Seeking Inclusion and Opportunity, the Disabled Confront Pakistan’s Myriad Challenges

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

In Pakistan, people with disabilities are generally missing from public places such as shopping malls, restaurants and even universities. But it’s not that the country doesn’t have its share of the disabled; on the contrary, their numbers are estimated to be 16 million. So why are they invisible?

Zahid Abdullah (39) suffers from an eye disorder that has led to a total loss of vision. He observes that “the disabled are largely disowned by the state and neglected by society. They have to survive on their own by depending on their survival instincts as there are no institutional support mechanisms to take care of their special needs.”

• Pakistan's high unemployment and poverty rates have taken precedence over the needs of the country's disabled. •

The indigent begging for charity on the roadsides hint at the answer – more than a quarter of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line. Burdened with myriad problems – ranging from a high rate of unemployment to a lack of adequate facilities for education, healthcare, and housing to the complexities of the region’s terrorism – the state struggles with the basic challenge of providing its citizens with a decent life.Without a social security net for the vulnerable sections of society, those further disadvantaged by a disability of any kind are left to fend for themselves. In a society with strong family values, the role of providing support to a family member with a disability has fallen to parents, siblings or other relatives.

• Zahid Abdullah wants society to treat those with disabilities as equals. Photograph courtesy of Zahid Abdullah. •

This is hardly surprising, given the general lack of social awareness about the rights of the disabled. Public attitudes tend to be condescending and marked more by sympathy than recognition of one’s rights.Working for the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, an Islamabad-based NGO, and also teaching English in local colleges, Abdullah observes, “We are not seen as teachers, students or citizens with impairment. We are labeled as the disabled teachers, students or citizens.”

Pakistan’s lack of infrastructure has only compounded the problem.Disability rights activist, Nooruddin Bhamani (49), suffers from muscular dystrophy. Bed-ridden for the last twelve years, he uses a mobile stretcher to move around. He says that a lack of ramps shuts the disabled out from many activities.

“There is minimal recognition of the basic need for simple facilities to make public places accessible to the disabled. Thus, few public buildings and offices have ramps for people in wheelchairs.”

This lack of social awareness, coupled with an ineffective legislative framework, excludes those with disabilities from a meaningful existence in mainstream society.

Pakistan has adopted only one law so far that focuses on the disabled – a 1981 ordinance that made it compulsory for every organization to hire at least 1% of its staff from among the disabled; in 1998, the quota was increased to 2%. But this law has not been universally enforced, in part because of the country’s already high unemployment and underemployment rate.

Facing these heavy odds, Bhamani has made it his mission in life to integrate the disabled with the national mainstream, “to bridge the gap between the disabled and able-bodied.” His strategy addresses both the individual and society. By providing the disabled with moral support to help restore their self-esteem and sense of dignity, he inspires them to fight for their rights. By campaigning for awareness, he educates the public about the realities and rights of people living with disabilities.

• Though confined to a rolling stretcher because of muscular dystrophy, Nooruddin Bhamani launched "Awareness Pakistan" to provide education about the rights of the disabled. Photograph courtesy of author. •

Bhamani’s “Awareness Pakistan” campaign focuses on the employment needs of people with disabilities. A video he launched three years ago shares the success stories of those who have been hired by the fast-food chain KFC and of a visually-impaired person who now works as a car mechanic. Bhamani says that Dutch bank ABN Amro has also hired quite a few visually-challenged people in its call centers in Karachi.“I don’t like the discriminatory behavior of people towards us,” Bhamani says. “I want them to treat us as they would a normal individual and accord us equal status.”

One hopes this will change as Pakistan’s fractured disability movement – as Abdullah describes it – gathers strength. One of its senior members, Fatima Mansuri (79), has been struggling for two decades to get the government to recognize the rights of the disabled. Hers is a remarkable story of linking up the local and international movements.

In 1990, having just retired from a successful career as a broadcaster at Radio Pakistan, Mansuri was faced with the “lurking fear” that she was losing her vision. She decided to make her life useful, both for herself and for others, believing that a proactive approach was the only way to avoid becoming “dead wood.”

At the prodding of her blind friend Dr. Fatima Shah (an internationally-known personality, a founding member of the International Federation of the Blind and the founder of the Pakistan Association of the Blind), Mansuri proceeded to found the Karachi chapter of Disabled People International.

At the numerous international conferences she attends, Mansuri has emerged as a powerful advocate for the rights of the disabled worldwide, especially in the developing world. Her focus has been on gender equality in the context of disability rights – of great significance to women in Pakistan, where they enjoy equal status with men on paper only.

Working for her NGO has made Mansuri feel a useful member of society, even though she has had to overcome formidable obstacles to accomplish simple daily chores.

• A champion for the rights of the disabled, Fatima Mansuri founded the Karachi chapter of Disabled People International as she was losing her vision. Photograph by Amal Mansuri. •

These are small achievements in the difficult circumstances that confront the disabled in Pakistan. But they mean a lot for disability rights advocates like Abdullah , Bhamani and Mansuri.Abdullah feels that the biggest success of the disability movement in Pakistan has been in getting the government to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in September 2008, nearly three years after it was adopted and opened for signatures.

The convention spells out certain principles that must be upheld by all signatories. These include respect for inherent dignity; individual autonomy and the freedom to make one’s own choices; non-discrimination; full and effective participation and inclusion in society; equality of opportunity; and accessibility.

But the real test lies in its implementation.

Many feel optimistic that with an elected government in Islamabad the convention could see quick implementation. But this is unlikely. Mansuri, Abdullah and Bhamani – who have individually created a space for themselves in the mainstream – have succeeded because of their education, personal courage and an understanding of their rights. An elected government will not be pushed to act for the disabled because they are fractured and do not represent a constituency for any political party.

And so the disabled continue to be marginalized. Abdullah feels that disability organizations in Pakistan have failed to exert sufficient pressure on the government to enact laws to protect the rights of the disabled. “The primary focus of these organizations has been on imparting life skills to the disabled,” he explains. “Moreover, these groups have entered into a patron-client relationship with the state. They are in no position to take a firm stand on their rights.”

Does the disability movement in Pakistan stand a better chance of success if it is closely linked with the international movement? Only to an extent. In a resource-starved country, assistance could allow disability organizations to undertake projects to maximize benefits for those in need. But the battle has to be fought on the home front. Outsiders can only extend support and guidance.

With the world economy in recession, one wonders how generous the developed states can be in extending aid. America’s newly elected president, Barack Obama, has unveiled plans to triple non-military aid to Pakistan. The new legislation allocates $7.5 billion for building schools, roads and clinics but also calls for more effective efforts against terrorism. How much will trickle down to the disabled – who are an invisible lot with little impact on the war on terror?

Zubeida’s article is part of this month’s focus on disability issues. – Ed.

Photograph by flickr user Carol Mitchell used under Creative Commons licenses.