Disdain for disability

Dedicated to the struggles of late Dr.Fatima Shah, who was a  leading Pakistani Gynaecologist, till  the onset retinitis pigmentosa in 1954( which resulted in becoming fully blind by 1957) and transformed her into the vision of the blind at international and national levels.

It is a terrifying fact that the most economically vulnerable are much more likely to suffer from various sorts of disabilities. Neither being poor nor being disabled is a crime, but the modern economic system treats these conditions as such – even in developed countries. In spite of the spirit and abilities that disabled people may possess, they are rarely given the opportunity to put them on display or derive benefit from them. Opportunities for rehabilitation are also hard to come by in a country like Pakistan.

Ironically, it is two Pakistani dictators who have probably done most for the disabled in this country. One was General Zia-ul-Haq, who endorsed inclusiveness by keeping his special needs daughter by his side at many public appearances. He also oversaw the passing of “The Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, which was passed into law on December 29, 1981. The other was General Musharraf, who permitted blind persons to take the civil service exams. Saima Niazi, who herself was barred from the same exams because of her blindness (and also one of Musharraf’s friend’s daughters)must be commended for her victorious advocacy. However, millions of capable disabled Pakistanis are still deprived of their constitutional rights.

The disabled are barely seen in public spaces in Pakistan. This space shrinks further for women and girls with disabilities. A disturbing video that recently emerged on social media showed that disabled children are often victimized by those charged with their care. Many challenged children and young adults are chained by their parents or guardians and this cruelty is sanctioned culturally.

The reserved quota of two percent in government jobs is not implemented with transparency by the regional and federal governments. The blind and peaceful disabled protestors who want to raise this issue have been violently silenced by the police.

A disturbing video that recently emerged on social media showed that disabled children are often victimized by those charged with their care. Many challenged children and young adults are chained by their parents or guardians and this cruelty is sanctioned culturally

Although there is no visible official notice that denies entrance to the disabled, in actuality the architecture of nearly every building, any educational institution, hospital, parks, cinemas, road, market place, offices. conveys this memorandum, loud and clear. There is no concept of giving access to the disabled in day to day life. Ramps and vestibules are the rarest sights. If there are lifts they are seldom fitting the needs of a wheel bound user. Signs bearing a white cane are seen occasionally but there is no separate lane for the disabled anywhere. Not a single traffic signal, even in the capital city has voice signals. Not a single five-star hotel has rest rooms that could be deemed fit for the disabled.

Health is not recognized as a fundamental right in the Pakistani constitution. The public policy planning and legislation on health are mute on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights of the disabled. No authentic statistical records are available regarding a wide spectrum of violence including sexual violence against disabled people. Sexual violence against disabled women and girls is yet to be studied scientifically.

An unsafe back street abortion, suicide, getting killed or living a life with the baggage of community condemnation are some of predictable options for the unfortunate disabled victims who become pregnant. The suffering becomes unexplainable when women with cognitive disabilities are raped and they conceive as well. There is no health care facility that could exclusively address the needs of the disabled. Trained medical doctors (even those from elite medical schools) are not skilled in treating persons with disabilities. In my entire life so far I have come across not more than twenty practicing physicians (of which fifteen were men) with disabilities, most of them had polio and two (one woman and one man) were wheelchair bound.

Any model of inclusive education for children with disabilities is yet to be mainstreamed. There are hardly any web sites that can be used by persons with a different set of physical impairments. In many instances persons with congenital physical limitations are automatically considered “fit only for certain vocations”.

In this bleak scenario the academic fellowships offered to Pakistani citizens with disabilities especially women by the governments of the US and Australia are laudable. Some inspiring individuals too are offering exemplary services. Still, the colossal challenges of disability cannot be addressed effectively without the involvement of the state and its pillars. The media and academia should regularly organize multi-level stakeholders’ dialogues for comprehending the dynamics of disabilities. Disabled-responsive legislative actions must be instituted through the legislators and if needed the concerned courts may intervene.

The disability specific disdain entrenched in the official systems reverberate in the societal stance and vice versa. Pakistan decided to count the disabled quite late and found only 0.48 percent of them in the 2017 census. Thus, it counted out, callously the disabilities and abilities of more than 15 percent of the population. The scantiness of disabled-related public records not only thwarts services delivery but worsens their marginalization especially in humanitarian settings. Disability survives in the surroundings, not in the humans. A state not empathizing with its people who need substantial support not empty sympathy eventually becomes the symbol of its own moral and management disabilities!


The writer is a campaigner “Ramp is Right”. She tweets @survivorwins

Published in Daily Times, December 31st 2017.