My Hero is a new series designed to shine a spotlight on a person or group with special needs who dedicates their time to making the lives of other like people better in some way. These people are all heroes who spend their limited energy, resources and time to make the world a better, brighter, or more accessible place for people with chronic illnesses or have special needs. They don’t have to be a spoonie or zebra to qualify. They need only to serve those individuals in their work.
Meet the Disabled Tourist Guide, El Houssaine Ichen, The Zebra Pit’s My Hero for October. Houssaine lives in Tounfite, a remote town in the middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Born into a family of 9 children, Houssaine’s family couldn’t afford vaccinations for him and he contracted polio at age 3. As a result, Houssaine’s legs have been paralyzed. At an early age, Houssaine learned to walk using leg braces and crutches. “As I have grown up with this handicap, I do not let it slow me down. I enjoy playing football, trekking and swimming. I am also a keen chess player and like music,” Houssaine tells me in our chats over email.
Naturally, when Houssaine decided to open his own business as a tourist guide, he wasn’t about to let his disability hold him back. He enjoyed travel because he liked the way it challenged him. When daily life sometimes felt like it was stuck in a rut, travel became the place he tested himself. “It pushes people to their limits and gets them outside their comfort zone,” says Houssaine. He felt compelled to begin helping others with special needs succeed at travel because he wanted to share what he himself felt while traveling. “With traveling, I discovered how resourceful I am when I’m exposed to new places, people and experiences. Maybe it’s finding my way around a busy city, or ordering a coffee when I don’t speak the language. I always feel pride when I finish my trip successfully…It builds my confidence. I wanted to give that to other people with special needs.”
Educated in an institution for the physically challenged run by the British welfare fund “Save the Children,” Houssaine was separated from his family, with whom he is very close, at a young age. In college, he obtained a BA in Modern Art along with additional education and diplomas in informatics. He can speak Tamazight, Arabic, English, French and basic Dutch. While he’s grateful for his education and the opportunities its afforded him, he’s always regretted having to leave home so young and he sees that not much has changed in the way people with special needs are perceived in Morocco.
“Despite my academic qualifications, I am aware that many Moroccan companies discriminate against the disabled, an attitude I am campaigning to change at [the] government level by raising awareness of the difficulties faced by disabled Moroccans in the workforce. It is my ambition to develop my own viable tourism business by providing information on accessible tourism for disabled people and persons with reduced mobility.”
In order to help foster awareness, Houssaine has been giving speeches around Morocco, inspiring people to integrate with people with disabilities. “Our society needs to realize that this is a huge problem that many of us are dealing with. We are very capable of being…successful employees, or even employers, and being able to provide for our families. My expectations would be to stop the discrimination against people with special needs and for businesses to hire based on qualifications.”
Houssaine proves every day just how industrious people with special needs can be. Since 2013, Houssaine has guided nearly 100 guests on trips throughout Morocco. The Disabled Tourist Guide offers his guests much more than just pre-planned trips, though he has plenty of recommendations for wonderful and exciting adventures both on and off the beaten path. Before taking someone on a tour, he speaks with them extensively about their needs and abilities to ensure that he understands how to accommodate both their wants and needs. Houssaine is committed to making everyone’s trip easier, more comfortable and unforgettable.
I asked Houssaine how he might go about helping someone with an invisible illness that has chronic fatigue, heat intolerance and sun sensitivity. In a country like Morocco, situated on the Mediterranean and partially located in the Sahara Desert, I feared I might be asking too much. It turns out Morocco’s climate is more diverse than I realized. Houssaine was all too happy to educate me about the terrain, climate zones and seasonal proclivities of Morocco, ensuring me he has what it takes to help guests choose the ideal time to visit this gorgeous and wondrous country. It appears there are certain times of the year you could visit almost any region during more temperate periods, though on where and when, specifically, I’ll leave to Houssaine to guide you.
Whether you’re looking for a coastal Mediterranean holiday, a trek through the Atlas Mountains or a tour of Casablanca, Houssaine assures me spring is the most beautiful time of the year to visit, when the landscape is green and lush. For more information on tours and travel in Morocco with The Disabled Tourist Guide, be sure to visit Houssaine’s website.
Of course, Houssaine serves anyone who would like to utilize his services regardless of ability. And if you’re concerned about him keeping up, don’t. You might be surprised at how difficult able-bodied people sometimes find it to keep up with Houssaine!
The Zebra Pit wants to recognize anyone who goes the extra mile for others despite having challenges of their own. The work can be either paid or volunteer, great or small. If you know someone who should be recognized (even yourself), send an email and let us know about them!