By Noor Fatima
The world as we knew it no longer exists. In the midst of a deadly global pandemic, the entirety of the human race has had to reestablish its idea of 'normal'. But in spite of this, some of the world's most significant issues are still wreaking havoc on societal progression. In Pakistan's case, there are a countless number of such issues, and our new series, 'Rebuilding Pakistan', seeks to build an awareness of them, as well as highlight ways in which they can be resolved. To kick us off, we are bringing the focus back to the communities that need us most.
Differently abled Pakistanis
Differently abled people across Pakistan have struggled to have their voice heard for years on end. One of the main reasons behind this disregard is that disability issues are concerned a niche issue. They don’t exactly grab headlines or give politicians the desired clout amongst their constituencies that might help them in re-election. And with the world trying to adapt to the new normal, conventional wisdom might suggest that closing our eyes to problems like disability issues for the foreseeable future would be the right thing to do.
However, this would be a political, moral and logical wrong that would do more harm to our country than good. At a time when the world at large and the Pakistani society in particular is trying to heal from various fault lines, investing on something like disability rights would help the society channelize its energy in the right direction.
According to the Human Rights Watch, Pakistan has roughly 3.3 million to 27 million people with disabilities. While these figures may be small compared to the total population of Pakistan, it still makes for a substantial minority of the country. Furthermore, this number does not include the friends and families of differently abled people, which make up a more broadly marked cohort of the community. In addition to this, it needs to be understood that aging intersects with disability. As people age, disability becomes far more pronounced. With around 15 million people over the age of 60 which is predicted to become 40 million by 2050, Pakistan simply cannot ignore disability rights.
Where does Pakistan stand when it comes to disability rights in the country?
To start off, there is no denying the fact that the country’s heart is in the right place. As per Article 4 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan, every citizen has the right to be treated equally under the law. According to Article 25(1), and therefore, all citizens of Pakistan are constitutionally equal individuals. Pakistan is also a member of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which serves the fundamental purpose of protecting and promoting the rights of differently abled persons. As a member to the Convention, Pakistan is liable to play its due role in the fulfilment of certain obligations such as taking administrative and legislative measures to protect and promote the social, economic and cultural rights of persons with disabilities.
Pakistan also has a legislative framework that aims to guarantee rights for differently abled citizens. The Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, 1981 was established in the pursuit of facilitating and granting safeguards to persons with disabilities in every sphere of their lives. In 2002, National Policy for Persons with Disabilities was formalized through consultation with various Federal Ministers, NGO’s and Provincial Social Welfare and Education Departments. Some key policy areas that this particular legislation addressed were prevention, detection, intervention, counselling, vocational training, employment, rehabilitation, advocacy and designing of buildings and public places to facilitate persons with disabilities.
In addition, the Special Citizens (Right to Concession in Movement) Act, 2009 granted additional provisions to differently abled persons with respect to movement and transport. The Act aimed to grant disabled persons concessions in all modes of public and private transport.More recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in its decision directed the federal and provincial governments to ensure equal participation of differently abled persons as per the law, which requires 2 percent of employees in an establishment to be differently abled. While there are laws that protect the rights of the said community, it is the implementation that leaves much to be desired.
There are numerous challenges that differently abled people currently living in Pakistan face and that continue to effect civil society members who work for the welfare of these individuals. Unfortunately, no studies or surveys have been conducted at the national level that may help provide reliable and accurate data that depicts the magnitude of differently abled persons in Pakistan. Due to this, policy makers have been unsuccessful in making the necessary arrangements and policies for the betterment of the community. In addition, the authenticity of such statistics is also questionable. The policy frameworks that are in place in Pakistan do not contain an effective and enforceable framework that would actually help operationalize programs and services to persons with disabilities. The Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981, for example, lacks such a mechanism for effective implementation. Additionally, the level of awareness that is needed to address the rights of differently abled persons has for the most part not been realized yet. Concessions in fare rates are also not granted to differently abled persons as authorities do not cooperate with them and continue to disregard their rights provided by law. Pakistan’s current education system has not been able to integrate or sensitize the needs and aspirations of the community. Therefore, it would be fair to say that the legislation in place in Pakistan has been ineffective in upholding the rights of persons with disabilities and granting them a fair chance at living an equally prosperous, successful and dignified life as other citizens of the State, and this is something we, as citizens have great control over.
A good starting point would be to stop calling people ‘disabled’ – a term that seems to carry a negative connotation with regards to how capable a person is. The term carries with it a sense of burden and stigma that needs to be finished. A more positive term would be “differently abled”, as pointed out by the aforementioned Supreme Court verdict. This would help in changing public perceptions around people who are differently abled. It is also of utmost importance that we work to integrate members of the differently abled community not just into society, but also into our workplaces, so as to provide a means of economic and social mobility. Such initiatives were recently carried out by non-profit organisation NOWPDP, which paired mentors, executives from across the world, with mentees, differently abled Pakistanis who struggled with employment opportunities. A number of other organisations, like the Karachi Down Syndrome Program, have also worked to create awareness and build an enabling environment for people of determination. But most importantly, we must build compassion. Making content accessible online, activities across the country inclusive, and working to empower the community through our own individual means is the most effective solution to the stigma associated with differently abled Pakistanis.
However, an equal responsibility falls upon the state. It is necessary that the government works on extending health care coverage to all people with disabilities with no discrimination. Recent developments, like the Sehat Sahulat system and the Ehsaas Porogram do give us hope, but it is necessary that these are implemented effectively to see real, tangible impacts. The government can also improve social security incomes for the differently abled to provide them with financial support at this difficult time, and make long-term efforts to build a more inclusive economic structure. Perhaps the most significant measure, however, would be providing training and education programs and making the education system, in terms of schools, colleges and universities much more accessible to children of the differently abled community. This will not only provide a much more stable, nurturing environment for the community, but will also increase Pakistan's economic productive potential, strengthening our labour force.
We hope to see a better Pakistan, for all.