For the first time, the American University of Cairo (AUC) community celebrated the International Day of People with Disability at an event led by the Helm graduate student club. Held under the theme of Zayee Zayak (We Are the Same), which is also a nationwide campaign that advocates for the rights of disabled Egyptians in education, employment, civil society and health care, the event featured a march of disabled children, parents and supporters to Bartlett Plaza; a performance by the Sunshine Band, a group of blind musicians who play traditional Arabic music; athletic activities; guest speakers and booths selling the work of disabled artists and craftsmen.
“The main goal was to recognize the existence of disabled people and declare their full rights to live and dream of a better life in which they are welcomed and their abilities are utilized,” explained Nouran El Hawary, president of Helm AUC and a master’s student studying sociology and anthropology. “This is a step toward bringing them into the mainstream and refusing their relegation to the sidelines of life.” The population of disabled people in Egypt is estimated to be between 15 million and 17 million people, noted El Hawary, and “unfortunately, they are overlooked by government and state policies, and find difficulties in meeting their basic needs with regard to health care, education, negotiating the streets and, of course, employment. We are facing a huge challenge — the state politics of neglect.” Speakers at the event included AUC alumna Caroline Maher ’09, who works at Helm nongovernmental organization and is a global taekwondo champion; Soha Mahmoud, a member of the Down Syndrome Support group and the Zayee Zayek national campaign; Heba Hagrass, an AUC alumna and advocate for the disabled, who gave an overview of the current environment for people with disabilities; and Ahmed Harara, an activist who lost both of his eyes. Recalling his personal experience of learning to navigate life after losing his sight, Harara called on AUCians to “use their resources and privileges to invent technologies that make life easier for those with disabilities.” He noted that even though he could afford to buy an expensive device that allows him to interact digitally with the world, millions of others cannot afford such new technologies. “My hope is that AUCians can change that,” he said. Helm nongovernmental organization was co-founded by AUC alumni Amena El-Saie ’11 and Ramez Maher ’12 in 2011 to promote the employment and integration of disabled Egyptians into society. Helm AUC was founded in Spring 2013. “The club's primary goal is to promote awareness of the disabled in Egypt, engage all AUC students to be proactive members of the University community and off campus, and foster a universal mission of realizing full rights for disabled people in Egypt,” El-Saie affirmed. Helm NGO plans to expand to more educational institutions, noted El-Saie, while Helm AUC has a number of initiatives prepared for the Spring 2014 semester. “We have a rigorous plan to act on our vision of integrating people with disabilities into mainstream society,” said El Hawary. “Next semester, we hope to initiate new projects including enhancing the physical fitness and health of disabled people on campus; helping high-school students with disabilities apply for higher education; publishing a newsletter; serving the disabled community of Ezbet El Hagana informal settlement; holding a regular bazaar where associations can sell products made by people with disabilities; and offering English classes to disabled people.” International Disability Day was organized by Helm AUC and Helm nongovernmental organization, in partnership with the Right to Live Association, Special Olympics, the Anglican Church and the Office of Student Support’s disability unit. According to the International Day of People with Disability website, the global event is sanctioned by the United Nations and aims to advance the cause of people with disability, promoting “support for their dignity, rights and well-being.”