The concept of having a disability had been packaged within a tight and narrow understanding, one that viewed people lacking a specific collection of abilities as incapable of immersing themselves in everyday life. Today, we live in a world that is slowly working to shatter this misconception and create a new and more inclusive narrative. Egypt’s mental healthcare facility specialized in supportive services for children with physical and developmental disabilities dubbed “Progressive Behavior Services” (PBS) is one such entity.
Bringing change to the forefront, some of PBS’ members including its founder Menna Mahrous and Nazli El Leithy, a training coordinator have put together a special needs awareness event that brought together professionals like speech therapists and paediatricians, storytellers and individuals personally involved with persons with disabilities to answer important questions, shatter misconceptions and inspire a better outlook towards disability in Egypt. To broaden our own understanding, we attended the event held at Sheikh Zayed’s Raya Holding Training Center and listened and engaged in much needed conversations.
Entering A Welcoming & Inclusive Space
From the get-go, at the entrance of the building, we received a very warm welcome from the event’s organizers. Attendees ranged from youthful curious individuals to mothers of children with special needs.
It was refreshing to be in that kind of environment, knowing that the foundation of such an event is of acceptance and inclusion and many attendees were made to feel that they were not alone. The series of talks were both informative and engaging with seven topics led by different speakers, we wanted to share an idea of the type of conversations that were introduced.
Among the professionals who spoke during the event, some brought something new to the fold by recalling their first-hand experience of interacting and living with family members with special needs. These talks were raw, personal and relentless in showcasing the struggles and intricacies of living with and among persons with disability.
One example of an inspiring speaker was Aalaa El Masry, a teacher and learning skills development specialist who has a 13 year old sister with downs syndrome. During the talk, El Masry recalled how she was a real firecracker and someone who did not want to box her sister in so when doctors told her that she should keep her sister at home, El Masry did the opposite. When she would go out, she’d take her sister with her, “I took her everywhere even to the cinema and she would have such a good time, surrounded by people, living her life” said El Masry. Early inclusion plays a major role in breaking down a common stereotype of how persons with disability cannot be integrated into society.
When it was Dr. Haidy Karem’s turn to speak, an early child educator, she took it a step further during her talk by tapping into what may be considered a taboo notion among mothers of children with special needs, “When I found out my son had downs syndrome, I was not allowed to grieve and remained in denial for 2 years.” Karem went on to say that her family created this environment wherein being upset that her child ended up with downs syndrome was not allowed. Shutting out her feelings caused her extreme depression but thankfully, she was able to make her way out of that dark period through therapy. Turning around, she looked at all the mothers in the room and said, “it’s impossible to live the way I did but through therapy I learnt how to express it all and to heal”.
As the event came to a close, the final speaker was an individual who acted as a living example of how the current stigma around persons with disability can easily be shattered. Magdy Shahir was born with a disability called cerebral palsy, the kind of disability that made him face many obstacles. At school, teachers believed he wouldn’t be integrated into the educational environment while outside that world, doctors said he will never be able to speak or read properly. Just like El Masry, Shahir chose not to listen and managed to prove them all wrong, “I attended AUC without any special assistance and took the exact same curriculum, courses and exams as everyone else” said Shahir, remembering how his drive and persistence helped him to pave a path for himself that went against everyone’s belief.
Shahir is a true inspiration, managing to bring many people into the room close to tears, he made sure to end his talk with a strong message, one that should be the norm, regionally and globally:
If in our current world, we all shared the idea that we all have some sort of disability then the concept of disability will be eradicated all togetherShahir
That was the one message that truly struck out to me, it is true that we are all differently abled and are unable to do many things in our lives. So, taking that notion and magnifying it on a global scale, we can easily see that there shouldn’t be this concept that adds a dividing line between individuals. Many of the speakers on that day proved how that line can easily be overpassed, cut out or eradicated by simply sharing such close to home experiences.