It is election time. Political Parties are busy in electioneering, using various slogans and gimmicks to woo voters. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have recently presented their manifestos, with the usual focus on ‘hot’ election issues: poverty, healthcare, energy crises, etc. Special education, however, is one domain that remains overlooked. A closer look at their manifestos shows a general lack of empathy and understanding of the issues surrounding the needs of people with special needs. For example, PML-N has only devoted a single sentence to special needs in its manifesto. The PPP have done better, but their focus is on “accessible environments”, which only highlight the needs of a few — those who are wheelchair-bound — ignoring many others who may have other needs. This piece is an attempt to motivate all political parties to propose “inclusive” manifestos: policies that are cognizant of the whole spectrum of disabilities; policies that aim to make these individuals feel participative and welcomed; policies that make our country inclusive. A prerequisite to solving any problem is to first understand its magnitude and importance. The 2017 census in Pakistan failed to accurately determine the number of disabled people in the country. It is estimated that at least 20 million Pakistanis — accounting for 10 percent of the country’s population — are disabled. This figure in all certainty underestimates the problem, with countless medical practitioners being unable to diagnose neurodiverse conditions. A proper diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders hinges on the availability of qualified doctors — with training in behavioral and mental conditions — who are a scarce resource in Pakistan. Consequently, the awareness and empathy regarding such disorders is deplorable. Credit should be given to PTI for briefly acknowledging this grave issue in their manifesto. The roots of an inclusive Pakistan lie in an inclusive educational system, or an inclusive classroom, which provides equal opportunities to all, irrespective of their mental and physical capabilities Conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Down Syndrome, dyslexia or dyspraxia are paid little to no heed in our education system. A student with any of these conditions experiences a combination of social, communicative, physical, behavioral, and reading-related challenges. If there are no inclusive interventions provided in schools, young children with these conditions can grow up to become a marginalised segment of society. The roots of an inclusive Pakistan lie in an inclusive educational system, or an inclusive classroom, which provides equal opportunities to all, irrespective of their mental and physical capabilities. An inclusive classroom is a general education classroom in which a typically developing students (such as those with ASD or ADHD) learn and develop alongside their normally developing peers. The importance of inclusive classrooms is well recognised in the developed world. For example, in the US, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that children with special needs be educated in the “least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs”. In simple words, this law makes the state responsible for accommodating kids with special needs in regular classrooms, turning them into inclusive classrooms. An inclusive classroom holds enormous benefits for everyone involved. Its purposeful accommodation can allow students with autism, ADHD, and other disabilities to imitate peer models for friendships, social initiations, and behavioral skills. This is based on the premise that individuals with the most neurodiverse conditions are primarily visual thinkers and learn best from direct observation. And who could be a better role-model in this regard than typical peers of their own age, for whom social interactions and communication come naturally. Integrated classrooms have benefits for the entire society. For example, when neurodiverse children make developmental progress in these classrooms, they gain greater access to the general curriculum, enabling their parents to participate more in their educational activities. Likewise, for students without any disability, an inclusive classroom can foster empathy and compassion, resulting in meaningful friendships via increased appreciation of individual differences. Inclusive classrooms can yield long-term positive effects for a society like ours, which yearns for tolerance and acceptance. Unfortunately, the concept of integrated classrooms is missing in Pakistan. While we are fortunate to have a few Down Syndrome and ASD institutes functioning in major cities such as Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, they provide services to these children in segregated settings, without any exposure to typically developing children. Similarly, our regular public and private schools lack adequate academic and social accommodation for children with special needs. Consequently, an ASD or an ADHD child — unless he is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum — is unable to attend a regular classroom of a reputable school. Just like the developed world, the state has to take the lead in introducing inclusive classrooms in Pakistan. This is a difficult undertaking. Public schools in Pakistan are mostly substandard — with a dearth of teachers, resources, and up-to-date curriculum, these schools hardly provide proper education to typically-developing kids, let alone those with neurodiverse needs. Private schools, in contrast, offer high quality education, but have little economic and social incentive to offer inclusive classrooms. The cost of training regular teachers to effectively handle kids with special needs is high, and there will likely be social pressures, as parents of typically developing children may not prefer to have their kids study in an inclusive classroom that includes children with special needs. However, if the National Commission for Human Rights in Pakistan develops a policy framework with inclusive education, the developmental rights of countless differently-abled children can be safeguarded. The state can play a crucial role in the above situation. It can step in to help the private schools by offering financial assistance, subsidizing the cost of offering an inclusive classroom. More broadly, the state can use its resources, such as media, to create social awareness amongst the public, thereby making it attractive for private schools to introduce inclusive classrooms without facing social resistance. The Sindh Disability Law passed by the ex-PPP government is a step in the right direction, because it specifies and acknowledges the whole spectrum of disabilities for the first time in Pakistan. But for all the political parties to wake up from their slumber on their own, is maybe asking for too much. The onus then falls on the special needs parents, autism or Down Syndrome support groups, and the civil society, to put pressure on the government as well as on the private schools’ administration. Ultimately, in a country like Pakistan, a public-private partnership model offers the only ray of hope for neurodiverse children and their families in their quest to finding inclusive classrooms. As Zell Miller once rightly said: “When a child has no hope, a nation has no future.” This hope-inspired future of Pakistan’s special needs children lies in the hands of our leaders. Mr Imran Khan, Mr Bilawal Zardari, Mr Shahbaz Sharif — we are looking at you! The author is currently pursuing her MS in Child Development from Tufts University. Previously, she has served as chief editor of The Ravi and news editor of The Tufts Daily Published in Daily Times, July 18th 2018.