To people with disabilities, Egypt is undeniably inhospitable. Every year, the wealth of talent, labour and consumer spending they offer to society is squandered—by something as simple as the shape of a doorknob.
"If the door can't be opened by someone who can't form a closed fist, then it's as simple as that," says Amena El-Saie, president and CEO of disability support NGO Helm. Research is limited, but the World Health Organization's conservative estimate says that 10% of Egypt's population has a disability—and in this example, the doors are literally closed.
A two-year needs assessment by Helm covering over 50 companies and over 1,000 people with disabilities, found that the lack of physical accessibility of public buildings and workplaces forms a major barrier to participation. According to the 2014 constitution, companies are required to ensure 5% of their workforce be persons with disabilities, but the ruling largely goes unenforced and unfollowed due to accessibility issues.
"We believe that disability is not in the person, but in the environment," says El-Saie. Egypt has building codes to prevent such exclusion, but many of them go ignored or badly implemented.
Addressing this, Helm launches Entaleq, an app and website that locates over 200 accessible places across Egypt.
And in order to do that, all Helm had to do was - well, make them accessible.
Behind the app's simple description lies the gargantuan work that Helm undertook. Working with approximately 200 locations including shopping malls, cafes, companies and government buildings, they worked with trained assessors and architects following achievable measures of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) standards for accessibility. The project has attracted the likes of Pepsico, Al-Futtaim, City Stars, BMW, Arkan Plaza, and Mall of Arabia, among many others, to come on board.
What does that take? A checklist of over 400 questions for each location, divided into priorities: entrance access; access to goods and services in the location; bathroom access; and finally other amenities, such as drinking water fountains or the usefulness of the security system to people with disabilities. It takes measurement and re-measurement, exacting implementation, and then periodic assessment after changes have been made. The resulting accessibility is rated according to a detailed star system on the app.
But just as importantly, it also takes company willingness. Helm, funded by Vodafone Foundation Egypt, offers the needs assessment for free, but in return the location at hand must enter into an agreement to commit the funds and the cultural will to make the improvements recommended.
"We start by asking them to assign an 'access champion,'" says El Saie. Having someone whose job is to fly the flag for accessibility ensures that the culture of change comes from within the company. "This person is going to be responsible for following up, providing us with all necessary documents like floor plans, and facilitating the assessment."
There are huge incentives for companies—and Egypt as a whole—to take on accessibility. Entaleq's marketing campaign, involving major launches, ministerial presence, and multimedia adverts, is an immense opportunity for companies to associate their brand with positive work. This year Helm will attempt to get an international body to certify the process of Entaleq, so as to bring prestige to the certification.
But perhaps most importantly of all, removing barriers to the participation of people with disabilities means unlocking an important customer and employee base: that's approximately 8 million people with skills and money to offer. In short, it's a win-win situation.
It's a testament to the growing culture of corporate social responsibility in Egypt, and Helm's own inspiring mission, that means over 200 locations came on board with Entaleq. Egyptian companies are beginning to move on from a philanthropy perspective and implementing changes much closer to home, in a manner that could produce a sea change in attitudes and opportunities surrounding people with disabilities.
The needed change is not only physical—it's cultural. Public attitudes in Egypt towards people with disabilities are reported to have slowly improved, but as disabilities community leader Mohamed El-Lakani believes, not fast enough. "People's reactions are simply disappointing and ignorant," he told BECAUSE.
El-Saie concurs. "There is a complicated dilemma starting from the day a person with a disability is born or acquires a disability," she says. "Many of them cannot access proper education, as most schools are not inclusive or accessible. There are some special schools, but they come with a stigma. Society does not treat them very well—even our terminology is inappropriate."
For this reason, Entaleq, and Helm's work in general, reaches beyond the built environment—the project also seeks to adapt attitudes in the workplace through specialised courses in customer service, human resources and recruitment, all tailored to addressing customers and employees with disabilities. They even provide the use of a braille printer so that cafes can provide accessible menus.
"We are trying to provide a 360-degree solution," says El-Saie. "It is about embedding the ideology."
After a participating location has completed and been assessed by Helm on all the achievable accessibility goals they committed to, they are able to create a profile on the Entaleq app, carefully curated into a ratings system. And this is not only beneficial to people with disabilities, as anyone who has tried to push a baby stroller down Cairo's streets can tell you. Pregnant people, parents, and the elderly all have a vested interest in the app, as well as the resume boost given to anyone who has been taught greater awareness of working with people with disabilities.
The next stage for Helm is to partner with more international organizations. Their advisors list is already impressive, including Jay Cardinali, the accessibility manager of Walt Disney World, disability policy analyst and advisor to over 65 companies worldwide, Ilene Zeitzer, and legal advocate John D. Kemp of the Viscardi Centre. Helm met and gained the backing of these people through fellowships at Harvard University and MIT that recognized them among the best social enterprises in Egypt.
Entaleq was launched with the presence of Dr Yasser El Qaadi, Minister of Information technology, and Dr Ghada Waly, the Minister of Social Solidarity, who spoke of the 2014 constitution and its reality. "Recruitment of persons with disabilities is very important, not only to satisfy laws, but to integrate persons with disabilities into the workplace, as they are stakeholders in Egyptian society."