ISLAMABAD: Even after the World Health Assembly passed a resolution moved by Pakistan to improve access to assistive technology, organisations working to address issues facing differently-abled Pakistanis say that bureaucratic hurdles are creating further obstacles for people seeking to obtain such devices.
The WHO unanimously passed a resolution last year to improve access to assistive technology for the differently-abled , elderly and those with non-communicable diseases, making it mandatory for all 194 countries to implement the resolution within three years.
The resolution was moved by Pakistan and claimed that one billion people need assistive technology and as the global population ages and the prevalence of non-communicable diseases rises, this figure will increase to more than two billion by 2050.
Assistive technology enables and promotes the inclusion, participation and engagement of people with disabilities, ageing populations and people with co-morbidities in the family, community and all parts of the society including political, economic and social spheres, it said.
But disability rights organisations in Pakistan have said that the government’s conditions for documents such as a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Ministry of Commerce for an individual to import assistive aids, in a country where few such products are manufactured, are creating more problems for citizens.
According to Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) Director General Dr Asad Hafeez, a policy is being made in consultation with the Ministry of Human Rights to address issues facing differently-abled Pakistanis.
Assistive devices and technologies are those whose primary purpose is to maintain or improve an individual’s functioning and independence to facilitate participation and enhance overall well-being. They can also help prevent impairments and secondary health conditions.
Examples of assistive devices and technologies include wheelchairs, prostheses, hearings aids, visual aids and specialised computer software and hardware that increase mobility, hearing, vision or communication capacities. Currently, it is estimated that in low-income and middle-income countries, only 5 to 15pc of people who require assistive devices and technologies have access to them.
World Health Organisation Technical Adviser Dr Maryam Mallick told Dawn that according to a WHO estimate, 90pc of people with disabilities, people suffering from non-communicable diseases and elderly people in countries around the ‘Belt and Road’ need assistive technology and rehabilitation services to maintain and improve functioning and independence.
“Majority of these people in need currently do not have access to any kind of assistive products. Meeting this unmet need is definitely a challenge but at the same time, it is an opportunity for entering in a big new emerging market and changing lives of millions of vulnerable people. This in turn will contribute in stability, human security, peace and GDP growth,” she said.
There are two aspects to this issue, the head of the Potohar Mental Health Association Zulqarnain Asghar, said.
“First of all, the government has not taken even simple steps to address these issues,” he said. He gave the example of the government websites, explaining that only the first page of government websites can be accessed by visually impaired people using screen readers.
“Things will worsen in the future, as ministries are going to launch websites and correspondence in Urdu on directions from the Supreme Court and there is no script reader that can read Urdu,” he added.
Mr Asghar added that the requirement for a CNIC to import duty-free assistive aids has also been replaced with a mandatory NOC from the Ministry of Commerce. He remarked that an NOC is even needed to import a Braille embosser, an impact device that create tactile dots on heavy paper to make written documents accessible to the visually impaired.
“Even white canes are not manufactured in Pakistan. There was an effort to manufacture white canes in the past but their quality was very poor, so imports started again. The quality of wheelchairs is also very poor, and poor quality wheelchairs need to be banned in Pakistan,” he said.
Dr Hafeez from the ministry said that following the WHO resolution the government has taken a number of steps to provide assistive aids to those who need them.
“We have included all people with disabilities in the Prime Minister’s Health Insurance Scheme, due to which they will be able to get free treatment and assistive aids. We have also signed a memorandum of understanding with China that will ensure the transfer of technology and under which China will increase the production of assistive aids so they can be provided to Pakistan,” he said.
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2019