IN its last week in office, the Sindh government passed a momentous disability law. The Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act is the first sincere and meaningful effort in Pakistan to ‘give effect to’ the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The preamble cites eight fundamental principles of the CRPD, encompassing respect for the inherent dignity of PWDs and their rights to full inclusion and participation in society without discrimination.
The act repeals the Sindh Differently Abled Persons Act, 2014, which was amended in 2017 to increase the employment quota from two to five per cent. This law goes much further; for the first time, all disabilities have been defined in detail, signalling a major departure from earlier federal and provincial laws that recognised only four categories, physically impaired, visually impaired, hearing impaired and ‘mental retardation’. The Sindh Act specifies autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette, Down, Rett and other syndromes and neurological disorders that most people, including many medical practitioners in Pakistan, are not even aware of.
The act also reflects a paradigm shift in how disability is perceived, from the charity and medical models long ago rejected by the international community, to the current social model that views disability as a social construct of negative attitudes that isolate PWDs and create systemic barriers that lead to their exclusion from society. It thus follows a rights-based approach, stressing equality of opportunity, accessibility and gender equality to ensure inclusion of PWDs in all institutions and communities. Perhaps not going as far as to suggest positive discrimination, it takes several measures for affirmative action.
The act reflects a paradigm shift in the way PWDs are perceived.
From now on, PWDs in Sindh shall have the right to inclusive education at all levels and in all public and private institutions. Inclusive education is defined in the act as “a system of education wherein students with and without disabilities learn together and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of different types of students with disabilities”. Schools are required to enrol all children with disabilities without discrimination, provide access, and make suitable accommodations in the curricula to aid their learning.
Special education schools will still be needed to cater to children with severe or profound disabilities. They will also have an important role to play in providing diagnostic and training services to the communities in which they operate. Under the act, special and inclusive school teachers alike would be required to detect learning and intellectual disabilities at an early stage to enable pedagogical alterations, such as preparing individualised education plans to maximise the potential of children with disabilities.
All public spaces including parks, schools, roads, footpaths, railway stations, airports and waterways will need to be redesigned and modified according to the Accessibility Code of Pakistan, 2006, to provide maximum accessibility to PWDs. Plans for new buildings for public use such as banks, ATMs, government offices, shopping malls, cinemas, theatres, and similar leisure and work-related sites shall be subject to adherence to the Accessibility Code, in addition to any other building codes enforced at the time by the government. Signage and Braille codes shall have to be introduced both by the government and private-sector institutions as a matter of course.
The act also pays attention to health and rehabilitation services through the “provision of aids and appliances, medicine and diagnostic services and corrective surgery along with follow-up services free of cost to [PWDs] with such income ceiling as may be notified”. It addresses the problem of early identification and prevention of disabilities by ensuring rigorous implementation of the Sindh Newborn Screening Act, 2013, and increasing the capacity of provincial health workers.
Affirmative action is also evident in subsidised health insurance, provision of assistive technologies, retrofitting of vehicles, sports facilities, social protection, residential support, skill development training, special courts, right to property and decision-making, and limited guardianship.
There are other measures such as training of teachers, sensitisation of service providers and disability awareness campaigns that are excellent, and some, like the registration procedure for acquiring a disability certificate, that need to be improved.
But the fact that this act, with its great vision and understanding of disability, has actually seen the light of day in Sindh is a turning point in the lives of PWDs all over Pakistan.
As Habib Jalib said: “Ab dehr mein be yaaro madadgar nahin hum.”
The writer is a former federal secretary.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2018