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SOCIETY: HAVEN OF HOPE

December 03, 2017

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An advanced class for the hearing-impaired underway | Photos by Mohammed Ali White Star
An advanced class for the hearing-impaired underway | Photos by Mohammed Ali White Star

In the chaos and cacophony called Karachi, some stories are always on mute; for instance the dehumanisation of the differently-abled. Those who can’t hear are tuned out; those who can’t see are abandoned in the dark; while those who can’t speak are left to their silence.

But enter the world of the differently-abled and you’d find great devotion to the idea of doing something, anything, which will allow them to recover their dignity and self-respect.

Homework Pakistan is located on the fifth floor of the Al Tijarah Centre, a business centre located along the busy Sharea Faisal. A relatively new platform for freelancers, Homework Pakistan is a venture of an entrepreneur couple Dr Nousheen Zakaria and Omar Ali. The duo first set up a digital marketing and solutions agency called The Code It Company, before branching out with Homework Pakistan. Both companies are housed in the same space. What separates them from the others, however, is that discrimination based on impairment is neither tolerated nor entertained by the couple.

A start-up is creating optimism by facilitating interactions between the differently-abled and the rest of the community

“Do you see that young woman?” Dr Zakaria points towards a woman on the phone in The Code It Company office. “She is partially blind.” Then she points to her design team. “My top three designers are all hearing-impaired.”

The young woman being spoken about is Zoya. From a distance, it isn’t even clear that Zoya is visually impaired. But talk to her and she makes apparent both her condition and the challenges that it entails.

“People get put off when people with disabilities apply for jobs,” she says. “There is no sense of equality, nobody empathises with you. This, in turn, creates a fear of rejection.”

Freelancing is a career unto itself but only if youngsters understand the rules of the game
Freelancing is a career unto itself but only if youngsters understand the rules of the game

But not so at the office, according to Zoya, where inclusivity is the name of the game. In fact, team leaders at The Code It Company are required to learn sign language to ensure that no colleague is left behind, and project demands and client needs can be effectively communicated to all staff.

“One of my hearing-impaired employees once complained in a staff meeting that his team leader wasn’t signing,” says Dr Zakaria. “He said that the team leader was expecting his hearing-impaired employees to read his lips and understand what is being asked of him. He wanted the team leader to learn sign language and that is exactly what we did.”

But this interaction sparked a larger discussion between Dr Zakaria and Ali. As entrepreneurs, they recognised that a need exists to train those who have been written off by society at large, and to find them gainful employment.

The top three designers at The Code It Company are all hearing-impaired
The top three designers at The Code It Company are all hearing-impaired

“The idea of Homework Pakistan was about empowering those without a job and building a network of freelancers,” says Dr Zakaria. “There are many segments in society that dehumanise fellow citizens. Take home-makers, for instance, who are assumed to not be contributing towards household income. Now they have a shot at earning money at their convenience.”

But while the young and old came to Homework Pakistan to learn about the different facets of freelancing, the differently-abled also attended orientation sessions along with their parents. Their interest encouraged the entrepreneur duo to start offering courses targeted at the disabled. As opposed to regular courses, these are offered on subsidised rates.

Twenty-year-old Fiza is one such beneficiary of Homework Pakistan’s disabled-friendly courses. Sitting in one of the classrooms along with four other young men, Fiza is currently enrolled in an elementary course on Photoshop. In the next classroom are 10 students doing an advanced course on image manipulation, also with an instructor proficient in sign language. Both classrooms are quiet since all students are hearing-impaired. But that doesn’t mean that a heated discussion cannot exist without noise.

In Fiza’s class, all five students have their eyes fixed on the projector screen being used by their instructor. The teacher himself only talks to his students in sign language. At one point, he puts up a black-and-white image — this is received by the students touching their head to indicate black and a gesture towards their chests to indicate white. But when the instructor is unable to answer a query, most ask him to ensure that he teaches that to them later on.

Waiting outside the classroom are Fiza’s parents, Shaheen Aqeel and Mohammad Aqeel. Fiza is their only daughter out of four children, they say. Both parents were employed on senior positions at a local bank, but life turned upside down when their daughter turned one.

Team leaders at The Code It Company are required to learn sign language to communicate
Team leaders at The Code It Company are required to learn sign language to communicate

“I told my husband she wasn’t hearing anything,” relates Shaheen. “We’d say something and it would seem as if she had just ignored it all. My husband didn’t believe me at first but then we took her to a doctor who confirmed my suspicion.”

At one year of age, Fiza was diagnosed with having 80 percent impaired hearing.

Thus began the struggle for the Aqeels to find a haven of solace and strength for their daughter. Shaheen describes the agony of the time as “disheartening” — while the parents ran from pillar to post, society wasn’t too kind. Fiza was the first hearing-impaired child in the family and extended family. She’d go to a “regular” school only to return with complaints by the institutions that the child couldn’t settle with the others.

The child too became frustrated with the many tribulations she was being put through. Outsiders’ behaviour was always demeaning but extended family wasn’t too understanding either. Home and away, Fiza would end up getting bullied and harassed or simply separated from kids her age.

“She became very irritable,” says Shaheen. “We’d tolerate it, of course, but we couldn’t ask anyone else to tolerate her behaviour.”

The mother then heard of Homework Pakistan and decided to check if it was worth the effort. She hasn’t regretted the decision.

“The environment here is excellent,” says Shaheen. “There is no harassment, nobody looks down on you.”

This culture of acceptance and respect is by design.

Instructors at Homework Pakistan discuss the progress made by hearing-impaired students
Instructors at Homework Pakistan discuss the progress made by hearing-impaired students

“We aren’t doing charity or some sort of corporate social welfare,” says Dr Zakaria. “We are just handing [out] a chance and most are grabbing it with both hands.”

According to Dr Zakaria, one of the crucial problems they had identified in the job market was the absence of respectable interactions between people. Schools teach communications but not transferable skills, while institutes for special people teach skills but not communications.

“Part of the challenge for a company like ours is to inspire self-confidence among the differently-abled and a sense of empathy among [those around them],” says Dr Zakaria. “You can only improve things when you start talking to each other. We are only facilitating this conversation.”

The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2017