Disabled by society

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

New thinking in the last century has radically changed political concepts that determine relations between the state and its citizens, and between society and its members. New rights are now being defined although the ground realities have yet to change.

Take the case of persons with disabilities. Until recently, providing them with care was perceived as charity. Today, they can legally claim respect for their dignity, inclusiveness in society, non-discrimination and equality of opportunity as a matter of right.

Disability is being redefined in a social rather than a physiological context. Sociologists and human rights activists now place the onus on society to make the necessary structural changes for enabling persons with disabilities to realise their full potential and make a contribution to the state.

This attempt to bring about a paradigm shift led to the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008 — which Pakistan has also signed but has yet to ratify.

In view of the sociological research that has been done on the basis of the narratives and experiences of people with disabilities, the modern approach no longer focuses on the limitations of individuals or holds them to be the cause for the multiple constraints that are imposed on them. The social interpretation now is that people with disability are disabled not by their impairment but by economic, social and physical barriers erected to marginalise them.

With capitalism having a field day and ruthless consumerism dictating the system`s working, the disability movement has suffered a setback. Since the convention was opened to signature in 2007 only 143 states have signed it but only 70 ratifications have been received. Of the 87 signatories to the protocol only 45 have ratified it. The protocol gives the right to the citizens of a state to complain against their government to the committee established by the convention. The ethos of the Marxian principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” has been dying and the wielders of power at every level marginalise people with disabilities even though they may be competent and skilled in their own fields.

It is remarkable how people with disabilities have taken it upon themselves to help themselves. With minimal assistance from the government, philanthropists have gone to unprecedented lengths to set up institutions to train and facilitate the mainstreaming of people with disabilities.

Take the Ida Rieu Welfare Organisation in Karachi for example. I revisited it last week after more than a decade. The occasion was a seminar arranged by their teachers` resource centre. It was inspiring to see the development that has taken place there. In a country where institutions are breaking down it cheers the heart to find enterprising people who continue to build. In the year 2000 the Panjwani School Complex for the Blind started functioning with a school and college for children with visual disabilities, there being another school for children with hearing disability.

With a history of 86 years of dedicated service behind it, the institution is a memorial to honour Ida Rieu, the wife of a British civil servant who rose to be the commissioner of Sindh in 1919. Ida devoted her life to social welfare activities and in the process won the hearts of the people of Sindh. This institution terms its vision to be “turning disability into ability” by providing knowledge and training to the disabled to mainstream them in society.

With about 200 children in school and another 30 studying for their graduate and Master`s programme in college, Ida Rieu is producing excellent manpower and womanpower every year under the tutelage of 35 teachers, five of whom have visual disability. It is here that I met Shazia Hasan Rizvi who is the programme manager and also takes computer classes. Every student is trained to operate the computer with the JAWS (Job Accessed With Sound) programme.

Shazia lost her sight when she was eight but that did not deter her from studying. She graduated from Karachi University and also did a diploma course in computers. Now she is passing on her skills — and also her motivation — to others with visual disability. To facilitate the empowerment of persons with disabilities, Shazia arranges for the recording of audio books and organises workshops for teachers and parents.

When I asked her if society facilitates the mainstreaming of the youth who graduate from Ida Rieu, Shazia identified the barriers they face. The Board of Secondary Education, Karachi, refuses to allow candidates appearing for their school-leaving examination to use Braille. It insists on their hiring the services of an amanuensis to write out their script — quite a cumbersome process. Shazia suggests that candidates with visual disability be allowed to use a JAWS-fitted computer. Why not?

Another problem her students face is in job placement. Some organisations have a very practical and fair approach. If a person qualifies he is hired and is provided facilities to overcome the limitation created by his disability. But that is not the norm. In most cases employers reject applications from persons with disabilities without even testing/interviewing them.

This is social justice denied and Badri Raina, a retired teacher of English in Delhi University who writes extensively on culture, politics and society for ZMag, captures this injustice succinctly (excerpts quoted)

Having disabled the world,/ You turn around and call us/Disabled./You have eyes, hands, legs,/And all you do is kill and maim,/From antipode to antipode.

Your abled greed/Makes of the earth/A vengeful ball of catastrophe,/Promising apocalypse/Against all your leaps of science.

Disabled we may be/In eye, hand, leg, or feet,/Our able minds wish nothing

But well./We have no hand but write/With our toe;/We have no legs but run miles/Every day in what we make/With our hands;/We have no eyes but see far, far/Beyond your black-hearted blindness.

When we love./We love not for a fleeting hour,/But for ever./ And when we sing, our inward eye/Draws inexhaustible melody/From god`s own navel.