AT a news conference in Lahore, the Punjab information minister stated that children with disabilities were a punishment from God for wrongdoers and hoarders. His toxic remarks represent the worst kind of prejudice and superstition in our society. This is the kind of stigmatisation that parents have been fighting against for decades, and it is due to their relentless struggle that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted in 2006.
It is obvious that the minister has never heard of this convention, and is unaware that Pakistan has signed it, thus committing itself to the protection, promotion and inclusion of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life. Nor does he know that the Constitution guarantees equal rights and status to all citizens, including PWDs, and that the federal and provincial governments are currently legislating to ensure these rights through various acts of parliament. So what kind of an information minister is he?
Recently, Voice of America aired a TV documentary on a school for children with special needs in Nawabshah, where therapists were working with a little girl with autism. She had been chained in a cattle barn since she was two years old, because her family could not tolerate her incoherent language and strange behaviour. When the school rescued her, they found her walking on all four limbs, and moving her mouth continuously as though she was masticating cud. They have managed to improve her posture through physiotherapy, but much of the damage cannot be reversed.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day.
This is more or less the fate of most children with severe autism who live in rural areas, where parents are poor, illiterate and ostracised for producing a child with such disabilities. Doctors and healthcare workers are not aware of autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders, and cannot diagnose or give sound advice. At best, they ask the parents to wait till things get better, or tell them to abandon the child at some shrine. The cruelty that is often meted out to these children by their own parents and caregivers needs to be punished by the state through appropriate laws. The existing legislation on corporal punishment in all provinces needs to be further improved in line with the Gilgit-Baltistan government’s act that not only prohibits corporal punishment of children in schools, but also within family settings for any act of cruelty meted out by a guardian for the child’s ‘benefit’.
The CRPD is a landmark achievement because it views disability as a social construct placing the onus on the government and society to remove physical, social and cultural barriers for PWDs. Many of these can be addressed by simply adhering to the laws that already exist in Pakistan.
For example, building codes for physical accessibility can be enforced by provincial and municipal authorities by approving only those plans and maps that follow the accessibility code specification; sign language that used to be available on Pakistan Television can be reintroduced and made mandatory for all TV channels by Pemra; while the courts can protect the fundamental rights of PWDs through oversight of implementation of laws and regulation of institutions and therapy centres for children with disabilities.
India has embarked upon a national programme of training disability inspectors to audit all public buildings under the Accessible India Initiative. The government is implementing this on a fast-track basis by modifying roads and footpaths, building ramps, and widening and lowering doors of railway coaches to allow wheelchairs to pass through. Recently, the Kerala high court passed a comprehensive judgement regarding registration and regulation of therapy centres for children with disabilities in the state.
On World Awareness Autism Awareness Day 2020, the UN has selected the theme of transition to adulthood of children with autism after they have finished school. The completion of schooling has been described as “falling off a cliff” as many services and therapies are withdrawn after school, and families have to struggle to arrange for higher education, employment and independent living for their children with disabilities.
In Pakistan, mainstream schools do not accommodate children with autism, while the special education schools can accommodate only one per cent of children with disabilities. So there is no “falling off a cliff” for them as they hardly ever attend school. The segregated school system keeps them secluded from their peers, breeding even more intolerance in mainstream schools.
The mandate of the CRPD of creating an inclusive society must be fulfilled by Pakistan. Let the media step forward to combat obscurantism, prejudice and stigmatisation of PWDs. Let the information minister begin from his own house.
The writer is a former federal secretary.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020