The wilaya, or state government office, of Marrakech, sits among palm trees and gardens in the heart of the city. Today, the elegant, red-clay building is a modern, accessible place. Strips along the floor guide the blind, and ramps and elevators let people in wheelchairs move freely. But it did not always look like this. Earlier this decade, disabled citizens could not navigate the wilaya on their own. Steps blocked the way; the blind depended on people to guide them. 

Now, the wilaya represents one of the first major changes in a region that is slowly adapting to more inclusive ways.

In 2008 and 2009, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia all ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a worldwide push for equal rights for disabled people. The move signaled the countries’ common intention to move away from their outdated treatment of the disabled as people needing charity, protection, and medical treatment—and instead carve out space for them to become active, integrated members of society. 

Since then, although intentions have become laws, long-standing prejudices and inadequate infrastructure still keep disabled people in the shadows. Now, activists and architects are trying to change that.

Since then, although intentions have become laws, long-standing prejudices and inadequate infrastructure still keep disabled people in the shadows. Now, activists and architects are trying to change that.

“Accessibility is about inclusion,” says Amal Benmansour, Moroccan architect and professor at the École Nationale d’Architecture in Marrakech, who renovated the wilaya in 2016. “Without accessibility, we exclude handicapped people.”

A History of Exclusion

There’s no doubt about it.

The majority of handicapped people do not go to school, in part because of cities and buildings that are physically inaccessible, in part because of attitudes that cast them as incapable. The ones who do get educated typically spend their school years in special needs classes, separated from their peers. The consequences ripple into adulthood, when a lack of education, compounded by discrimination, makes people with handicaps much less likely to get hired than other adults, despite laws requiring employers to hire a minimum percentage of handicapped people.

That’s not all. Fewer than half can access health care—either because services are not available, or transportation is inaccessible. Many handicapped people find themselves entirely left out of things most citizens take for granted, like access to religious buildings or voting booths. 

It’s hard to say exactly how many people this affects, because disabilities in North Africa are chronically underreported, but global figures give an idea: around the world about 15% of people live with some kind of disability—including physical, seeing, hearing, and intellectual disabilities—which puts the number in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia well into the millions. 

The result is not just a human rights failure; research in Morocco suggests that the country sacrifices 2% of its GDP by failing to integrate its handicapped populations.

The result is not just a human rights failure; research in Morocco suggests that the country sacrifices 2% of its GDP by failing to integrate its handicapped populations. 

This fact is slowly percolating into the general North African consciousness.

Reframing the Concept of “Handicaps”

Benmansour, who is able-bodied, got involved in accessibility early in his career, after realizing that his training as an architect gave him a unique potential.

“A handicap is an interaction between a person with a deficiency and a maladapted environment,” he said. In the past, disability work had mostly focused on the person with the deficiency. But Benmansour saw an opportunity on the other side of the equation: the environment. He realized that, as an architect, he had some influence over the spaces people inhabit. 

“I felt it was a call to action,” he said.

He focused his training on accessible architecture and began taking on projects in Morocco and Algeria, which eventually led to his selection for the overhaul of the wilaya.

Benmansour is one of a growing number of architects (now including his former students) who are focused on building environments that are more inclusive. But it is not an easy task.

One of the biggest challenges is confronting the society’s general lack of awareness of handicapped issues, says Manel Mhiri, the former regional director of Project DECIDE, a Maghreb-based initiative to empower the disabled. 

She says that, formally, these countries have committed to creating more accessible spaces. “We have a lot of laws,” she says, “but in reality it’s not happening at all.” Poor monitoring and enforcement are part of the problem, she says, but she thinks the issue is more than just a lack of will.

“There’s a lot of buildings in Tunisia where we have the ramp in the entrance but it’s all blocked,” she said. “There is an obstacle, like a door, or the ramp is not built at the right angle.” Sometimes, she added, the ramp is so steep it’s not even practical for an able-bodied person, let alone someone in a wheelchair.

In Morocco, news articles captured other accessibility gaffes: a bus whose doors were too narrow to admit a wheelchair and a ramp whose good intentions were undercut by missing safety rails.

But Mhiri believes these flaws arise out of a lack of awareness, rather than bad intentions.

Benmansour has found the same thing. “The old architects—it’s not their fault if they don’t think about accessibility, because no one ever taught it to them,” he says. In their time, he adds, “handicapped people were not recognized.”

Yet the problem isn’t just flaws in what is there; it’s also in what is not there. 

“It’s not enough to make the wilaya accessible,” Benmansour says. “You have to think, how do people get there from their homes?”

Mohamed El Khalili, president of the Collective for the Promotion of the Rights of Handicapped People, has used a wheelchair since 1980, when an accident left him paraplegic. Despite modifications to some buildings, he still needs an aide with him at all times, because, he says, although some buildings are perfectly accessible, there are breaks in the chain. The “accessibility chain” that he describes includes roads, transportation systems, buildings, and bathrooms. If any piece of the chain is broken, it’s not that useful.

El Khalili still feels very limited within his own country, where he avoids entire cities, like Casablanca, because he can’t get around, and requires an aide even in more progressive cities like Marrakech. But his many travels have shown El Khalili that accessibility is possible—and it drives him to keep pushing for it at home.

A New Generation of Architects

Benmansour, who has been teaching architecture at Morocco’s École Nationale d’Architecture for 10 years, believes change will come from the new generation of architects, including some of his former students, who are already working with him.

Ask yourselves a single question: What you have built—does it exclude anyone?’ And they are very sensitive to this.

He says, “When my students work on a project, I tell them, ‘Ask yourselves a single question: What you have built—does it exclude anyone?’ And they are very sensitive to this.” 

For Benmansour, that sensitivity comes from interacting with the people his work affects. So he leads by example, making people with disabilities participants in his process. Before changing the wilaya, for instance, he took disabled people with him to see what problems they ran into with the existing buildings.

Benmansour also makes it part of his job to go out on the sidewalk and talk to passersby about their needs. He steers clear of architectural blunders by asking for feedback on his ongoing projects before they’re complete and making adjustments as he goes. 

And he believes that things will only improve as new waves of freshly trained architects hit the streets. “We’re investing in the future generation of architects,” he says. “And I think that’s beginning to bear fruit.”

Mhiri says there’s no reason not to move in this direction. 

“If any institution considers an accessible building from its design [stage], it doesn’t come at any additional costs,” she says. She adds that, beyond that, it makes the building more welcoming to other visitors, like pregnant women and the elderly. 

Mhiri, who continues to work on advocating for the disabled, says that the Maghreb only stands to gain by integrating these people into their societies.

While change is slow, gradually changing mindsets are making it possible to imagine a future for North Africa that looks more like the “after” picture of the Marrakech wilaya.

Marrakech Wilaya BEFORE photo of front entrance steps

Marrakech Wilaya AFTER photo of front entrance steps and RAMP