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KARACHI: With an estimated 1.4 million physically and mentally challenged children having no access to education, Pakistan is suffering losses of $12 billion every year on account of its failure to utilise a large potential workforce comprising people with disabilities.

The government needs to develop a comprehensive set of laws to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities in all aspects of living.

These points are part of a report, “Moving from the margins: mainstreaming persons with disabilities in Pakistan”, produced by the British Council that organised a policy dialogue — Making the business case for mainstreaming — for the report’s launch on Monday.

Welcoming the guests, Barbara Wickham, the British Council’s director for Sindh and Balochistan, underlined the need for a collaborative approach involving the government, corporate sector and civil society to improve the quality of life for the people with disabilities and said that parents’ role in believing in their children’s ability and raising their confidence level was crucial.

“We need to think how accessible our educational and vocational institutions are to the disabled people. Socially inclusive education and employment is important for Pakistan,” she said.

On the research report, Ms Wickham said that it thoroughly assessed the challenges, opportunities and policy issues affecting persons with disabilities in Pakistan and advocated a comprehensive strategy to address their issues through a gradual approach that included policy intervention, awareness-raising and investment.

Giving a presentation on the report’s key findings, Dr Maryam Rabm the research evaluation and monitoring director, said that an estimated 1bn people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, were living with disabilities.

In Pakistan, she said, the number of persons living with disabilities varied between 3.3m and 27m, depending on whether they were based on government statistics (the last census which measures the prevalence rates was taken in 1998) or whether they come from other agencies.

The foremost problem people with disabilities were facing in Pakistan was negative attitudes, looking at these persons with sympathy and pity.

“The focus continues to be on a charity or medical approach to disability. What is needed is a shift to a rights-based approach, which recognises that persons with disabilities should be empowered. Disability is a diversity that needs to be accepted,” she explained.

She said that persons with disabilities, especially women, were found to have more difficulties in having access to education, employment and getting married.

Another key finding of the report was related to the legal framework required to protect the rights of persons with disabilities was missing in Pakistan.

The audience was told that the only one law especially targeting persons with disabilities was the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, 1981. It’s weak and non-comprehensive. Besides, there was little implementation of its clause that required employers with 100 workers or more to ensure that at least 2pc of their total workforce consisted of persons with disabilities.

The report also highlighted issues such as lack of educational infrastructure especially for those physically and mentally challenged persons living in rural areas, high fee of private special schools and lack of quality education.

It suggested that the government needed to develop a lead government department to develop and monitor the implementation of policies that protect the rights of persons with disabilities (at both federal and government level).

Later, Yawar Abbas, a young man who lost his upper limb and works for Global Entrepreneurship Programme, told the audience why he chose the business field and what needed to be done to address needs of persons with disabilities.

“Changing people’s mindset is the main thing. Everything would then come naturally,” he said.

This was followed by a panel discussion participated by Owais-ur-Rehman of the Karachi Vocational Training Centre, Shafaq Omar heading Unilever’s human resource department, Omair Ahmed representing the Network of Organisations Working for People with Disabilities and Richard Geary of the Family Educational Services Foundation.

Published in Dawn, November 25th , 2014