Countries lag in ‘disability-friendly’ campus movement

The poor participation in university education in Morocco by young people with disabilities has been highlighted in a recent report presented to the United Nations.

The report presented to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva, Switzerland during the period 16-17 August, showed that about 1.5 million Moroccans live with some form of disability and make up 5.3% of the total higher education student population.

The term 'disability' typically refers to a physical or mental impairment that may limit a student's access to education.

The Moroccan participation rate is lower than the rate in European countries. For example, disabled students accounted for 11.3% of all full-time undergraduates in UK universities in 2013-14, according to a report entitled The Inclusion of Disabled Students in Higher Education in Europe: Progress and challenges.

North African disability rates

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, or ESCWA, report showed that disability in North Africa ranges from 0.6% in Egypt, to 1.3% in Tunisia, 2.5% in Algeria, 2.9% in Libya and 4.9% of the population in Sudan. However, the report also warns that the statistics must be read with caution, since the widespread use of inaccurate censuses for measuring disability in the Arab world, along with other factors such as the presence of social stigma, may discourage people from reporting disabilities.

The lack of educational opportunities for disabled young people in Morocco extends beyond higher education. According to the website of the European SWING project, 71% of disabled people in Morocco have no education.

SWING stands for "Sustainable ways to increase higher education students’ equal access to learning environments" and aims to bring together expertise in higher education institutions in the European Union and Egyptian and Moroccan partner institutions, to share best practice in supporting people with disabilities in accessing and optimising their chance of succeeding in higher education.

A two-year SWING project (2013-15), co-funded by the Tempus Programme of the European Union and led by UK-based Coventry University, with partners from Europe and North Africa, worked to establish Accessibility Centres in Alexandria University in Egypt and at Ibn Tofail University and Abdelmalek Essaâdi University in Morocco.

‘A great willingness’

Jacqueline Cawston, director of the European SWING project and deputy director of Disruptive Media Learning Lab at UK-based Coventry University, told University World News that her organisation had found a “great willingness to make changes to be more inclusive for students with disabilities”.

"The challenges for disabled students at Egyptian and Moroccan universities were that previously no accessibility centres existed and there was a lack of resources," Cawston said. "We felt some of the main successes of the project were attitude change and empowerment of students with disabilities."

According to Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo's National Research Centre, the low participation of disabled students in Morocco was “no exception” in North African universities “because of the shortage of disability experts” and the fact that “many higher educational institutions have ill-equipped buildings to integrate people with disabilities."

He said the journey to university study did not seem achievable for many students with disabilities in North African universities as limited attention has been placed on addressing their issues of access, retention, progression and participation, as well as the lack of the necessary educational preparation and university facilities that accommodate them.

Disability in the Arab region

This is confirmed by a 2014 report on disability in the Arab region issued by ESCWA, which found that "… Despite enabling legislation, persons with disabilities in the Arab region experience more limited access to employment opportunities and quality education than their peers without disabilities".

A 2015 report entitled Special Education in Arab Countries: Current challenges subsequently found that the world’s 22 Arab countries, which includes 10 North African states, suffer from poor research studies and limited educational programmes for special education.

"In regard to Egypt, not many campuses are accessible," Alexandra Gazis, assistant director and counsellor of the student well-being and student disability services unit at the American University in Cairo, told University World News. "The American university in Cairo is accessible as it follows the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines concerning accessibility."

Signs of progress

However, there are signs of a shift. Egypt has launched several new educational initiatives to meet the needs of disabled students. For example, Misr University for Science and Technology has established the first North African Faculty of Special Education which is due to produce its first graduates next year.

Also, Egypt's Zagazig University has established a Faculty of Science of People with Disabilities and Rehabilitation that is accepting students for the next academic year that starts on 15 September.

Gazis said one of the major challenges facing campuses in North Africa when it comes to being disability-friendly places is funding.

"I believe funding is a major issue as well as awareness concerning accessibility rules and guidelines for different types of disabilities."

"Outreach and awareness for disability issues needs to be more widespread in North Africa, especially when it comes to higher education, as well as the need to encourage campuses to be more disability-oriented through training and workshops,” she said.

Gazis said specialised professionals and non-governmental organisations should be called upon to help schools and universities to become more accessible.

Student disability unit

She also called for the establishment of a "student disability services unit" in each university.

"It is not an impossible matter and will not cost much for the university. Such a unit is a must in order to help students with disabilities … in order to have a positive environment to reach their full academic potential.”

Abdelhamid called for the establishment of a virtual North African universities' disability hub to serve as a central resource on disability-related information, procedures and services for the university community which could provide expertise in the development, implementation, and acquisition of standard disability-related university practices, procedures and resources.