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Enabling progress: Meet the Pakistani PhD in particle physics

Updated November 23, 2014

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Aqil awaits a pitch
Aqil awaits a pitch

A few months ago, 35-year-old Aqil Sajjad completed his PhD in particle physics at Harvard. When he wasn’t busy working on that very difficult-sounding thesis, he played baseball, enjoyed books and watched Pakistani plays.

However, there is a twist to the above tale. Unlike the many other Pakistanis who have successfully completed PhDs, Aqil is blind and has been since he was 16.

Since so much information is in a written form, how does he go about the otherwise simple process of reading newspapers and books?

“The University provides all the books in an accessible format so I use my PC for everything. Since 1999, I use software to convert written messages to audio. A growing number of people are doing that in Pakistan too; however, the overall number is still small as many blind people do not have the resources to buy a computer,” he said.


“Congratulations to our own Aqil Sajjad who yesterday successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. He now has a PHD from Harvard in Theoretical Particle Physics. Think about that accomplishment and let this sink in. We are very proud of him! The funny thing is, he is likely the only player in the NBBA who could validate if the science on Big Bang Theory is accurate … yet Aqil has never watched the show …” — A Facebook comment by Boston Renegades Beep Baseball


“Actually I am a little lazy at updating software and so I actually have an older version (of the software) while many people in Pakistan are using the latest version,” he confessed laughing. “A lot of academic papers are available on the net but I can’t just pick up a book in the library and use it for reference as it has to be converted, which can result in a time lag. This can sometimes be very annoying.”

  Aqil Sajjad.
Aqil Sajjad.
Aqil has been in the US for about 13 years and lives independently in his apartment on campus. He works on and off as a teaching assistant which takes care of his bills. Perhaps sensing my awe and curiosity, he said, “People in Pakistan don’t understand independence so much. There are times when you need help and times when it can get annoying if someone just holds your hand and starts leading you off somewhere.”

Don’t people offer help in the US?

“Well, people there are more used to seeing people with disabilities moving around in a somewhat independent manner. Even if someone wants to help, they offer help in a way so as not to encroach upon your independence.”

He is quite familiar with the walks around the campus and from his apartment to the physics department, but going to a new place can be a little complicated. “I may have to ask for help as I can’t look at a map and go.”

Aqil feels that the very idea that blind people can function and contribute to the society is gradually spreading in Pakistan as a slow change is in process, but that society here still needs to go a very long way.


“If more and more people with disabilities come into the mainstream, the sooner a change will happen in the way people respond to and interact with them. That is the only way people will get over their misconceptions and start seeing the disabled as individuals.”


“For instance, working women in the ’70s or the ’80s had to be extra tough to survive in the work environment of that time. But today, young women are comparatively more comfortable in their work environs because there is now more acceptance.

In the same way, if more and more people with disabilities come into the mainstream, the sooner a change will happen in the way people respond to and interact with them. That is the only way people will get over their misconceptions and start seeing the disabled as individuals.”

He further explained what he thinks is ‘a social front’ and a ‘systemic part’. “What does our education system do for people with disabilities? A lack of resources is the standard reply which is true but that is not necessarily the only problem. A lot can be done within the available resources. Lack of will or attitude is also an impediment. So things are haphazard plus there are no comprehensive policies in place.”

No government in Pakistan has yet implemented a serious policy for people with disabilities, though there is plenty of lip service. Whereas the media only remembers to remind policy-makers on special days like the UN’s international day for people with disabilities.

“Unless that happens, the lack of facilities makes it difficult for disabled people to get educated, while those who do come out of educational institutions will continue to find it difficult to enter the work market.

“The doctor is the first person who breaks the news to you that you cannot ever be able to see again, so maybe we need to educate doctors to be able to send the person to someplace where there is counselling available. That could be the starting point,” he said. “Educational institutions should have officials whose job descriptions include ensuring that the accessibility related needs of students and teachers with disabilities are addressed.

“Slowly and gradually a system will develop. What really happens is that they make a separate ministry for disabled people, which works in isolation from other ministries and departments. There is a need for the mainstream ministries and organisations to include a unit for disabled people. That will create a system. Every university in the US has a disability office that addresses their special needs. For example, Boston public transport has a small disability-related department that ensures that their trains and buses are accessible. Banks in Pakistan for instance don’t give ATM facilities to blind people; this will only happen when the State Bank employs certain people whose job description includes creating policies and programmes to include and facilitate people with disabilities.”

Aqil lost his eyesight at the age of 16 when he was studying in FSc pre-engineering. “Loss of vision is traumatic and it may take a while to accept reality, but acceptance is important because otherwise it undermines one’s ability to move on,” he explains. “My mother took the first step by immediately thinking about continuing my education in very practical terms.”

Aqil had to change subjects as in our education system visually impaired people are not allowed to study physics, etc. “The last thing I wanted was a break in my education, so I started working with the new subjects. But what I really wanted to do was to study science.”

He bagged a position in the board in FA and after that started BBA. “At home, I would study maths with my mother who had a Masters degree in it which certainly came in handy.” In the absence of an adequate support system, he was totally dependent on his mother for studying.

"She would read books and notes to me and write up my homework assignments which I would dictate to her."

Later at Hamdard University, Aqil took a physics and a math course from their computer science programme. “I kept looking for opportunities to study physics abroad and after doing my BBA, went to the US for a Bachelors in physics.”

“One day, going through some mailing lists, I stumbled on some information about John Gardner, a professor at Oregon State University who was blind.”

He applied to a number of universities but ended up at Oregon State University. “Working with Gardner was a pretty good experience and I still use the tools that he has developed to study maths.

With a fascination for research-related subjects like particle physics, his leisure reading is economics and history; yet he denies them being ‘dry’.

“Dry is in the eye of the beholder!” he chuckled. “I like Pakistani plays on TV, I like sports and, like every sane Pakistani, I like cricket. Since there is not much cricket happening here, I play the next best thing — baseball!”

Aqil plays a modified version of baseball created for blind players using a noisemaking ball, delivered by a sighted pitcher to a blindfolded batter. The sighted, the partly sighted and the sightless play on an even level.

“The ball has a beeping device fixed to it. I found this group a few years ago and it is a lot of fun. In summer, we practice twice a week and go touring other states.”

The PhD behind him, he plans to stick around in the US for a year. Are you going to set up a nuclear plant? “God forbid, no. That is a different branch of physics. There are many options and I’ll figure out soon what I am doing next.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014