Egypt risks missing out on economic opportunities of inclusive education
Inclusive education brings substantial economic and social benefits. But despite gov’t support, Egypt risks missing out. Inclusion of people with disabilities (PWD) and people with special educational needs (SEN) in the mainstream education system is key to Egypt’s workforce tapping into a gravely underused talent pool, with sizable economic results. But the estimated 12 mn people living with a sensory or intellectual disability in Egypt — according to UN data cited by global business disability inclusion nonprofit organization Disability:IN — still face discrimination and widespread exclusion from education and professional training. This forms a major barrier to recruitment and employment, according to the International Labor Organization.
Just what kind of financial benefits does inclusion bring? The Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI) is attempting to quantify this for Egypt, says Senior Advisor El Sayed Torky. But as the process is nascent, a look at other economies is highly revealing. The US could see a USD 25 bn boost in GDP with the inclusion of just a further 1% of PWD in the labor force, according to a 2018 Accenture report (pdf).
There is a pervasive stigma in Egypt, and it severely impacts service provision. It is estimated that only 2% of PWD in Egypt have access to any kind of service. This is partly due to a lack of information and issues of affordability, but is compounded by stigmatization. Often the diagnosis of a hidden disability (such as autism or dyslexia) is delayed because families fear the stigma of their children having any form of disability, says consultant and advocate Maha Helali. This is in spite of the fact that early intervention could reduce developmental gaps.
There are around 900 institutions for SEN in Egypt, estimates Helali. These include Caritas SETI and Advance, which focuses on supporting people with autism and other disabilities. These services range from vocational training to working directly with caregivers.
So the bulk of specialist care falls to a small group of institutions. These include private schools such as the Continental School of Cairo (CSC). They provide tailored academic and pre-academic services — the latter comprising areas such as hand-eye coordination, auditory skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, and socialization — to some 40-50 students with learning difficulties and SEN between the ages of 2.5 and 18. Hope Academy, founded in 2018, currently has 26 students with SEN who follow tailored programs comprising workshops in six areas: Clerical, graphic design, cooking, woodwork, gardening and jewelry-making. The Learning Resource Center, of which Helali is a founding partner, offers diagnosis and consultation in a range of areas, including neuro-developmental therapy, speech and language therapy, behavioral analysis, and sensory motor services such as occupational therapy. It also supports integration into nurseries for children under four and offers educational support to students in mainstream schools.
But specialist care comes at a price, and financial sustainability remains a thorny issue. Many of these institutions were started by parents of children with SEN and are registered as nonprofit entities, despite often having high attendance costs. CSC’s regular 2019-2020 school fees were listed as ranging from EGP 51k – 85k per year. Collectively, all three branches (Continental Language School (CLS), Continental International School (CIS), and the Continental School of Cairo (CSC) which is the dedicated SEN school) serve approximately 1,500 students, with CSC serving 40-50. CSC stresses on its website that it is “not a commercial venture,” with Deputy Principal Maey Elnimer describing it as a “self-sufficient” school. Fees for Hope Academy are in the range of EGP 55k per year, says Principal Nagla Ahmed, although they can increase if the student in question needs extensive one-on-one attention. This income is supplemented as needed by capital put in by the organization’s founders. Ahmed notes that roughly 50% of Hope Academy’s operational costs go towards employing teachers, while the other 50% is used for activities, tools, equipment, and different kinds of therapeutic care.
A shift towards greater inclusivity and accessibility would benefit everyone: Quality inclusive education brings better behavioral and academic outcomes for all children, at a lower cost than segregated education, studies have shown (pdf). Helali estimates the cost of teaching one child with SEN in a specialist school as being equal to the cost of teaching four typically developing children in a mainstream school. So the best and most cost-effective solution would be to support inclusive education and have all schools focus on including children with disabilities or SEN, she argues. And when it comes to both SEN provision and the inclusion of PWD in the workforce, prioritizing accessibility often means developing a product or service that is better for everyone, argues consultant Peter Fremlin. “Sometimes people argue that text messaging was invented for the deaf. I don’t know if that’s technically true, but the pattern is quite believable. And it’s an example of diversity leading to more creative solutions that benefit everyone.”
Government efforts to promote inclusivity have been fueled by the 2018 law on the rights of persons with disabilities. The Education Ministry has long sought to integrate students with disabilities and SEN into mainstream schools (pdf). The new law has boosted this drive, mandating that PWD comprise 5% of the positions at schools and universities and 5% of the workforce of public and private companies that have more than 50 employees. The law emphasizes inclusiveness based on principles of equal citizenship ― marking a shift away from the idea of PWD as being a group in need of charitable support. Being the first of its kind, the law is an important step for Egypt, says Helali.
And for-profit models work when it comes to training and workplace integration. Helm, a social enterprise comprising a for-profit and a nonprofit arm which work in tandem, has given over 5k corporate training sessions to some 900 institutions in the region on inclusive hiring, organizational accessibility, and training needs for employees with disabilities. It also provides regular training sessions for PWD to help them develop their skills to meet the needs of the labor market. There is a substantial market need to provide companies with the tools to overcome their accessibility issues, opening up huge space for for-profit organizations to grow and scale, says Helm’s CEO Amena Elsaie.
Businesses need to look at this beyond CSR: The FEI and the ILO are restarting the Egypt branch of the Global Business and Disability Network. Among the most insidious challenges they face is the complete misuse of the 5% quota by some companies, says Torky. Many Egyptian companies have yet to recognize the economic value of their employees with disabilities. As this UNPRPD-funded document (pdf) notes, “one relatively common practice is for companies to fill the quota in a superficial way, with people receiving an allowance or salary while not being expected to work.” However, companies including Americana, El Araby, and Vodafone Egypt are integrating employees with disabilities into their workforce in a real way ― often through public-private partnerships. This direct demonstration of applicability is the most effective argument they can make use of, say both Elsaie and Torky.
So how could this knowledge be applied to the education sector? If Egypt is to reap the economic benefits of inclusion, greater access to education and skills development for PWD and people with SEN is a must. Cooperation between civil society, the private sector and government has proven the most constructive way of doing this, says Fremlin. For-profit organizations might be able to help complement and scale the work of nonprofit entities offering education services, he speculates.
Big business is also stepping up: Meanwhile, several big companies (including El Araby, Elsewedy, Americana, and Siemens) are working with the Education Ministry to set up specialized technical schools providing vocational training based on new methodologies, says Torky. One of these institutions alone was established with an investment of EGP 50 mn. If schools of this kind could allocate a certain number of places to people with disabilities, it would be a great step towards inclusion and create a pipeline of very employable students, he adds.