From where I sit in my wheelchair, the world seems a pretty insensitive place to a differently-abled person’s plight.
I became paralysed from the neck down following a car accident in 2002 on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway. My sister, who was in the car with me, lost her life on that fateful day.
The subsequent professional nursing care that I received was severely inadequate. Sandbags and neck collars to stabilise the neck were unavailable at hospitals.
Unable to talk after a badly done operation, my main way of communication was by blinking. To get the attention of sleeping nurses, I would often bite on my ventilator tube to stop the oxygen supply and set off the alarm.
Lack of proper paramedic care left me with little chance of any substantial recovery. But subsequent rehab treatment in Aylesbury, England provided me with a ray of hope, with excellent nursing care and accessibility of wheelchair users to all socioeconomic backgrounds helping in my rehabilitation.
Editorial: Rights of the disabled
I came back to Pakistan with a renewed sense of hope and determination, and tried to not let circumstances dictate my life.
However, it soon became apparent that I would not be able to enjoy the basic comforts of life due to lack of access to buildings for wheelchair users.
I was routinely inconvenienced in going to school, clinics, weddings, movies, restaurants, stores, banks etc. due to the lack of ramps and lifts for those in a wheelchair.
Far too often, my access was dependent on whether good Samaritans and/or staff would help carry me up the steps.
Never mind the fact that being physically lifted each time created a health hazard for me, as I was exposed to further injuries and paralysis.
However, without tangible ways to effectuate my goals, the media and the public’s initial enthusiasm naturally waned with time.
My impatience grew, and recently, I engaged with a civil advocacy law firm to explore this subject.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) had mandatory tailor-made provisions for differently-abled persons in public buildings.
Regulation 6.2.3 of the LDA Building and Zoning Regulations 2007 states that:
In all commercial buildings, public buildings and apartments a ramp of minimum 6-feet width and having maximum gradient of 1:6 should be provided. In case of non-provisions of lifts, each floor should be accessible through this ramp. A toilet for disabled must also be provided.
Needless to say, this provision has not been implemented by the LDA, nor has it been adopted by commercial/public buildings and apartments.
Most places do not have ramps for wheelchair users. The seldom presence of wheelchair ramps is often an afterthought and, as a result, poorly designed and promoted.
I have yet to see a single toilet within the LDA’s jurisdiction (or otherwise) that accommodates “disabled” persons.
A few restaurants in recent times have been generous to build ramps (or have portable ramps) after I highlighted the issue to them.
I authored letters to the LDA on behalf of the marginalised wheelchair community, imploring them to implement their own regulations.
After the initial forwarding of my letter to the concerned department for action, there was the predictable lack of correspondence afterwards.
My impatience reached fever pitch, and I was constrained to personally visit the LDA head office in Johar Town, Lahore.
Upon entering the head office (through a ramp), I was directed to go to the first floor to meet the concerned LDA officials.
There was only one problem: there was no functioning lift to take me to the first floor. The irony was not lost on me.
Upstairs, my colleagues had to speak on my behalf to the officials, and I was left out of meaningful discourse (barring one official coming down to see me later).
While the officials acknowledged the legitimate grievances to my colleagues, they used insubstantial reasons to justify the lack of past and current enforcement.
This included stating that the regulations did not apply to buildings that were made before 2008 (notwithstanding the fact that the regulations were written as applicable to all buildings irrespective of construction date) and that the enforcement required a lot of surveying man-power, which required extensive preparation and time (notwithstanding the fact that the regulations have existed for 10 years).
Also read: Angels in adversity
We exited the building with a semblance of hope and expectation. However, recent communications with the LDA have been met with muffled concern, as they have showcased lack of urgency on their part.
Apart from sending notices to the buildings identified by us, no documentary evidence has been shared to demonstrate substantial overhaul.
This is notwithstanding the fact that it is an open secret that LDA regulations have been violated for the past decade with impunity, with little to no action taken.
I am cautiously optimistic that the LDA will take concrete action in the near future on my rather simple demands.
Access to buildings in a safe and secure manner is a gateway for wheelchair users in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
This does not just impact quadriplegic wheelchair users such as myself, but also other people having to use wheelchairs, such as persons suffering from amputation, arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple-sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, back disorders and old-age weaknesses.
The state has systematically made wheelchair users feel invisible, unwanted and unwelcome as a part of its fabric.
With the continual lack of facilities for wheelchair users to access buildings, we as a marginalised community have been systematically deprived of meaningful access to basic healthcare, education, employment and enjoyment of life.
With lack of enforcement by bodies regulating buildings over the past decade, one would think that the courts of law would be a decent avenue for enforcement of rights.
However, far too often, public interest petitions seeking for enforcement of differently-abled persons’ rights become muddled with various state entities seeking time to respond.
This ultimately leads to a slow decay of interest in such cases, with little to no progress.
The last ray of hope, for better or worse, is the LDA developing a conscience and acting on its own volition. We, the wheelchair users, are at the LDA’s mercy.
Access for us is not just about putting in ramps, but without ramps, we have no gateway to a meaningful life.
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