A Woman of Distinction

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Dr. Heba Hagrass

On Disability Rights and Challenges in Egypt

Dr. Heba Hagrass, board member of the National Council for Women and member of the advisory committee of the National Council for Disabilities Affairs in Egypt, has been widely recognized as an advocate for Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Egypt, the Arab region, and the world since 1989. An international consultant and trainer on the rights of people with disabilities, Dr. Hagrass strongly believes that persons with disabilities need to know their rights and have their voices heard; she has trained grassroots disability leaders on advocacy and lobbying. Becoming a member of the Egyptian parliament, Dr. Hagrass has now set her sights on the policy level in order to make Egyptian laws more inclusive of persons with disabilities.

Cairo East Magazine had the honor of speaking with Dr. Hagrass about her lifetime mission, as a woman with disabilities herself, to bring change to the way in which persons with disabilities are viewed, afforded opportunities, and treated in Egypt.

 

CEM: You have made substantial achievements in the recognition of the rights of the disabled over the course of your studies and career. Can you tell us about the high points of this journey?

HH: I participated in the drafting of the UN convention for the rights of people with disabilities. My PHD was in the field of marketing people with disabilities in the Egyptian labor market. This is really important because it’s the number one problem for people with disabilities that suffer to complete their education and then at the end of the path, cannot find employment.

Being part of drafting the Egyptian Law for People with Disabilities to hopefully, which will be made public soon, through my new role as a member of parliament is a major milestone, as well as taking part in drafting the National Strategy of People with Disabilities for the Kingdom of Bahrain.

What does your work involve, and how do you balance a busy schedule, including attending conferences, with raising a family?

I didn’t have time to attend many conferences during my time as Head of the National Council on Disability Affairs since I was busier “Arranging the home from the inside”. I don’t watch TV at all; that saves me a lot of time which I’d much rather be spending with my family and friends.

It takes a lot of hard work and determination to achieve what you have done, what would be your advice to young people who want to contribute effectively to society?

People have to understand that they need to work very hard; it’s inevitable. You cannot build yourself or even raise a child based on the cultural concept that work is exhausting and consuming. A lot of people were asking me how I could balance between studying, working and raising my kids; I was always juggling my different roles at the same time because I believe that the only path for a person is to work and make an effort and build yourself and be an outstanding person. You don’t have to be an outstanding person but you have a proper place in society; you have to work to reach your goals.

What have you seen as being the greatest challenges you have faced?

I think getting married in a society where people do not believe that people with disabilities should get married, have kids and live a normal life. “Does her husband love her; can she make it as a mom?” I think these were the main challenges; people were constantly judging and evaluating me. Thank God, I think I did well.

You have personally had to cope with the physical limitations of needing to use a wheelchair, has this given you an added level of empathy?

Of course, as the saying goes, “You have to be in it to feel it.” Being disabled since the age of 14 has made me constantly challenge the parameters of my own existence. People can never fully understand, envision or imagine our lives; they have never walked a mile in our shoes. Only a person with a disability can truly feel for or understand the struggles and challenges facing his counterparts, particularly in a country like Egypt.

What are the main challenges remaining, in your view, when it comes to people with disabilities being empowered to become a strong, contributing element in their communities?

Looking up to superheroes like Ammar El Sherei and Taha Hussein sets the bar too high for most disabled people. Not all persons with a disability are gifted with special talents; most are just ordinary people. It’s very stereotypical to expect all disabled people to be some kind of superheroes. This creates a lot of stress, and later disappointment, for the families and the children who are growing up with disabilities and are expected to perform with super talents. >>

Do the hurdles exist more in the public perception of disability or in the approach of the authorities in working to provide better laws and conditions?

The population of disabled people in Egypt is sadly overlooked by the government and state policies. They find difficulties in meeting their basic needs in terms of health care, education, and of course, employment. People with disabilities are ‘full’ citizens who should be able to exercise their full citizenship rights and not be treated like charity cases.

What can be done to promote the importance of providing better work and lifestyle opportunities to people coping with various levels of disability, and improve public awareness?

The most important thing is to recognize the existence of disabled people and declare their full rights to live and dream of a better life in which they are welcomed and their abilities are utilized. People with disabilities need to know how to advocate for their rights instead of waiting for charity-based organizations to help them.

How important is it for both government bodies and private sector to integrate easier access facilities into buildings?

People with disabilities should not be relegated to the sidelines of life. This would be a form of discrimination against them based on their disability. They need to be integrated into mainstream society. They need to be able to go to the same cinemas, schools, malls, etc.,  like the rest of their fellow citizens. Again, it is their right, and should not be viewed as a favor or a noble charitable act.

What is the most important quality a person needs to succeed?

Determination. You have to have determination and willpower to reach your goal because you probably don’t reach it from the first attempt. If you were able to achieve your dreams from the first trial, you are probably an ordinary person with very ordinary dreams. Your ability to endure and deal with failure makes you stand out and become an inspiration to others.

How important is it for you to be able to teach the coming generation and pass on your knowledge and experience?

This is crucial. If anybody really wants to live forever, they should pass on their expertise to other generations. There’s also a religious element about this. Islam has honored scientists and experts and distinguished them in a very high position. Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) taught us that passing on our knowledge is ‘sadaqa gariyya’ and could be our road to Jennah. It’s not all about material gain or wealth accumulation.

What would you do differently, given a choice?

Nothing. I’m already a passionate fashion designer and I would gladly go back to fashion designing.

Do you have any bad habits that you would like to break?

No, I’m a flexible person who was brought up in a normal way so I have nothing that is really outstanding that I suffer from.

What was the last book you read?

A law book to help me get acquainted with my role in parliament. After all, I don’t come from a law background.

Looking back over your path to where you are now, what were the pivotal moments?

I think my upbringing, how my mother brought me up not to feel pathetic, not to feel that people have to sympathize with me and to face my own problems.

Who has been the greatest influence in your life?

My mother.

Have you ever made major decisions that you later regretted?

I never reached the point of regret in anything because I’m someone who thinks well before acting. Sometimes, you get upset or angry and you feel sorry because I don’t like to lose people but at times you have to lose them.

When you need to get away from it all what do you do to relax?

love travelling and really feel that I deserve it when I work hard. I like to pamper myself and travel to new destinations and explore new places.

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