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Disabled - the Invisible Minority

BY SAVAIRA KAWISH

For 364 days of the year, persons with disabilities in Pakistan rarely appear on the radar of any government policy, development plan, or program aimed at improving the quality of life of this marginalized ten percent of its population. 'Disability' often is not a priority of mainstream development policies, and the disability perspective is usually not included in policy planning and execution.
 
All of a sudden on the 365th day, which happens to fall on December 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — the radar starts to go beep, beep, beep. The president, prime minister, governors, chief ministers, ministers and every Tom, Dick, and Harry who considers himself to be an expert on the disabled, shrug off their almost year long hibernation to venture out and deliver empty rhetoric on improving the lot of the disabled. After a public performance of less than an hour, the false façade of concern is wiped off, the disabled are relegated to the furthermost backseat; it’s time to hibernate again.
 
Every year the same scenario is played by whoever is at the helm of affairs. The government touts that major cities are disabled-friendly; that the disabled would be integrated into the mainstream and provided with equal opportunities, both in
terms of social and economic, in order to improve their lives. Such a rosy picture is painted only to increase the vote bank.
 
The disabled continue to remain an invisible minority at the bottom of the list of priorities. We cannot see them regularly in public places like roads, parks and on buses because these are not accessible to the disabled. People with disabilities
(PWDs) often do not even have the chance to get educated, so they can’t earn money. In the rural areas, PWDs are sometimes even hidden because it could be no good for the family’s reputation. PWDs are not fully accepted in civil society. Stigma and discrimination amidst all other woes serve to relegate persons with disabilities to marginalization and dependency.
 
In a city where getting around is an exigent task for the average citizen, it is twice as hard for people with physical disabilities. Often people complain about the problems they face while going from one place to another, oblivious to the everyday problems faced by the PWDs in moving about and actively participating in mainstream life. Those with disabilities living in Pakistan often face disproportionate hardships, discrimination, and lack of basic access to infrastructure. The bitter truth is that government has not adequately addressed the needs of the disabled.
 
No matter how often government officials like to blow its own trumpet on having declared major cities as disabled friendly, the fact is that cities in Pakistan are certainly not disabled-friendly. The officials should spend one day in a wheelchair and move about the city so that they could realize how false their claims are.
 
Often the PWDs are frustrated by simple obstacles to their mobility the movement they step out their homes. This may partly be due to the fact that a single step onto a pavement or into a building can create a total no-go area. Most of the footpaths have curbs and no slopes for easy maneuvering of the wheelchair. The slots in ditch/drain covers — if there are any, in the first place — are not narrow enough so as not to risk crutches or wheelchair being stuck.
 
The PWDs face discrimination in daily life due to accessibility barrier all over Pakistan. May it be government buildings, public places, shopping malls, restaurants, or business houses; all have a flight of steep high stairs for accessibility. Leave alone the old buildings even the newly constructed ones do not have any provisions for the disabled. There is hardly any ramp to facilitate wheelchair users. Most stairs have no supporting rail. Where there are elevators, most are out of order or not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. PWDS are expected to squeeze through narrow openings, push open heavy doors with one hand while trying to move and steer their wheelchairs with the other. Even the toilets are built to meet the needs of the able bodied only. The physically disabled people cannot reach these outlets which constitute a social and legal discrimination of the physically disabled people.
 
Physically challenged people are facing great inconvenience in their daily life due to lack of special transport facilities, which hinders their right to free movement. The PWDs find it extremely difficult to move around town, go to their educational institutes, offices, shopping malls, hospitals and banks, or simply visit friends. Lack of mobility is a great impediment as they have to depend on others while keeping in mind the mood, problems, and leisure time of their
helpers.
 
Keeping in view the limitations PWDs face in their mobility, the government announced duty free import of vehicles. However, the procedure involved is cumbersome and embroiled in red tape. It is quite astonishing how the policy makers can make policies for the welfare of the disabled without thinking through any of the steps.
 
To meet the prerequisites of importing the vehicle involves moving from pillar to post. Many simply give up as they cannot afford to hop around town from one department to another to complete the necessary paper work.
 
One of the conditions for the import of special adaptive vehicle includes having a valid driving license. The physically disabled are unable to apply for driving license because there are no driving schools for the PWDs. Ordinary driving
schools do not have any adaptive car for the disabled to learn on. All this translates to no training, no license and certainly no car that can give them some modicum of independence. The only hope is to wait for divine intervention and pray for the relevant authorities to realize their own follies.
 
The transport system in the country is erratic and certainly not disabled friendly. In the west some buses usually have moving platforms to allow wheelchair to be pulled in. Here in Pakistan there is no public transport which has the facility to make traveling easier for the PWDs.
 
PWDs, not only in Pakistan, but also in other countries, especially in South Asia and African countries are victims of blatant discrimination. Females suffer double tragedy: being females and being disabled. It is time to do something to put a halt to this. The only viable solution is that every individual must be given mandatory training in how to treat, handle and care the PWDS. The training course should run along the same lines as that of first aid course, emergency handling exercises and should also be made part of the curricula. Even if one person from a family is provided with such training, he/she would be in a position to educate and train other family members. In this way a chain link can be formed. Once adequate awareness has been created only then would PWDs be considered as equal citizens of the country.
 
Development problems in Pakistan are enormous. If mainstream development work continues on the same track, disabled people will always be excluded. Consciousness-raising is critical to changing the mindset of the government. Once government and the ordinary people recognize that there exist barriers for PWDs, both physical and social, then they will start to understand and change their attitude. Otherwise in the struggle for development and poverty alleviation, PWDs will be a lost cause.
 

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