When will Pakistan see and own its differently abled citizens?

All human beings should be able to live independent lives where the state facilitates them and ensures access to rights.
Published September 7, 2020

I was a student in the first year of medical college when a road accident changed the course of my life. And the accident, it felt like my life was over and in a way it was. Because, as it was going to be, this was the start of a new life for me.

Not only was it me who had to adapt to these new circumstances, but my family also had to learn how to look after me. Many a times, they would hide their tears and put up a brave face for my sake.

In the same accident, I had also lost my sister but I was not told about that for some time. In a nutshell, life as we all knew it had ended.

The first few months after my accident were spent in three different hospitals because sadly there was no dedicated spine centre anywhere in Lahore. However, I am pleased to say that that is no longer the case and the Ghurki Trust Teaching Hospital has a state of the art A O Spine Switzerland certified Department of Orthopedics and Spine where Dr Amer Aziz and his team of highly competent surgeons treat over 800 cases per year. And I am proud be their ambassador.

Soon after my accident, my life was all about infections, accelerated breathing rates, emergency suctions, and ventilator alarms going off every few minutes. For a long time, life had become a constant battle and I didn’t know if I would make it out alive.

I was privileged enough to go to the UK for rehabilitation and it was there that my journey of appreciation began. I saw people in states worse than mine and living independent lives and looking at them made me realise that while my spinal injury had led to my physical limitations, my mental limitations were the result of how I thought. At that time, I decided that it was time for me to overcome my own inhibitions and self-doubt.

That's when I applied for an undergraduate Law degree, completed my LLB and later on my LLM. Studying came with its own set of challenges. And since I cannot write, taking notes wasn't possible. Another challenge that came up was dictating answers to a writer during examinations. However, I didn't stop and as I went along, I learnt to face these obstacles as best as I could.

This was also a journey of self-discovery for me where I learnt a lot of lessons that life teaches people in some very difficult circumstances. And I learnt that I wasn't going to spend my life either waiting for a miracle or being miserable. I was going to take whatever was in my power to do and move on with that.

I have to admit that I had never imagined that one day I will become the person that I am today. My disability does not define me and being a wheelchair user is not my identity. However, when I see differently abled people marginalised and ignored by state and society, it really breaks my heart.

The strength it takes for a person with any disability to restart their life in the truest sense of the word can only be understood by those who have gone through it. Language does not have what it takes to describe the process and the pain involved. So when a differently abled person finally decides that they are ready to face the world, discovering that society is not ready to accept them shatters their soul.

Some very basic necessities, such as quality education, adequate healthcare, and employment opportunities are not available to them and they are routinely brushed aside and denied access. They are so not on anyone's mind that public spaces are designed without keeping them in mind.

In this situation where no one else is thinking about you, you have to speak up to be heard and affect change and be accepted. Silence in the face of adversity only ultimately makes you completely invisible.

So while some of us may be making small steps, I am on a mission to make our country accessible. With the help of a civil advocacy law firm, I am currently pursuing the Lahore Development Authority to implement its Regulation 6.2.3 of the LDA Building and Zoning Regulations 2007 which makes the presence of a ramp and a disabled toilet mandatory in all public and commercial buildings.

The differently abled are one of the most marginalised and stigmatised members of our society. And though this is 2020, it's distressing that we are still fighting to be recognised as citizens of the country who enjoy the same rights as all other citizens. It should not be acceptable in any right-thinking society that physical and social barriers continue to prevent the differently abled from achieving their full potential.

Although the government says it's making some efforts to address the issues faced by people with special needs, its actions such as the decision to abolish the already meagre 2% employment quota legitimises discrimination and enforces the general perception that people with disabilities should remain unseen, unheard, invisible.

Such perceptions further limit acceptance and understanding of disabilities and the people who suffer from them. Like any other individual, a person with a disability is talented in his or her own way and like with everyone else, our focus should be on what they have instead of what is missing; because like everyone else, the differently abled also have families to support and mouths to feed.

In the end, I'd like to say that all human beings should be able to live an independent life where the state facilitates them and ensures their access to fundamental rights. Among these fundamental rights is access to employment, which is the most effective way to ensure an individual's dignity and improve the quality of life of a person living with a disability as well as of their family. People with special needs are an integral part of our society. They need understanding, support, and above all recognition for their talents and skills, and no country can flourish if equal opportunities are not made available to all citizens without discrimination.

As a person with a disability myself, I urge the government to do everything in its power to provide us with better opportunities to live independent and productive lives as opposed to taking those chances further away from us.