New measures to support students with disabilities

The Egyptian ministry of higher education has directed that people with disabilities should be exempt from paying fees at higher education institutions as part of a raft of measures recently approved to meet the needs of disabled students and integrate them into higher education.

The measures were outlined in a new law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, officially approved on 19 February. This coincides with the Egyptian declaration of the year 2018 as the Year of Persons with Disabilities.

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

There are 12 million persons with disabilities in Egypt and since the impact of disability extends to the families of the individuals, there are about 36 million persons who are affected by disability in Egypt, which makes up 35% of the total population, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Among the features of the new law are the following commitments:
  • • There is to be no discrimination due to disability or gender of students with disabilities.

  • • University staff should be trained to support persons with disabilities and facilitate their enrolment in universities near their place of residence.

  • • The percentage of admission for students with disabilities should not be less than 5% of those admitted to governmental and non-governmental higher education institutions.

  • • Universities should facilitate learning for students with disabilities, including preparing accessible and affordable platforms for online learning.

  • • Students with disabilities will be exempt from fees for postgraduate studies and outstanding students will be employed at the university.

  • • New university buildings should be well-equipped to integrate students with disabilities and the old buildings in the existing universities should be rehabilitated according to the requirements of people with disabilities.

  • • Departments aimed at care for students with special needs at universities should be established.

  • • Students with disabilities should not constitute less than 10 % of the total students admitted to university accommodations.
The new law calls for the establishment of a committee, with representation from the ministry and disabled people, to monitor its implementation of the law.

The Ministry of Higher Education has directed heads of universities to exempt students with disabilities from tuition fees and accommodation costs. Costs will be met through the social solidarity fund. Several universities have already started to implement this policy, according to news reports. Other universities, such as Minia University, have recently organised a week-long campaign and hosted a conference to raise awareness around disability and the integration of disabled people.

Student view

Ahmed Fathy Alsaka, a physically-disabled student at the Technical Industrial Institute, welcomed the new law: "It is good to see well-equipped university buildings to integrate students with disabilities, offers for university residence, platforms for online learning, technological aids at campus, free postgraduate studies, and employment of outstanding students in universities."

"This law is a good step towards facilitating higher education for thousands of Egyptian students as it paves the way to them to attain their educational rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and gives them the opportunity to help to develop the country through their skills and qualifications.”

However, others have questioned the necessity for quotas.

Mahmoud Shalabi, higher education researcher at the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, a non-governmental legal organisation in Egypt, said assigning specific percentages to admissions of disabled students in universities and university housing was not a useful strategy.

"Higher educational opportunities for disabled students who are already vulnerable should not be limited to a specific number. Education must be provided for all eligible disabled candidates as the number of disabled students who reach university is low," Shalabi said.

"As in the case of denial of basic education to children, the law should also have labelled the exclusion of such students from university education as a crime."

However, the biggest problem, he said, was the acceptance policy which focused less on the applying students’ abilities than their disability, Shalabi said.

Admissions system

Egypt’s policy for admitting students with disabilities to universities is based on two systems, according to a July 2017 report. The first is the selection by the student of a faculty according to his or her secondary-school grades and an evaluation of the student by a committee that decides whether the student is eligible to join the faculty.

"That committee does not include any experts in the field of disabilities; it only includes faculty members,” Shalabi said.

"The presence of disabilities experts and their knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies to assist people with disabilities could help to determine more precisely the degree to which a student is eligible to attend a particular faculty."

The second system allows the admission of disabled students who obtained at least a 50% pass in the secondary-school certificate to humanities faculties following a special review by a committee of three faculty members from the medical school at the same university.

"Although this system helps students with disabilities to enrol at university at the minimum grades needed, it discriminates against disabled students and considers them unable to study scientific disciplines at practical faculties, regardless of the wide variation in types of disabilities," Shalabi said.

While the law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was an “excellent development” that could encourage more students with disabilities to consider opting for a university education, it was also important that students had a wide choice of programmes, said Deanne Clouder, academic director of Centre for Global Learning, Education and Attainment at UK-based Coventry University and lead author of a 2018 report on disabilities among students in North Africa.

"It is important that in future students have as wide a choice of programmes as possible, including access and encouragement to pursue vocational programmes and also that they are able to play an active role in the decision-making processes about strategies and policies being developed to move towards improved inclusion of students with disabilities."

"They are the people with the experience of disability so they should always be consulted,” she said.