Fatima Barki, who spent most of her life in a wheelchair after an accident as a child, wonders what the point is behind so ceremoniously observing International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Pakistan when “we are not even considered ‘normal’ human beings.
“For the last 20 years, I have seen the world change around me, but the mindsets are still the same. People are not ready to accept that I am just differently abled, and my needs are just like those of any other person,” shared the native of Okara, south Punjab.
On December 3, 2020, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser, at an event to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities at Parliament House, resolved to undertake policy interventions to bring long-term reforms for the welfare of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
The government not only has a lot of ground to cover in terms of health, education and economic uplift of PWDs but it also needs to strive towards building an inclusive society that does not shun away the differently-abled. The whole narrative around PWDs and their acceptability in society needs to change, and barriers barring their progress need to be removed.
Pakistan’s population was recorded at 207.774 million, according to the provisional results of the 2017 Census. According to Chief Census Commissioner Asif Bajwa, only a million disabled people were added to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics database since the last census in 1998. The figure was criticised by rights activists for not portraying the factual ground picture, as until PWDs are recognised numerically, their plight will continue practically.
Speaking to Sabaat, Adnan Ahmed, the founder of Inclusive Pakistan, an organisation working for persons with visual impairment in Karachi, said, “It is unfortunate that in all these years we have not been able to change the mindset of people. This narrative that we [PWDs] are different from those who are able to see, hear, think or move about without any support has to change. I was privileged enough to be born in a family that understood my needs and completed my studies, but everyone does not meet the same fate.”
He added that society must stop considering PWDs as ‘God’s punishment’ on a family for their past deeds. Like Ahmed, his wife Fizza is also visually impaired but she lost her eyesight later in life due to a health condition and it took her over a decade before she managed to come out of the shock. However, today she is engaged as a cook and make-up trainer, teaching people with visual impairment how to live a normal life using their other senses.
Another aspect to remember is that women with disabilities are treated differently from men, since men can move about more openly as compared to women as they are not hindered by the many cultural barriers of our society. For example, a man with visual impairment will readily be helped to cross a street as compared to a similar woman.
Shazia Khan, an activist for PWDs’ rights, said that women have to suffer more as compared to men: they have a hard time finding a match and their health issues are not given priority resulting in further complications, especially wheelchair-bound women.
Federal Information Commissioner Zahid Abdullah, who is the author of ‘Disabled by Society’ and ‘The Wise Man’, has been working on disability rights for over two decades as a trainer, resource person and researcher. Speaking to Sabaat, he said that though a lot more has to be done, the government is slowly progressing to recognise the needs of PWDs, such as by providing health cards and the prime minister’s recent announcement of cash grants worth Rs2,000 for PWDs.
“Our public spaces, educational institutes and offices need to recognise PWD needs and assist them in merging with the mainstream, otherwise they will remain a separate segment of society. With the help of technology, they are able to read and write but how many people in rural areas have access to such facilities,” wondered Abdullah.
It is a common misconception that PWDs are unable to reach their full potential yet many people have proven this wrong. In today’s tech-savvy world, there are people like Hassan Ali, who with a hearing impairment is a video blogger and host of a TV programme ‘Ishaaron Ki Zuban (Language of Signs)’, and MK Anwar, who despite suffering with Retinitis Pigmentosa since birth, sings rap songs and has his own YouTube channel and also launched two music videos.
“Initially I was told that with age I will get my eyesight back, however that has not happened. As I grew up, it kept deteriorating and today I can hardly see. I had planned my life thinking that once I gain my eyesight I will fulfill my dreams. But even now, in this condition, I will follow my dreams and hopefully, I will be releasing my music album soon. One day I will make a platform that will give space to all PWDs with talent,” shared Anwar.