The need for assistive technologies

December 3, 2023

Accessibility remains a major impediment in the acquisition of assistive technologies for persons with disabilities

The need for assistive technologies


ccessibility of assistive technologies remains a major concern for persons with physical disabilities in Pakistan. Most of them are unable to import the latest gadgets. Access to local products, too, is restricted mostly to big cities. Only about 1 to 2 percent of people with disabilities in Pakistan have access to the latest assistive technologies. The remaining 98 percent have to adopt conventional ways to deal with their difficulties.

“Persons living in big cities have a slightly better accessibility to locally-made assistive equipment as compared to those living in rural and far off areas,” says Prof Dr Khalid Jamil Akhtar, former dean of Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan and former head of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, King Edward Medical University/ Mayo Hospital, Lahore.

Prof Akhtar, conferred the title of Big Brother by the Punjab government in recognition of his services in the field of rehabilitation medicine, says he believes in “reaching the unreached.” The aim, he says, is to ensure accessibility of assistive devices in villages and isolated areas through community-based rehabilitation using indigenously-available materials. “It is possible. It is being done successfully in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and some African countries,” he says. Dr Akhtar has also supported various NGOs working in the field of rehabilitation of persons with disabilities.

This idea of “reaching the unreached” is critical in achieving the targets of the “United in action to rescue and achieve the SDGs for, with and by persons with disabilities” which is this year’s theme for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The day serves to highlight the issues and challenges of persons with disabilities. Prof Khalid Jamil urges the government to take concrete steps for the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities. He mentions that Pakistan is a signatory to the UN convention that guarantees the provision of assistive technologies to every disabled citizen.

“This is a huge ask; it may take some time,” he says. He says the government, specialists, local and international NGOs working for disabled persons and others should help promote local production of assistive technologies.

According to the World Health Organisation, the disability ratio in Pakistan is between 10 and 15 percent. The estimated number of persons with disabilities is thus between 25 and 40 million. In Pakistan, four kinds of disabilities i.e., physical disability, cognitive disability, hearing and speech impairment; and visual handicap are recognised.

“Major disabilities, such as a hearing impairment, are often congenital. In some cases, these develop in old age due to some infection or injury. Cognitive disabilities include cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome and organic brain damage,” Prof Akhtar.

Prof Khalid Jamil Akhtar says that accessibility and lack of communication skills remain major impediments in the acquisition of assistive technologies. He says the assistive devices can be as simple as a stick, crutches and a manual wheelchair and more sophisticated as an electronic wheelchair, motorised cars and special-needs cars and vehicles for persons with disabilities, which are all available in more advanced countries. The hoist technology – connected to ceiling – for severely injured or severely disabled people is used to hold them up and move to washrooms or for movement within the house.

Prof Khalid Jamil says that 80 to 90 percent artificial limbs in Pakistan are locally made. These cost around Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. The prices of imported limbs range between Rs 300,000 and Rs 3 million. “The cosmetic hands cost around Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000; functional hands with precise movements can cost more than Rs 3 million.”

For visually impaired people, he says, there are special computers, clocks, watches, telephones and cellular phones. Audio books and audio libraries are enabling people with visual impairment to read and write and achieve their potential in their professional lives. Although, Braille is not a very commonly-used assistive technology, it is a very important tool for the visually impaired people. Speech-to-text technology helps many get their speech in a written form.

Prof Khalid Jamil says that persons with a hearing impairment don’t face many challenges except for language and communication. Many of them do quite well with sign languages. They can often benefit from hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Prof Khalid Jamil says that the best assistance for people with cognitive challenges is the provision of attendants. People with cognitive disabilities may have other disabilities as well. Assistive technologies for them include tailor-made toilets, beds, clothes, etc, that help them in performing their activities of daily living.

Around 50 percent of people with disabilities in Pakistan are women. Many persons with disabilities in general and women with disabilities in particular face stigma around their disabilities. It is important to improve their access to public institutions and public spaces.

“Many consider an assistive technology a luxury. But for persons with disabilities, technology is a need,” he says.

The writer is a reporter associated with The News International. An EWC and GIJN fellow, he contributes to various international media outlets. His X handle: @AmerMalik3

The need for assistive technologies