I recently saw some pictures going viral on social media, that showed disabled students taking entrance tests on their own.
Every picture was adorned with thousands of likes and appreciative comments; but unfortunately, nobody questioned why and how these students were going through the institutional apathy extended toward their situation.
Why? Do people believe that persons with disabilities have no self-respect worth accounting for? Instead of providing assistants who could help them take their tests or a separate space where they could escape everyone's stare, the authorities' way of tackling the issue was to make their struggles public.
Over one billion people around the world and 12 to 18 million in Pakistan live with some kind of disability. Pakistan is a signatory of the UN convention, according to which all persons with disability (PWDs) should be accommodated within the state's laws. Pakistan does indeed have a disability quota, a social welfare department, special education systems, discounts and charity; but unfortunately it has been unsuccessful in translating this into any meaningful development for the differently-abled.
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In the entire period I have lived in the UK and worked closely with the British education system as a doctoral researcher, I never found a building or transport service that did not have special adjustments for people with disabilities.
Everything from a building to a bus was designed in a way to facilitate a disabled persons access through their wheelchair. In addition, there is strong state ownership of PWDs; it is the state's responsibility to look after them, provide them with free housing, monthly allowances and whatever they require in order for them to lead a normal life.
On the other hand, disabled persons in Pakistan live without enough rights and substantial support, and whatever bits and pieces they are entitled to, they are unaware of it.
One fine day, Salma, a young maid in a local school of my native city, approached me with a gloomy face. With folded hands, uncertainty and helplessness on her face and eyes filled with tears, she made a request which left me shattered.
'Baji, can you please lend me 3,000 rupees? You know, my husband has been bed ridden after his accident. I tried a lot but could not save 3,000 rupees to buy him a secondhand wheelchair. Nobody is willing to give me such a big amount.'
Salma was the only breadwinner of the family with a disabled husband to support. Since she was doing a humble job, saving Rs3,000 must have been not just an uphill but an impossible task for her, so she ended up begging for it.
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Probably the biggest evil most PWDs in Pakistan suffer from is poverty. There is a strong co-relation between disability and poverty; physical barriers make a disabled person's access to healthcare and education more difficult.
As an expected result, we rarely see persons with disabilities in the public sphere, let alone in higher education. This further aggravates their situation.
The sight of a disabled person begging for money may make you think they are only good enough for begging, whereas in actuality, it is other way round: it is not disability that makes them beg but their aggravated situation, which perpetuates poverty and forces them to beg.
The way forward for persons with disability
Pakistani governments have recently launched a number of initiatives for the youth, women, children and marginalised communities, but the seemingly invisible yet differently-abled tend to get ignored most of the time.
There is a dire need to introduce new programs/reforms for PWDs with the focus on all categories and age groups equally. It is hard to find facilities for children born with disabilities such as Autism and Down's syndrome, forcing the parents of these children to tackle the situation on their own and to the best of their own knowledge. It is no easy task to handle these children without any consultation and support.
Likewise, parents of children with disabilities (especially learning disabilities) also find it difficult to address the issue on their own. A well-entrenched support programme from the government (instead of scattered efforts and special schools run by NGOs and private groups) for such children should do a lot of good.
When I was exposed to British academia, it shook me up to see the lengths they would go to in facilitating the education of their PWDs. In higher education institutions, they are provided with assistants to note and transcribe their lectures; this support remains with them throughout the exams. The purpose is to increase their participation in education and later endeavours as much as possible.
Unfortunately, PWDs in higher education here are the worst victims of institutional ignorance. They are treated equal to normal students; most of them take their exams without any support or leniency provided in the marking. Disabled-friendly buildings or separate spaces in exams are almost non-existent in Pakistan, forcing these people to be confined to their homes.
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Needless to say, educational institutions in Pakistan require a major revamp when it comes to education of special children. The reforms need to start on the policy level.
Institutions must commit to facilitating the differently-abled; allocate an adequte amount of funds for this cause; make buildings wheelchair-friendly; come up with teaching, examining and marking techniques tailored for special needs; and employ disability advisors for students where needed.
Measuring the ordinary student and the struggling one with the same yardstick is one of the harshest treatments we mete out to these people. It is time we put a stop to that.
Awareness of rights and support
Since Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Charter for PWDs, it has to ensure disabled persons live an independent life.
That makes disabled persons entitled to many facilities that they are unaware of. It is the duty of the state to make public the rights of people with disabilities public so they know they are not left alone.
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Unfortunately, there is lack of record of PWDs; they do not register themselves until there is a need to claim for quota. And until and unless they register themselves, they are not entitled to any special privileges from the government's end. Their underrepresented population count with the government's social welfare department automatically underestimates the magnitude of the disability issue.
Last but not the least, the state has to own its disabled persons. It is the state's responsibility to implement rules in order to safeguard PWDs' interests. It is the state's responsibility to prioritise their development.
Moreover, monthly allowances should also be given to PWDs as they need to spend more on their day t day life than a normal person. Free education on all levels and all over Pakistan regardless of who belongs to where should be ensured along with free medical services.
Just reserving quotas is not enough. Strong and aggressive measures to accommodate special needs is the need of the hour. There should be avenues for direct contact between the government's social welfare department and PWDs throughout their lives.
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Pakistan's differently-abled should be able to proceed and prosper just like its ordinary citizens. They should be able to access education and healthcare just like the rest of us do.
And we must help them in whatever way we can, not with the sense of sympathy, but that of pride and duty.