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Darkness haunts the blind in Egypt twice over

April 17, 2024 at 9:32 am

Posters and banners of candidates are seen on the billboards in streets ahead of the presidential elections to be held on 10th December in Cairo, Egypt on December 04, 2023 [Mohamed Elshahed – Anadolu Agency]

What can he do? This is the question you often hear when looking for a job opportunity for a blind person in Egypt, where even able-bodied people suffer from a seven per cent unemployment rate, according to official data. Thus, those who can’t see face major challenges in a country that has a population of 106 million people, 11 per cent of whom have special needs.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics puts the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Egypt at 73 per cent. However, Dr Ashraf Marei, former general supervisor of the National Council for People with Disabilities, puts the rate as high as 90 per cent.

There are no accurate statistics about the number of blind people in Egypt, especially those with visual disability ranging between total and partial blindness and symptoms of visual impairment. The World Health Organisation, though, estimates that there are approximately one million blind Egyptians, and about three million who are visually impaired, but unofficial estimates suggest that the number of blind people in Egypt is 1.8 million.

Although Egyptian law requires five per cent of workers in public and private sector institutions to be people with disabilities, the percentage is only 0.5 per cent, according to Heba Hagras, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Muhammad A is blind. He has been looking for a job for five years, despite having a college degree. In his experience, society does not respect the right of the blind to work, and does not abide by the law in this regard. “Even though we are able to work in areas such as teaching, computer related jobs and customer service in hotels or restaurants, very few job opportunities are available to us, and are difficult to get.”

Mohamed has a BA in history. He became depressed because he stayed without work for a long time after he graduated, until a friend of his managed to get him a job at a call centre/customer service at a famous restaurant in downtown Cairo.

When Alaa S. applied for a job at a hotel in Aswan Governorate, the management told him that it is concerned about its public image and could not hire him.

Embarrassingly, he was told that the managers are shamed by employing blind and other disabled people.

In my research for this article, I tried to get a job opportunity for a blind person by contacting businesses myself. The question that always came up was: “A blind person, what can he do?”

According to Egyptian disability expert Mohamed Salah, jobs suitable for a blind person include teaching, languages, consulting, computers, customer service, data entry, helping people memorise the Holy Qur’an, public speaking and preaching. He pointed out that there is a charity that used to employ blind people in the handloom textile industry, adding that he personally saw a blind carpenter.

But the truth is, said Salah, that blindness is one of the most difficult types of disabilities, and there is a big problem in rehabilitating the blind, integrating them and employing them within Egyptian society. It is also hard to accept getting married to someone who is blind. This is a major problem, especially for women.

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If a blind person is employed, they’re often asked not to come to work, but stay at home; they will still be paid out of compassion and kindness towards them. They might also be asked to get tax benefits and exemptions from the authorities, with no effort made to benefit from their skills.

The blind complain about the absence of advanced education and rehabilitation curricula, and the lack of private training centres which could help equip them with the skills needed by the labour market. Moreover, roads are not accessible for them and there are no suitable means of transportation, so a blind person will need to be accompanied by someone else to get to work if they have a job at all.

There are 33 Al-Nour and Al-Amal schools for the blind spread around the country. In addition, there are 23 clubs supported by the Egyptian Blind Sports Federation. They aim to educate and qualify people with disabilities.

Solutions Centre for Alternative Policy, affiliated with the American University in Cairo, believes that incentives provided by the Egyptian government to encourage companies to employ people with disabilities are weak. These incentives include tax exemptions and deductions, with benefits increasing as the number of people with disabilities employed increases. This, however, does not resonate on the ground, and in some cases, companies have people with disabilities on their payrolls to meet quotas without actually employing them, according to the information centre of the Egyptian Council of Ministers.

Academic Qayati Ashour, a sociology teacher at Beni Suef University, says that some employers who hire people with disabilities may tend to discourage them from coming to work, or may pay them unfair wages. There is also a general non-compliance with employment quotas and an absence of the culture of integrating persons with disabilities into workplaces and training them on how to use appropriate tools and equipment.

Ahmed S. is a young blind man who said that after graduating from university, he got a job, but then the company management told him that the operating system was not equipped to deal with a blind person, and so he was laid off.

There are 58 articles in the Egyptian Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities No. 10 of 2018. They cover the right to education; vocational preparation and training; the right to work; social, legal and criminal protection; political and union rights; culture, sports and recreation. Their impact remains visible only on paper though, when blind people look for work.

The government’s Solidarity and Dignity programme allocates 615 Egyptian pounds (about $13) as monthly support to the blind and other people with disabilities. However, if it is proven that recipients have a commercial record, or an insurance record for a shop or a car, for example, they get nothing, explained an official at the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The total budget allocation for the National Council for People with Disabilities for the fiscal year 2022/2023 was just 16.45 million Egyptian pounds (about $350,000).

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Local authorities do not have a national information system with comprehensive data on blind people, their qualifications, social conditions, monthly income, abilities or professional skills. This exacerbates the unemployment and suffering of this group, and may push them into isolation, or to become beggars or dependent on charities.

Despite the suffering experienced by the blind in Egypt, a faint light appears at the end of the dark tunnel at the hands of rare, successful role models who were able to stand out from the crowd, do the impossible and achieve success despite losing the blessing of sight.

Among the most well-known people celebrated by the Egyptian media in this regard are Sayed Abdel-Qawi, who works as a plumber in Fayoum Governorate; Romany Naguib, who works as a car mechanic in Luxor Governorate; and Khaled Mahmoud, a carpenter in Cairo. We can also name Nabil Muhammad, who turned his house into an electrical appliance repair shop in the Sharkia Governorate, and blind butcher Mohamed Al-Kahlawy in the city of Banha, north of Cairo.

An unusual experiment was led years ago by journalist Ahmed Al-Maraghi, editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar Braille magazine issued by the Akhbar Al-Youm Foundation. It was the first magazine in the Arab world to address the blind in Braille and provide them with jobs in journalism.

An even more unusual experiment was the opening of a restaurant in the dark near the Pyramids of Giza in 2019, which relies on crews with visual impairments serving food to seeing people in a dark place, to help them experience the reality of blindness and thus be more able to empathise with the blind, if only for a couple of hours.

Experience confirms that job searching for a blind person in Egypt is an arduous and cruel task. It exposes the fact that the blind are haunted twice over, being deprived of the blessing of sight and unable to find work to support themselves and their families.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.