From the arts to sports, academia to entrepreneurship, countless stories abound of triumph over adversity. It is this that the world tries to recognize today by observing the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), a UN day that falls every December 3 and which aims to promote the rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities. For Pakistan, this day should ideally serve as a reminder for all stakeholders to address the data problem that the country currently faces. There are evidently huge gaps between the actual population and the registered number of people with disabilities.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), there are around 371,833 people with disabilities in the country (the latest data is until February 2021). This makes these people a mere 0.16 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. Herein lies the confusion: the 1998 census had calculated this number to be at 2.49 per cent; the 2017 census had brought it down to 0.48 per cent. The current number is surprisingly low. Also, different sample-based surveys show that around 12 per cent of the country’s total population comprises people with disabilities. These gaps are glaring and disrupt any efforts made by the government to create a more inclusive society for people.
But a serious question is: how can a government possibly plan for people with disabilities when it does not have the exact number of people with disabilities? It is worth mentioning that our policymakers miserably fail at taking steps for the welfare of people with disabilities. The world is getting ahead at a fast pace, and countries are using technology to ensure that no person is left behind. There are robot limbs (cyborgs) that allow people with physical disability to move around more easily. Then, there are AI-powered projects that help students with needs to perform research tasks independently. But we are stuck at the data problem. Pakistan has to increase its efforts to make the country liveable and accessible for people with disabilities. Our urban planning ignores this important section of society, and there is only a handful of public and private infrastructure that passes the accessibility test. Residential areas without proper elevators and ramps for wheelchair-bound people, car-friendly roads with no regards for pedestrians, and lack of well-supervised zebra crossing point to the fact that society is okay with the exclusion of people with disabilities.
In our society, parents are the only caretakers of people with disabilities. And most of them try to keep their children away from the vicious eyes and venomous taunts of people. As a result, these children remain deprived of the childhood they deserve. However, there is enough evidence to support the claim that when treated with love and care, children and adults who are differently abled have the potential to perform wonders. We saw this in ‘As Far As They Can Run’ – a documentary that made it to the Oscar 2023 non-fiction shortlist – a story that looks at the largely unexplored world of Pakistan's Special Olympics programme through the stories of three teenagers in Sindh, all three with intellectual challenges.shunned. At the state level, there are hardly any well-equipped institutions that can provide affordable therapy and education to people with disabilities. Most parents then have to turn to the private sector where the policy of not giving admission to a child after a certain age deprives such children of a chance to have access to a learning and healthy environment. Society’s attitude towards these children and adults also needs to be corrected. Most parents and siblings shy away from bringing these children and adults to public and private gatherings out of fear that their needs may become an inconvenience for others. This cannot be allowed. The state and the people of Pakistan have to make collective efforts to turn this country into an inclusive and tolerant society where everyone is accepted.