Karachi isn’t just a city. It’s an experience. Anyone who’s lived in Karachi knows that there isn’t a city that offers better biryani. The chai dhabas here are unparalleled. We have our own lord and saviour, guarding us against the mighty ocean, whose brother protects the nearby island of Manora. Simply, once you go to K-town, the other towns let you down. Not always though. And certainly not for people living with disabilities.
I recently came back from the US after having spent a semester there, during which I also had the privilege to travel across the country and visit many cities. I have actually seen more of the US than Pakistan, where I spent 23 years of my life before going anywhere abroad. This is because the US has better accessibility for people such as myself who need a wheelchair to move around.
Wheelchair accessibility, I’ve learned, is not usually part of our nation’s social consciousness. This becomes apparent when one visits another part of the world where enabling the disabled is very much part of that society.
When I was in the US, my mentor showed me how the buses worked there. I knew how they worked in theory, so experiencing a bus ride was not experiencing something I was entirely unaware of. Yet, to say that I did not feel elated when I rode the bus, would be a lie.
The fact that I could take a bus on my own was liberating. I once missed my flight to Austin and had to take a bus back home alone. And I was able to do it all by myself.
I was living on campus, at a public university, where my apartment was especially made for wheelchair accessibility. Not only was I living on my own for the first time, I was also responsible for taking care of the house and doing every chore myself. Obviously, I met some amazing people who helped me whenever I needed, but the point is, I was able to live on my own.
I visited two other public universities in different states. Their covered area was comparable to University of Karachi; the only difference was that I was able to make it to one end of the campus from another without assistance.
This is something I cannot do in Karachi. Being in the US—or rather, coming back—made me realise that disability is not a medical problem. It is a design problem.
That much was obvious when I recently visited the University of Karachi for the first time. Seeing the place made me sad.
It is I think the largest university in Karachi in terms of area with 1,279 acres of campus space, but also the most poorly designed. It seems as if the French modernist Michel Ecochard, the original architect of the university, missed a crucial lesson on inclusivity.
A student there told me that “for a wheelchair user, not only is it really difficult but sometimes impossible to manage in KU.” Such a student is rendered incapable of moving around independently because there are no ramps, or for that matter, sidewalks.
He went on to say, “In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences building [where my classes are held], barriers are erected at regular intervals to stop motorbikes, hence wheelchair mobility is difficult. I have no choice but to get off the wheelchair [in order to cross the barrier]. I usually have a friend with me but it’s difficult for one person alone to help me out.”
Since his classes and restrooms are on the ground floor, at least he doesn't have to climb stairs. However, he also mentioned that “there are some departments that have their classes on the second and/or the third floor. Now how will a person, who cannot climb stairs, go to class every day?”
I learned that the university plans to construct the Department of Visual Studies at KU. It is imperative that accessibility be kept in mind. It would also be wise to make all of KU wheelchair accessible as it will go a long way in making life easier for many of the students, faculty, and staff.
I wish my own university in Karachi had done so when I was a student. Back in my first year, we had to put up a bookshelf in a nearby park as an urban intervention for one of our courses. Of all the six people in our group, only I chose to not be physically present at the park because of poor accessibility.
This was some years ago and not much has changed in this time. Most parks still remain inaccessible. Even when parks are revitalised, accessibility is not prioritised. Privately-run water parks, which are built from the ground up with millions of rupees, oftentimes have zero accessibility.
That is not to say that Karachi does not have wheelchair friendly places at all. However, the spaces that are (partially) accessible, like T2F, happen to be in a part of the city where not everyone can reach. There is a need to replicate models like T2F in other areas and prioritise accessibility while doing so.
It would have been welcoming, and a sign of meaningful allyship, for example, had the people behind the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre and TDF Ghar incorporated accessibility in the renovation design as much as logistically possible. However, these would do well to address the issue at a micro level only. There needs to be state intervention for real impact.
Tragically, the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, formulated in 2007, with the vision of “Transforming Karachi into a world class city and attractive economic centre with a decent life for Karachiites,” has no mention of improving accessibility for people with disabilities. Apparently, Karachiites with disabilities, like the poor, do not deserve strategic development and a decent life.
We have also been forgotten by the Karachi Metrobus project. The BRT network currently under construction aims to provide ‘mobility’ to as many Karachiites as possible. But there is little or no mention of improving accessibility, and mobility, for wheelchair users.
Billions of rupees are being spent on this endeavour. Therefore, the argument that accessibility is expensive is rendered naught. If in this project, accessibility for wheelchair users is not taken into account, then it means that those in power are deliberately or unknowingly ignoring the needs of wheelchair users.
Such is the extent of the lack of inclusivity, even for a deeply religious society such as Pakistan, that one will hardly find mosques that welcome their disabled brethren.
In our part of the world, it is common practice to ask people with disabilities to pray for others. People meet me everyday, asking me to pray for them.
They do not mean to mock me, and I realise that. But there is one small matter: people who ask people with disabilities to pray for them do not realise that almost all mosques in the city are inaccessible.
Furthermore, there are many instances where I am deprived of the basic right to partake in Karachi’s favourite past-time: eating out. Karachi has some amazing food streets like Hussainabad, Burns Road, Boat Basin, and Mohammad Ali Society to name a few. With incredible food, however, comes incredible inaccessibility. Very few places, if any at all, are accessible for wheelchair-users.
According to estimates published last year, people with disabilities comprise around 5 per cent of the population of Pakistan, more than half of which live in urban areas.
However, for all the attractions urban areas have to offer, we have not managed to make even one Pakistani city fully accessible, even though we have policies like the 2002 National Policy for Persons with Disabilities whose number one aim is to “Provide access to facilities which may lead to [people with disabilities’] integration and mainstreaming in all spheres of life,” and to “ensure that they are able to enjoy their rights and opportunities as other citizens do.”
Building a ramp is not expensive. A ramp is not just a ramp. It is also a political statement. It is a way of telling wheelchair users that they are welcome. By the same measure, not providing accessible sends out the message that the place belongs to the able-bodied only.
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