First Published: 2017-08-01

Mentally disabled fighting for integration in Egypt
Egypt’s activists challenge mental disability stigma in country where estimated 14 million have some form of disability.
Middle East Online

An Egyptian boy with disability does activities at the SETI center

CAIRO - Ghada Tosson waits anxiously outside an Egyptian high school in the Helwan district south of Cairo as her daughter with Down's syndrome sits her end-of-year exam.

Winning the chance to sit standard high school tests took years of fighting in a country where people with mental disabilities are often marginalised and receive little assistance.

"I'm so proud. We've been fighting for 18 years for this moment. She sat the exam like any other high schooler," says Tosson.

"No matter the result, it's proof that it can happen."

She is visibly moved as her daughter comes out of the school, smiling and looking serene.

Out of Egypt's population of around 93 million, an estimated 14 million have some form of disability, says Eglal Chenouda, director of the SETI Center, a section of Catholic charity Caritas which supports the disabled.

Three-quarters of them have a mental disability, she says. The organisations helping them are few and far between.

"Most of them are staying at home, deprived of any services," she says, adding that only two to three percent of them receive the services they need.

But activists are working to tackle public ignorance around mental disability and the stigma it carries -- something they say is as important as providing services.

- Integration -

That is a core part of the mission of SETI, which stands for "Support, Education, Training for Inclusion".

Fighting stigma is a big part of the battle. Tosson says that when she was looking for nursery schools she had to contact at least 50 before she found one that would enrol her daughter.

At SETI's toddler section, four-year-old Yassin does learning activities under the care of his mother Hoda Abdelkhalek and a Caritas trainer.

Focused, the young boy with Down's syndrome stacks coloured rings around a cone.

Abdelkhalek says the family found out about his disability the day he was born.

"It was very hard," she says. "(The doctor) told us 'your son is Mongolian'," a term used in many countries for people with the syndrome but which many consider derogatory.

Hospital staff advised her to isolate the baby in a separate room several times a day and limit his contact with his older brothers.

At SETI, she was taught the opposite. Staff urged her to integrate Yassin into the daily life of his family and the neighbourhood.

Chenouda says it is important to change public attitudes, convince people that disability is a rights issue and to "include the disability issue in all services".

But the services provided by organisations like SETI fall far short of the huge demand.

- 'Not enough -

Egypt has just 68 institutions able to provide care for the mentally disabled, says Khaled Aly, who heads the rehabilitation department of the ministry of social solidarity.

"It's not enough compared to the number of mentally disabled people, but we're on the right track," he says.

Aly says a new bill set for a parliamentary vote next year will give the government more responsibilities and improve communication between the health and education ministries.

He adds that the ministry already organises workshops in villages in rural Upper Egypt to "inform and sensitise" people to issues of mental disability.

Other initiatives in the country have shown that integrating the disabled into Egyptian society is both possible and beneficial.

Olfat Salem has been organising cultural and sports activities for the mentally disabled at the Alexandria Sporting Club for 20 years.

"The families used to be ashamed; they would come at the club late at night, sit in a dark corner," she says.

Playing sport transformed the children, she adds.

"Receiving a medal gives them happiness you could not imagine. It gives them self-confidence. And now the families are proud of them as well."

 

Assad in Russia for talks with Putin

Islamic republic declares end of Islamic State

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

Rare moments of joy at Arabs’ unprecedented World Cup qualifications

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks

Turkish opposition daily web editor sentenced to 3 years in jail

Egypt’s Sisi to meet Lebanon’s Hariri

Israeli police arrest 33 in ultra-Orthodox draft riots

Turkish lira at new low against US dollar

UN chief horrified by Libya slave auctions

Qatar 2022 chief has no regrets over hosting World Cup

Gheit says Lebanon should be 'spared' from regional tensions

Saudi Arabia, Arab allies push for unity against Iran, Hezbollah meddling

Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ does nothing to stop civilian deaths

Is a demilitarised Palestinian state a viable option?

S&P affirms good Saudi credit ratings

Israel president faces big backlash over Palestinian scarf

Sudan leader to visit Russia Thursday

Seven years into Libya’s civil war, the chaos continues

Iraq top court declares Kurd referendum unconstitutional

Libya to investigate 'slave auction' footage

15 women killed in food aid crush in Morocco

Lebanon FM will not attend Arab League Iran summit

Syrian forces liberate Albu Kamal from IS

Israel votes to shut migrant centre, deport Africans

Diplomats from Iran, Russia, Turkey discuss Syria

Libya to investigate ‘slave auction’ footage

Piece by piece, Iran moves towards a ‘new empire’

Netanyahu faces new questioning over corruption case

Syria troops, allies retake most of Albu Kamal from IS

EU cuts funding to Turkey in 2018 budget

Lebanon's Hariri arrives in Paris

Egypt opens Gaza border for first time since unity deal

US-Russia rift threatens fragile prospects for Syria peace

'Caliphate' in tatters but IS still a threat

Saudi Arabia recalls ambassador to Berlin over Gabriel Lebanon comments

Russia again vetoes renewal of Syria gas attacks probe

UN weighs bid to save Syria gas attacks probe

IS attack kills 26 displaced people in Syria

Saudi FM says Lebanon 'held hostage by Hezbollah'

Egypt to open Rafah crossing for 3 days