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March 16, 2003

Egypt finds offbeat ways to enable disabled

From: Reuters AlertNet, UK - 16 Mar 2003

By Rachel Noeman

CAIRO, March 16 (Reuters) - Blind visitors will soon be able to feel the magic of the Egyptian Museum, thanks to a special new gallery which will let them discover by touch such treasures as the mask and throne of King Tutankhamun.

The gallery is one of several Egyptian initiatives aimed at improving the lives of disabled people and offering them equal opportunities in more spheres of life.

Other efforts include a chamber orchestra composed entirely of blind girls and women, and an international fast-food restaurant run entirely by deaf and dumb staff.

"Egypt has made great strides in the last decade in improving life for the handicapped," author Lesley Lababidi told Reuters at the launch of her book, "Silent No More: Special Needs People in Egypt".

She said Egypt had steadily improved its provision for the disabled in recent decades, but progress in the past few years had been particularly remarkable, with a host of new schemes like the Egyptian Museum's section for the blind.

As part of official efforts to bring Egypt's disabled into the mainstream, any business with more than 50 employees is now legally required to have a minimum of five percent disabled people on its staff.

Since setting up the Egyptian Sports Federation for the Disabled in 1982, Egypt has won a number of medals in special Olympic competitions for the physically disabled.

While several projects in recent decades have helped disabled Egyptians play more active roles in mainstream society, it is only more recently that artistic and cultural opportunities have multiplied.

A non-profit organisation called "Very Special Arts Egypt" was set up in 1990 to help integrate the disabled into society by enhancing their artistic skills. It nurtures talents like the Deaf Theatre Group, which performs mime.


Egyptian Museum director Mamdouh Eldematy said a moving encounter had inspired him to design the special exhibit for the blind.

As he wandered through the museum one day, he said, he spotted a man touching some ancient masterpieces.

When guards told the visitor to stop, "he came back slowly and his guide told me 'I am sorry, he is blind'. I was shocked, and I couldn't say anything. After that, I thought: 'I have to do something for these people'."

Eldematy said the gallery would house replicas of dozens of artefacts which visitors could touch, and catalogues in Braille.

"We will choose about 63 pieces from the masterpieces, the highlights of Egyptian traditional artefacts of different sizes, but not more than life size, so that blind people can touch and have a good idea about the pieces," Eldematy said.

The initiative draws on similar efforts by museums around the world, such as London's British Museum, but will be the first of its kind in Egypt.

Another Egyptian project brings hope by giving disabled people the opportunity to work at ordinary jobs.

While some people say it is bad manners to point or talk with your hands, customers who want to eat at one central Cairo branch of U.S. fast-food chicken chain KFC have no choice.

For the past nine years, the restaurant has been run entirely by deaf and dumb staff, who communicate with customers through pictures on the counter and energetic gestures.

Staff ask questions like "eat-in" or "take-away" by pointing at a table and then pointing outside. They indicate "spicy" by fanning an imaginary fire in their mouth, while an order for a diet drink is a simple squeeze of their waistline.

Abdel-Hamed Mandouh, 32 and deaf from birth, has worked as a cook at the restaurant since it opened.

"It was a very good idea for them to think of us," he told Reuters through a sign-language translator, adding that he had previously worked as a carpenter and in the clothing industry, but had not been nearly as happy as he is now.


Egypt is also home to what it calls the world's first all-blind orchestra, which has already dazzled audiences in Europe and Egypt with its wide repertoire of Western classical and oriental music.

The Al Nour Wal Amal (Light and Hope) orchestra includes some 36 blind girls and women between the ages of 13 and 37. The orchestra started in the late 1960s with about 10 girls.

Its musicians memorise all the pieces they play because they cannot read Braille and play an instrument at the same time.

"I have been studying the cello for a long time now and I love playing," said Sahar, 34, who has been in the orchestra for 12 years.

Through Al Nour Wal Amal, which also includes a school and a vocational training centre, Sahar learned to read and make handicrafts which the organisation sells to support its activities.

"I am very proud to be able to perform at concerts," she said during a break in a virtually note-perfect rehearsal.

The orchestra has spread its wings in the last 15 years, with a series of international tours including visits to European and Arab countries, Canada, Japan and Thailand. The group performs regularly at the Cairo Opera House, as well as at schools, universities, embassies, theatres and conferences.

Listening to their accomplished performances, audiences often find it hard to believe the musicians are blind.

"I loved the violin since I started in my second year of primary school here," said Asma'a, 42, an organ teacher who has played in the orchestra for about 25 years and has a degree in literature from Cairo's Ain Shams University.

"The thing I loved best here was music -- it was my first and last love," she said.

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