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KARACHI: “Polio in childhood left me crippled. People thought I was good for nothing but I had to prove them wrong,” said Mohammad Imran.

“Struggling all my life, I have done so many things. I am a full-fledged plumber, a mechanic, a welder. But I couldn’t find work despite all that. People took pity on me instead of believing in me. They would tell me they felt like they were doing a sin by giving me work because I was a cripple,” he added.

Imran is the chief rickshaw driver who also trained others at Network of Organisations Wor­king for People with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP).

On Monday, the organisation held the launching of their Rickshaw Project.

They were giving keys to special hand-controlled rickshaws to persons with disabilities. Six white rickshaws with matching doors and bird wings painted on the front were lined in the parking lot of NOWPDP House.

The drivers going to get them as a part of the organisation’s economic empowerment project sat waiting nearby, some of them in their wheelchairs.

Mohammad Wasim said that he, too, was stricken with polio as a child, but he didn’t let that hold him back.

“I learnt fancy embroidery work after studying till class seven. But I have been finding it very hard to find work for a while now,” he said.

“Then one of my friends, who knew of NOWPDP as he had received funding from the organisation for expanding his business, told me about his experience with them.

“That’s when I approached them too and after a training course in rickshaw driving from Imran Bhai here I am getting my own wheels to help me earn my livelihood. They only ask me to pay them Rs200 a day, which is most reasonable,” he said.

Syed Rehman, another disabled person getting a rickshaw, said that he already drove one to make a living.

“But that’s a normal rickshaw, not a hand-controlled one. My right leg doesn’t work. I drive it with great difficulty and I also have to pay the rickshaw owner Rs300 at the end of each day,” he said.

“Now, I will have the rickshaw which has been specially designed for my needs,” he said.

About how he came to know of the organisation, Rahman said that Imran was a friend of a friend who told him about the project.

Mohammad Azeem too was waiting there on a motorcycle to receive his rickshaw.

“Driving a rickshaw is similar to riding a motorcycle,” he said, adding that he was working in a plastic moulding factory earlier from where he was discharged.

“The machines were a bit high for me so the seth sahib there thought I was coming more in the way of the work than being helpful. Then I met Imran Bhai, who taught me how to drive these special rickshaws,” he said turning the key in his rickshaw which didn’t start. Imran then noticing this called out to his student to pull the choke. The engine started.

“I am glad I was able to help them,” said Imran.

“I go around visiting one neighbourhood after another looking for disabled persons like myself so that I can spread awareness about NOWPDP and how it can help them earn instead of depending on others. It is so sad that earlier the only advice given to them by their own family is that they are good for nothing and a burden fit for begging only,” he added.

“With help from a rickshaw manufacturing company they had come up with a modified or retrofit rickshaw for the disabled. But when I tried driving it, I realised that it may not need legs to drive it but still it needed three hands,” he smiled.

“I asked permission to let me work on it a little. On getting permission, I modified it further because being a disabled person I knew what was missing and understanding mechanics I knew automotive engineering too,” he said before gesturing with his chin towards a three-wheeler motorcycle. “I modified this as well to suit my needs,” he said.

Amin Amir Andani, NOWPDP’s external engagement manager, said that their organisation mainly focuses on two things — vocational training and economic empowerment of disabled persons.

“The Rickshaw Project is for empowering them economically. It is to help them earn their own living,” he said, adding that in 2017, they also provided vocational training to some 350 disabled individuals while also helped in their job placement.

“We place them with mainstream organisations. There are white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs. For instance, we got so many persons, who were visually-impaired, jobs with call centres,” he said.

When asked if everything goes well following such placements, he shook his head. “Well, not always.

“The organisations are initially quite enthusiastic about hiring them as there is a five per cent job quota for the disabled and when they don’t hire them they have to pay the minimum wage penalty for it to the government.

“But then there are the challenges as these people are also working somewhere for the first time. Some also quit after a little while for which we provide replacements. Still, unless the organisations are not sensitised by our teams to the issues of the disabled, they even opt to pay the minimum wage penalty rather than hire them,” he explained.

“We also work with the Institute of Architects of Pakistan to check for accessibility at the organisations hiring these individuals. They should have ramps, etc,” he pointed out.

Getting back to the Rickshaw Project, Andani said it will change their lives.

“We have a lease model for the rickshaws. Initially, they have to pay us Rs200 a day but after a time we will make them the owners of these rickshaws.

“They know this and will take special care of the vehicles, looking after their maintenance, etc, with this fact in mind,” he said.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2018