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Top Disability Experts Call For Action on Cairo's Accessibility: Helm Conference

26 May, 2016
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At 4pm on Tuesday afternoon in the Renaissance Mirage City Hotel in New Cairo, a conference room full of NGOs, companies and government representatives were taking part in an investment frenzy around eight new start-ups serving persons with disabilities. The money was toy money, and the start-ups had been born in workshops around half an hour earlier, but the sense of possibility was real.

The workshopping exercise set the tone for "Cairo 2016A City For All," a conference organised by meteoric NGO Helm. On 24-25 May, the conference addressed the urgent issue of disability access in Egypt, with a particular focus on two economic driversthe employment of persons with disabilities, and access to the tourist market.

While the workshop was a hypothetical exercise, the conference focused squarely on driving concrete action. This is no surprise: in their year of existence, Helm have gained a reputation for getting things done. Their groundbreaking app Entaleqcovered in depth herenot only listed the accessible locations in Egypt, but took strides in making those locations accessible in the first place.

The conference, including representatives from government, civil society and the corporate world, now sought to take the next step and give the audience the knowledge, tools and most of all the will to push for change.

Establishing the rights of PwD

The first panel discussed the "civil rights and full participation of persons with disabilities in Egypt." Ashraf Marie, Secretary General of the National Council of Disability, asserted that the discussion was not just about practical accessibility but a much wider set of ideas around human rights, referring to the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Egypt was one of the first signatories. He introduced the Council's efforts to develop a comprehensive law on the rights of PwD in line with the UN CRPD.

With at least 10-15% of Egyptians experiencing a disabilitya number widely believed to be underestimatedthe country is sitting on immense untapped potential, said Mohamed Kamal El Daly, Governor of Giza. 

Current efforts and challenges in Egypt

El Daly went on to introduce some government measures to improve accessibility of the built environment: the building of four villages for persons with disabilities (PwD), the redevelopment of Giza's roads and its access to monuments, the attempt to make all of Hurghada accessible, and cash transfer programs like Karama which address the poorest PwD. 

In the second panel, Heba Hagrasss, Member of the Egyptian Parliament Committee, sought much more work on the issue in Egypt. When less than 3% of PwD have a chance at quality education and thus meaningful employment, current solutions for their economic empowerment are very poor. "We can't continue providing training in handicrafts," she said, referring to a common income stream offered to PwD locked out of conventional workplaces.

Hagrass worked extensively on the Egyptian Code for Accessibility of Outdoor Spaces and Buildings for the Disabled in 2003, but despite her calls, has not seen its recommendations implemented. Another failing has been the 2012 employment law that requires 5% of company employees to be PwD. This is being ignored, largely because the fine is just 100EGP, far cheaper than applying the necessary employment standards. 

How to scale up these efforts and make them cohesive and successful? Ilene Zeitzer, President of Disability Policy Solutions, gave the bigger picture. "Egypt is to be commended for [this work], but it’s just the beginning," she said. "Disability is a cross-cutting issue, it has to be addressed horizontally for all the pieces to fit." By this, she explained that the logic of accessibility needs to be applied at all levels and across all initiatives. Government, as the nation's major purchaser of goods and services, can influence this beyond legislation but also through action. This reinforces ground-up change, whereby people’s expectations and demands for accessibility also elevate. "Don't wait for the national blessing," she advised. "Start locally and spread out."

But what is actually meant by accessibility?
A major strength of the conference was opening up the concept of accessibility.

Laurel van Horn of the Open Doors Organization gave a key presentation on the second day bringing the audience up to date on universal design principles, which is a way of considering design less in terms of specialised adaptations and minimum standards, and more as a wholly inclusive process in everyday design for all from the outset. The principle of universal design not only assists people with disabilities, but tends to produce better design overall. The examples she gave of universal design principles result in a highly efficient built environment that is not even noticeable as 'accessible' but implicitly place PwD at the centre of society, not at its margins.

This approach was reflected in Jay Cardinali's presentation of his work as World Wide Accessibility Manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. For Disney, the disability access philosophy is exactly the same as the overall attitude to visitors: centred entirely around the experience of the visitor and their expectations. It's not just about providing adaptations, but "... allowing guests to experience what they want when they want." 

This is done through specialised signage, multiple ride adaptations, information on how differently-abled people can expect to participate in each attraction, and extensive staff training at all levels. Staff with disabilities also give constant feedback on the resorts' efforts. 

Bringing PwD into the Workplace

A major theme of the conference was getting PwD into employment. As Viscardi Center CEO John Kemp put it in a rousing address on the first day, "It's about having economic power. From work, we gain self-worth, dignity, pride, connectedness to our communities, our citizens, our families and our souls." Access to meaningful employment is not a favour to be offered, but is only one facet of a wider acknowledgement of the full humanity of PwD, who "... around the world are laying claim to a disability culture."

Workplaces have been adapted endlessly to new modern conditions of working, he saidif we can develop cultures of working from home, for example, why can't we develop other working cultures? 
"For those with significant intellectual, physical or disabilities, employers must provide opportunities for them to work and earn according to their abilities." This does not mean a lessening of standards but a reconception of the workplace to allow for the effective recruitment, employment, retention, and even the termination of employees with disabilities.

Bob Nolan, Head of Subsurface and Wells Support, Europe for Shell Global, followed this by giving fascinating insight into his working life with severe visual and aural disabilities. "I don't see myself as disabled," he said, but "disability is part of my life."

But how to persuade employers to make the necessary cultural and physical changes? Disney's Jay Cardinali brought a highly pragmatic view to the table on the second day: "You've got to talk to decision makers in a language that makes sense to them … and then figure out how the disability equation relates to that." He recommended finding the company motivation, whether it be a CSR model, a profit model, a social justice argument, and so forth. "You've got to find the right touchpoint."

The untapped economic power of PwD

In the context of Egypt, the economic argument for inclusion of PwD has never been so stark as with the country's major industry: tourism. In a deeply informative presentation, Laurel van Horn talked of the research the Open Doors Organization undertook in the USA in 2002 about the travel and spending habits of PwD, and brought facts that ought to make every Egyptian prick up her ears: more than one in four travelers with disabilities travelled internationally in the past five years, and individually spend an average of $2,500 on their own travel. Furthermore, globally, the world's ageing population is increasing enormously, so the tourism market needs to adapt to their changing abilities, which often includes a disability late in life.

Egypt has a distinct advantage in relation to the ageing market; it remains a 'bucket list' destination, the kind that many tourists save for their retirement. When the cost of designing a building accessibly is estimated at around 1% of the overall budget; and when the costs of retrofitting spaces accessibly can result in a huge international and domestic tourist boom, PwD look to be possible saviours of Egypt's tourist economy. 

Taking action

Throughout all the presentations and even in the refreshing way the conference was organised, Helm have demonstrated one thing: that accessibility is not only about token adaptations, but fundamentally in how we think. As well as authoritative speeches, the conference also made great emphasis on dialogue, workshops, and even a photography exhibition to get the message across; and also in more subtle ways, such as the ongoing networking opportunities with Helm's disability ambassadors, the accessibility of the venue, the wide range of physical ability represented in the speakers and the hard-working assistants. Clearly, Helm practice what they preach.

Getting companies and governments to do the same was the conference's explicit aim. At the end of the second day, Helm CEO Amena El-Saie gathered all the employees, supporters and volunteers for a photo opportunity. Looking up, she suddenly laughed and pointed to the applauding audience of company and government representatives. "You know what the thing about Helm is? Next year, you're all going to be on this side."

We can only hope that by the next conference, everyone will be part of Helm.

BECAUSE is a media sponsor of "Cairo-A City For All"


Tags Helm disability accessibility persons with disabilities Entaleq Shell Disney Open Doors Organization Disability Policy Solutions disability in egypt accessible tourism Viscardi Center John Kemp Jay Cardinali Heba Hagrass Ilene Zeitzer Laurel van Horn