Tantalising torture

December 1, 2019

How lack of access affects people with disabilities

While people with disabilities are nowhere to be seen in public spaces, it does not mean that they are small in numbers or that they do not exist at all. People with disabilities are mostly nameless, faceless and unaccounted for because our built environment ensures that people with disabilities stay nameless, faceless and unaccounted for. We are afflicted with the malady of stating the obvious on a loop. Like every December 3, this year too, while celebrating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we will yet again be stating the obvious: how the disabled are discriminated against in all walks of life. It requires no rocket science to figure out how public spaces and buildings such as educational institutions, restaurants, banks, parks, hotels, footpaths, private and public offices, in short our entire built environment is designed only for people who can walk on two legs – and all this while ignoring wheelchair users, the blind and persons with other disabilities.

What is the impact of an inaccessible environment on people with disabilities? How can we walk the talk and start implementing the Accessibility Code of Pakistan 2006?

It is not some physical impairment but the physical and attitudinal barriers that render people disabled. Such is the value of accessible built environment that it gives an immense sense of freedom to a person with physical disability. “I felt like a bird just released out of a cage,” shares Ayaz Khan, a wheelchair user, as he fondly reminisces his stay at a hotel in Skardu. “The entire hotel – including its rooms and washrooms – was accessible to a wheelchair user. I could freely move on my own with my wheelchair and it was such a wonderful feeling.”

Inaccessible public spaces deal massive blows to the dignity and self respect of a physically disabled person every single day. Such is the brutal impact of inaccessible public buildings on the mind of a disabled person that it feels as if all life has been sucked out of you as you negotiate an inaccessible entrance of a public building. “I feel like a living dead when people lift me along with my wheelchair when a building entrance is not accessible. At places where there are no ramps available for a wheelchair user, and when people try to lift me to get me across stairs, I worry that I might get hurt or people helping me might get hurt because of my weight along with that of my wheelchair,” shares Ayaz Khan.

Most of our public buildings are inaccessible not because of a lack of resources but because of an unrelenting and misplaced focus on the condition of a person with disability often resulting in an unwarranted feeling of pity for the individual. What people need to understand is that living with a disability is a way of life for people with disabilities. For example, when Shafiq-ur-Rehman, a disability activist and president of Milestone – an organisation working for the welfare of persons with disabilities, told students of a Disability and Development class during his lecture as a guest speaker in 2010 that he was very comfortable in his wheelchair and that he was least interested in being able to walk, the students were left shocked. He added that his comfort originated from the fact that he had been in the wheelchair all his life. He had never experienced walking on his feet, and so did not know what walking was all about.

Instead of taking pity on people with disabilities for conditions arising due to their disabilities, we need to commit ourselves towards removing access barriers which make their lives miserable. In this connection, the proposed council in the disability rights bill (ICT Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2018) under the consideration of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights will only end up kicking the can down the road instead of making public buildings accessible because of its very nature of structure and composition. We need an independent and autonomous disability commission with a chief disability commissioner from disability rights movement with demonstrable experience in disability rights, a disability commissioner from bureaucracy, a retired civil servant, and a disability commissioner from the judiciary, a retired judge of High Court. These disability commissions should be given the mandate to ensure the implementation of the Accessibility Code of Pakistan along with powers of civil courts at the provincial and federal level.

Inaccessible public buildings should be seen just as what they are – instruments of torture and cruelty inflicting misery, pain and suffering on people with disabilities on a daily basis in violation of their constitutional rights of freedom of movement and a dignified life. Any building, whether private or public, has no moral justification to conduct any business if it inflicts pain and suffering on people with disabilities. Do we want to continue with this business as usual?

The writer is the Federal Information Commissioner. He is the author of Disabled by Society and The Wise Man. He can be reached on Twitter at @XahidAbdullah

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Pakistan's inaccessible public places