PhotoVoice: Inclusion for People with Disabilities Through Photography

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is celebrated annually on December 3 "for the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in an inclusive and sustainable world that embraces humanity in all its diversity," as noted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations.

Amira El Zawahry, a graduate student in AUC’s community psychology program, did not always know her passion would be working with people with disabilities. After completing her undergraduate degree in management, she worked for a multinational company for three years, eventually tiring of the corporate environment and inability to see the direct impact of her work. Thereafter, however, she quickly found her life’s passion.

“I was always interested in psychology and things related to people and making small changes in people’s lives,” says El Zawahry. “I found out about the psychology master's at AUC. At that point in time, it was the revolution, and with all the changes that were happening in Egypt, I decided to pursue community psychology because it looked at the problems in the community with a more holistic or bigger perspective. Ever since I started my master's, I’ve been drawn to the area of people with disabilities. Perhaps it was partially because of a video I watched of a competition to transform a public space to be more accessible for people with disabilities. I noticed a gap between the other country's intervention and Egypt's, which made me want to learn more about this area.”

Inspired by her frustrations, El Zawahry, as part of attaining her community psychology degree, became involved with Helm, a nonprofit founded by two AUC alumni, dedicated to bridging the gap between people with disabilities and the rest of society. Through her internship with Helm, El Zawahry launched PhotoVoice, a project that empowers people with disabilities through photography.  After several weeks of shooting the photographs, El Zawahry and the project’s participants prepared an exhibition, which was debuted at City for All, an international conference hosted by Helm that aims to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities who are living in Egypt.  

“What’s important to clarify is that Photovoice is not about the quality of the photo," emphasized El Zawahry. "It’s not about creating professional photographers, but about the message and participants expressing themselves and telling their stories through the photos. Our project adopted a strength-based approach, which is also a principal of community psychology. We try to build on the strength of the people, rather than focusing on the barriers they find on a daily basis because those can be endless."

This project was also part of El Zawahry’s innovative research as a master's student in AUC's community psychology program. “The goals of this project and research are to create awareness and show other forms of communication for social change that could be used instead of more traditional research methods. This is more creative; it engages people,” she said.

Although each participant’s personality and perception of strength were very different, El Zawahry did note one commonality. “One common theme was the appreciation of the existence of an NGO like Helm: a place where they can all participate and do something for the cause of serving people with disabilities, and a place where they feel helpful. It is a place that appreciates their potential,” she El Zawahry noted.

As El Zawahry explained, many stigmas exist that marginalize people with disabilities in Egyptian society, while there is no good reason for this marginalization. “We had someone with visual impairment taking photos," she reflected. "By introducing a concept called sensory photography, we challenged the perception that photography is not only based on the visual sense, but that we can use other senses as well. The participant was able to take the photos with a few simple tips and techniques. In order to make the photo accessible to her, we would explain each and every detail to give a clear image of what the photo looks like.” 

Further highlighting the impressive strengths of people with disabilities, El Zawahry added, “One of the things that really amazed me while doing this project is the ability of most of the participants: how they work to find solutions to do things that other people do. Their bravery amazes me. Working with these people, I know there’s no reason for the stigma that exists. Helm is an amazing example of inclusion for persons with disabilities in Egypt. This is why the participants are so attached and committed to the place.”

The existence of organizations like Helm is a vital part of creating a more inclusive and accessible society for people with disabilities. Additionally, it is the continuous hard work of people like El Zawahry that is so important in this mission.

“I will always have a strong tie with Helm,” she said. “Every time there’s a chance for me to work with them, I find myself going to the organization. I enjoy being a part of it, and if there’s a chance, I’d be very happy to continue working there. Helm gave me the opportunity to be creative and do something new with my research, which is not always the case.”

El Zawahry also hopes to do several more exhibitions and PhotoVoice projects in the future.