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KARACHI, May 8: While pointing out that there was a global shift in labelling disability not as a medical issue but a socio-economic and rights-based one, speakers at a seminar held on Thursday pointed out the key challenges disabled persons in Pakistan face and offered initiatives to deal with these challenges.

The seminar, titled ‘Journey of Hope,’ held at the auditorium of the Aga Khan University here, saw the presentation of a report which contains the aforementioned data, as well as the launch of the Network of Organizations for Persons with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP).

Along with the presentation of the report and assurances by chief guest Rais Jahangir Ahmed, chairman of the government’s National Council of Social Welfare, that the report’s recommendations would be looked into, several emotional testimonials from persons with disabilities balanced the dry facts and figures with inspirational stories of how these extraordinary people fought the odds. Many of the speeches were translated into sign language.

The seminar was organized by the H.H. Prince Aga Khan Council for Pakistan as part of the golden jubilee celebrations of Prince Karim Aga Khan’s ascension to the Ismaili Imamat.

Citing the purpose of the report, Gul Najam Jamy, Programme Manager, Civil Society of the Aga Khan Foundation, said it was to assess the existing situation, identify the challenges and provide recommendations to the stakeholders.

‘Four million disabled’

The report was prepared by the Aga Khan Council for Pakistan in collaboration with the federal government’s National Commission for Social Welfare and is based on secondary data available in the country. It was discussed by focus groups in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad and reviewed by two experts from Canada.

Mr Jamy said the report bases its findings on figures from the 1998 census, which he claimed were the most credible available, though not perfect. According to the 1998 figures, the number of disabled persons in Pakistan is 3.2 million, or 2.29 per cent of the total population. He said with the growth in population, the figure today was probably closer to four million.

Summarizing the report, he said though there were hundreds of problems disabled persons faced, the major ones could be listed as: absence of coordination and networking mechanisms; lack of reliable data; inappropriate need assessment; inadequate policy, legislative and enforcement framework; lack of community-based programmes; shortage of human resources; inadequate resources and insufficient services and facilities.

The proposed initiatives to address the challenges in the report are: establishment of a national network for organizations working with disabilities; collection of reliable data; conduct of scientific needs assessment; improvements in policy, legislative and enforcement framework; enhanced community-based programmes; human resource development; resource mobilization and provision of better services and facilities.

He added that there was an urban concentration of services while the rural areas were being neglected, saying that there was also a paucity of vocational training institutes.

Claiming that the first outcome of the report was the launch of the NOWPDP, Mr Jamy said it was now up to the stakeholders to take the recommendations forward.

Later on, Rais Jahangir Ahmed said the report had brought some “alarming conclusions” to the fore, particularly that only four per cent of disabled children are in school. He said Pakistan would soon sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adding that the problem required a multi-sectoral approach and the report would provide a solid base to tackle the issues.

Throughout the seminar various speakers with disabilities, by sharing their personal experiences, communicated the realities of their struggle in a very powerful manner.

‘We want dignity’

Adil Wisram, a special Olympian, said that because he was born mentally and physically weak, he was stigmatized in his youth and called ‘crazy.’ He stressed that disabled people needed healthy physical activities and should be provided with such facilities.

Shahid Memon, who represented disabled persons of the Asia-Pacific region at the United Nations, said the main hurdle remains the lack of implementation of decisions and provision of facilities, adding that the lack of coordination between ministries and departments was a major problem. He said other major issues of the disabled included the issuance of ID cards and provision of items of daily use and educational aides.

One of the speakers, a woman with cerebral palsy, said that all buildings should have wheelchair access and that disabled children had the right to be educated and to socialize. “Don’t limit us to four walls. We want dignity, not charity or sympathy,” she said, while another woman added that there should be efforts to promote sign language.

Another speaker said that disabled persons often have extra willpower, and cited the example of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Dr Maryam Mallick, the Word Health Organization’s Adviser for Disabilities, gave a presentation on community-based rehabilitation (CBR) of the disabled. She said there are about 650 million disabled persons in the world and most disabled persons in the developing world live in rural areas.

She said the key reasons behind the global increase in disabled persons were population growth, children with birth defects, aging, emergence of chronic conditions, accidents, natural disasters and wars. She added that a comprehensive WHO report on the world’s disabled was due in 2009.

Dr Mallick said the October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan had brought the issue to the forefront, adding that with the launch of the NOWPDP, the duplication of services by non-governmental organizations could be avoided.

Amin Hashwani, Convener of External Events at the Aga Khan Council while launching the NOWPDP said that the business community should help create jobs for the disabled, the media should dispel stereotypes while the government should engage in policy reforms and implement the legislation already on the books.

Iqbal Walji, President of the Aga Khan Council for Pakistan, said the NOWPDP would serve as a platform where the disabled could speak with a united voice, adding that the organizers wanted to put in place a mechanism that would allow the disabled to live with dignity.