equal opportunities in education. Most important, it prohibits institutions from rejecting applications from students on grounds of disability. The law imposes a criminal liability on officials who violate this provision, with a fine ranging from 500 to 2,000 Egyptian pounds (about $28 to $113), with multiple fines for multiple offenses. (See a related article, “Options for Special-Needs Students Are Few at Egyptian Universities.”)
The above points can be included under the concept of “universal integration” of persons with disabilities in higher education. The law also includes broader concepts such as “accessibility” and the “empowerment” of these persons at educational institutions. The law specifically requires the Ministry of Higher Education to provide reasonable “facilitating means” for persons with disabilities, including distance learning. The law stipulates that these arrangements should be in accordance with the standards and rules of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Egypt ratified in 2008. The law also requires the ministry to provide educational programs and “supporting technology” to suit different types of disability.
There is no doubt that these measures are a good development at the legislative level, but there are many challenges facing this legislation in practice. First among these is that the relevant official bodies have only one year in which to adjust to the new provisions. In addition, further regulations concerning the admission to universities of persons with disabilities have not yet been issued and are only expected to be issued within six months of the promulgation of the law. Some obligations will be difficult for Egyptian universities to put in place in a short period of time, such as providing reasonable accommodation.
In terms of content, two main challenges arise in attempting to put this law into practice in higher-education institutions. The first is the long-standing culture of the university leadership toward disability, which is very negative. This is based on a traditional medical concept which is biased against the disabled because it focuses on a person’s disability rather than on their capabilities.
There is no doubt that this culture will negatively affect the process of implementation of these legal obligations. Moreover, it could threaten to cause these commitments to remain on paper only, if the prevailing institutional culture remains the same. (See a related article, “How Egypt Could Better Serve Students With Disabilities.”)
This will require that the National Council for Persons with Disabilities open an extensive community discussion with university leaders regarding the specific provisions of the law. This discussion should raise the awareness of university leaders that the new law represents a change in the social concept of disability. That is, that it is possible to integrate people with disabilities into all aspects of life by removing hurdles and social obstacles.
The second challenge is to find the necessary funding to provide reasonable arrangements and technology to support people with disabilities at universities, especially since Egyptian universities will begin this process almost from scratch. Egypt’s universities suffer almost invariably from a lack of financial resources, especially with the increase in student enrollment rates annually and the recent rise in inflation after Egypt’s decision in 2016 to liberalize the exchange rate.
Egyptian universities also suffer from inefficiency in spending in general, especially in the purchase of goods and services, which accounts for about 10 percent of total expenditure. It should be noted that this item represents spending on essentials such tools, equipment and maintenance, and it will necessarily include everything that is required to meet the new legal obligations.
The text of the new law shows that Egypt’s government has decided, or at least intends, to adopt a new national policy on higher education for people with disabilities, centered on comprehensive integration, availability and empowerment. However, turning this policy into actual practice will require action from the Ministry of Higher Education and from universities to ensure that the objectives of the law are effectively put in place within a reasonable time frame. Until then, optimism remains high that all Egyptian youth, without exception, will be able to take part in education.
Mahmoud Shalabi is a researcher on education and student issues with the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, a nongovernmental legal organization in Egypt. You can contact him via his page on FaceBook.