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Taxation without representation – is a phrase that has echoed through centuries, notably as a statement of resistance against colonialism and more recently visible as a tagline by aggrieved residents of a certain district. As a quiet manifestation of discontent, it exists in geographical, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious and perception biases – both figuratively and literally.

When it comes to being ostracised, people with disabilities are no strangers, having borne the brunt of perceptional bias as one of the largest statistical minorities in the world.

According to The World Health Organisation (WHO) – 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s population are people with disabilities, of this number 80 per cent are found in the developing world.

In Pakistan, more than 18 million are people with disabilities, a figure that is nearly the population of Karachi – one of the biggest cities in the world.

A person with disabilities has had little to no representation in a national dialogue on the issues that continue to plague Pakistan as a nation – barring the 1981 Ordinance passed that sought to cosmetically address some of the issues. Our architecture continues to be inaccessible, population unaware, policy framework inadequate and economic empowerment non-existent for people with disabilities.

Pakistan’s federal budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year has endeavored to address some issues related to people with disabilities – specifically a reduced tax liability for people with disabilities. The paraphrased verbiage is appended below:

To encourage employment of people with disabilities and to provide relief to them it is proposed to reduce tax liability of such persons on income up to Rs. 1 million by 50 per cent, provided that they have a Special CNIC and a disability certificate.

While the tax provision is a step in the right direction, a lot more needs to be done to fundamentally impact the fabric of that segment of our society which has tremendous potential. Statistics for employment and education of people with disabilities in Pakistan make for dire reading and reflect why this tax break will only be beneficial for a fraction of those it is designed for.

About 28 per cent of the population of people with disabilities are educated of which only 14 per cent (or about three out of a 100 people with disabilities) are employed. Similarly only four per cent of Pakistan’s children with disabilities have access to education.

Why is education for the disabled important?

Imagine what a 97 per cent unemployment and 96 per cent illiteracy rate will lead to in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Quetta or Peshawar.

Statistical reminders notwithstanding, when a society no longer equates disenfranchised citizens with a lifelong narrative, but merely as a ticker for ratings or a sympathetic momentary glance in passing – its existential crisis deepens.

While the situation is dire, it is not irreversible since integrative, sustainable, and empathetic work is being done in pockets, dotted all over the country. To enhance the impact manifold, an effective national network is needed to connect the erstwhile disconnected dots.

A framework should be established addressing the core issues faced by people with disabilities so that they can be integrated into mainstream society – from education to healthcare to transport to employment to infrastructure.

For example, minimum quotas for employment for people with disabilities should not be treated as a maximum benchmark, rather as a springboard for further inclusion. Inclusive education should be encouraged to bridge the yawning gap between societal requirements and skilled provisions.

For a person with a disability, the procurement of a Special CNIC and a disability certificate are strenuous and long processes, given the inaccessibility of services and locations; making this process easier and accessible should be the responsibility of NADRA.

To ensure accountability, ownership of this nation-wide framework at the district, city, tehsil, provincial and federal level needs to be clearly defined so that people with disabilities have vocal and effective representation and their voices resonate from the grassroots to the uppermost echelons of power.

A nation and its people are only as strong as their disenfranchised are integrated, individuals aware, infrastructure accessible, and policies inclusive.

The time for fundamental change is now.