‘You are not disabled; you are differently able’. There exist many quotes like this, floating around the internet, that focus on motivating people with disabilities through sympathetic words. These quotes range from a rare occurrence of an inspiring word to mostly condescending rhetoric like the one mentioned above. It is a classic case, of glorifying disabilities, which is where our problem as a nation starts. Take a minute or two to think about this farce. How can a disabled person be differently able? Can he/she do things that an able person can do? Not in essence, because in real terms, disabled people are deprived of taking part in most activities that able people take for granted.
Therefore, beyond such condescending words, we need deep-rooted policies to include marginalized people into the socio-economic fabric of our society. Our nation is bent on addressing this issue with rainbows and hugs; laced with words like ‘special’ schools, and ‘special’ people. There is something very wrong with this celebratory mindset when we deal with the disabled segment of our society. It is one of the more important reasons as to why the national inclusion of this marginalized segment has failed to grow; because we are willing to impart sympathy but not empathy.
Therefore, beyond such condescending words, we need deep-rooted policies to include marginalized people into the socio-economic fabric of our society.
According to the British Council, around a billion people in the world suffer from some sort of disability, making it the biggest minority in the world. While numbers of the disabled population have continued to grow around the world, they have miraculously shrunk in Pakistan according to the successive censuses recorded in 1998 and 2017; that too in the face of worsening numbers in poverty, malnutrition and natural catastrophes for the last two decades in the country.
The statistics in Pakistan especially for the disabled people are recorded erroneously for two reasons. One is the lack of administrative intent, being quite visible in the national survey instruments that consider counting disabled people as low priority. The other is intentional misreporting and misrepresentation of the disabled population. The latter is done by families because of the stigma attached to the presence of disable persons in the household. Their presence is considered a threat to the family status because of the supposed faulty ‘genes’ running in the family blood. It is not only perceived as an insult but also casts a shadow on potential wedding proposals for the siblings of the disabled. Therefore, family members find it more convenient to hide their disabled children and siblings, thinking of them as a sin, wherein revealing them would bring shame to the family.
However it is not entirely a selfish act. Part of the reason dwells in the notion that hiding disabled family members shields them against both the sympathetic and unsympathetic social bashing they will receive once their existence comes to light. In an attempt to protect them, these families succumb to social pressures and isolate these already marginalized members, making them believe in a life of isolation and depravity where they grow up thinking that their own parents are ashamed of them. It might not be the case in some families, but to a large extent, disparity begins at home.
Hiding them is simply delaying the inevitable because at some point they have to go out and live their lives. It is a life for which they have been devotedly trained by their families; a training that massacres their self-esteem, goals and drive; a life where they will have no room for themselves, where they will find more charity and less parity and a life where their potential will remain untapped. It is hence a life, guaranteeing inequality and inequity.
However, not all among this population conform to such shabby ideals as some have the will to rattle the stereotypical cages of society. However, unfortunately among these, even fewer are able to achieve what they set out to due to many disabling barriers placed not only by the social forces as discussed above, but also by the national policies adopted at the government level.
While numbers of the disabled population have continued to grow around the world, they have miraculously shrunk in Pakistan according to the successive censuses recorded in 1998 and 2017; that too in the face of worsening numbers in poverty, malnutrition and natural catastrophes for the last two decades in the country.
The legal and legislative framework in Pakistan of protecting the rights of the disabled is quite weak especially in terms of enforcement. There have been legislations passed like the Disabled Persons Ordinance 1981, National Policy for person with Disabilities 2002, National Plan of Action for persons with Disabilities 2006, the Accessibility code of Pakistan 2006 and the more recent National Commission for Persons with Disability Act 2018. These legislations have proposed some actions including assigned quotas; 2% of the total work force for the disabled, and other general proposals that call for inclusion of the disabled segment by ensuring convenience in conduct of their daily routine matters. But so far there have only been words and no deeds because the enforcement of these proposals has been non-existent.
The population of disabled people in Pakistan ranges from 3 to 22 million according to various estimates by government and private agencies. According to government estimates, the wheelchair ridden population of Pakistan constitutes around 18.93% of the total disabled population but still almost zero work has been done to ensure their ability to partake of in various routine tasks.
At one instance, I asked a prominent disabled activist and motivational speaker of Pakistan, Tanzila Khan, to name a few major buildings in Pakistan that are not wheelchair accessible. She smiled and said that, ‘No building is wheelchair accessible’. That pretty much explains the ignorance and insensitivity of not only the government but also the private sector, which beat the drums of benevolence and concern through departments like Corporate Social Responsibility. Such departments mostly exist for face value and public image enhancement.
A primary reason behind isolation of the disabled people in Pakistan is that we as a nation have failed to identify the potential of this segment in our society; and in doing have refrained from investing in their future. There are abundant national and international examples of people who have beaten the odds of disability, be it Saima Saleem, the first blind civil services officer, Zeeshan Amin, the wheelchair ridden Assistant Commissioner of Peshawar, Tanzila Khan the activist, or even renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking.
The legal and legislative framework in Pakistan of protecting the rights of the disabled is quite weak especially in terms of enforcement.
Therefore, there exist people who have shown that when they are tapped beyond their disabilities, they can do wonders in their chosen fields. However even in light of these achievers, we engage the disabled in sympathy and with charity investments; the likes of ‘special’ schools which are special only in name because they alarmingly lack constructive work in their class rooms. The British Council’s report ‘Moving the Margins’ states that in the absence of quality schooling and gainful employment, in addition to the inability of disabled people to exercise their legal and political rights in Pakistan, the disabled are excluded from being productive members of the society, ‘leading to economic losses of as much as US $11.9 billion to $15.4 billion, or 4.9 to 6.3% of Pakistan’s GDP’. Moreover, we also need to realize that disability comes with increased expenditure; estimates range from 11% to 69% of income, and in a country like Pakistan where poverty is rampant, this becomes an even bigger challenge especially in the absence of adequate policies and standards that can take into account the needs of the disabled population.
A primary reason behind isolation of the disabled people in Pakistan is that we as a nation have failed to identify the potential of this segment in our society; and in doing have refrained from investing in their future.
Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) in 2011 which sternly endorses a rights based approach in order to empower people with disability. Even being a signatory to of CRPD, Pakistan has refrained from efforts to mainstream disabled people in society. Instead an approach based around sentiments of pity and sympathy is taken up that only reinforces the insecurities faced by disabled people. We as a nation need to realize that sympathizing with our disabled countrymen is not going to do any good to either their lives or their self-esteem. Instead, we need to empathize with them and ensure that they have access to equal opportunities to exploit their potential and lead enabled lives.
Atif Ilyas is an Engineering and Development Studies graduate. He frequently writes for various media outlets.