Framing the disability debate

December 1, 2019

Pakistan lacks a uniform national definition of disability

With a set of sketchy definitions and limited constitutional cover, Pakistan is struggling to mainstream its persons with disabilities (PWDs) that constitute 15 percent of its population, according to the World Health Organisation estimates.

Over the past seven decades, a uniform national definition could not be framed as successive governments kept changing the meaning of disability. After the 18th Amendment, provinces failed to frame a definition of disability in conformity with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability 2006, which Pakistan ratified on May 2011.

The country’s first legislation in this regard, the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, 1981, defines a “disabled person” as a person who on account of injury, disease or congenital deformity, is handicapped for undertaking any gainful profession or employment in order to earn his livelihood, and includes a person who is blind, deaf, physically handicapped or mentally retarded.

As the 1981 Ordinance lacked inclusivity, a new legislation called the ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2018, framed the definition in a different way. It describes “disability” as a long term physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities and includes physical, mental, intellectual and development disorders or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers hinder performance of persons suffering from such conditions to participate fully and effectively in day-to-day performance and interaction with others on an equal basis.”

The election manifesto of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf defined persons with disability as “someone who has impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his/her ability to carry out day to day activities in one or more of the following areas that include mobility, manual dexterity, physical coordination, continence, ability to lift, carry or move everyday objects, speech, hearing or eyesight memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand” following the spirit of the American with Disability Act.

According to the Higher Education Commission (HEC), a disabled person means a person certified as a disabled person by the National/Provincial Council for the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons or carrying a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) with the disability logo. The Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act 2018 defines disability in light of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab seem to be oblivious regarding formulating fresh legislations on disability as per the UN convention.

Before devolution, the federal and provincial laws recognised only four categories including physically impaired, visually impaired, hearing impaired and mental retardation. The Sindh Act 2018 specifies autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette, Down, Rett and other syndromes and neurological disorders that most people, including many medical practitioners in Pakistan, are still incognisant of.

Khalid Chachar, secretary to the Sindh CM’s Task Force on Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities says that the Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act 2018 covers all categories as enshrined in the 2006 UN convention. “Sindh is the first province that has ensured a 5 percent job quota, and provisions including driving license, refined curriculum, special courts and several other services to persons with disabilities through new legislation,” he says.

In the absence of a broad-based national policy and state legislations, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) fail to lead a decent life, failing to participate fully in educational, social, economic, cultural and other activities in the society without any discrimination. From 1947 to 2019, experts say the PWDs continue to be victims of charitable model, sympathy model, medical model, the social model, the economic model, and the minority group model in a number of policies and laws designed and implemented so far.

So much so that the national action plans and statutory policies did not incorporate human rights model for the PWDs that acknowledges the human dignity of disabled persons. Human rights model of disability is more comprehensive in that it encompasses all sets of human rights, civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

The first law that saw the light of day was the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, 1981. While insensitive to several rights of the PWDs, the ordinance catered to their employment quota and rehabilitation issues.

In 2002 a National Policy for Persons with Disabilities was formulated which was followed by a National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Other efforts include The Accessibility Code of Pakistan, 2006, the Special Citizens Act, 2008, and Special Citizens (Right to Concessions in Movement) Act, 2009. Later, the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Act, 2012, Punjab promised 2 percent quota and the Punjab Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 offered 3 percent quota. The Balochistan Persons with Disability Act 2017 and the Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act 2018 are far more inclusive legislative works and take a broader approach to disability.

Currently, two bills have been placed before the National Assembly. One is the ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Bill, 2018, that is limited to only Islamabad and second is the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Act, 2019, that deals with job placements and a few services but does not conform with the UN convention.

Dr Izharul Haq Hashmi, the Programs Director for Punjab Welfare Trust for the Disabled, says that efforts are afoot to table Punjab PWDs Bill, 2019, soon. “It has been tweaked in line with international standards emphasising the PWDs’ political participation through political parties and the parliament while reducing inequalities in all respect to help mainstream them inclusively.”

As per the British Council report, Pakistan has been losing 4.6 percent of GDP due to the PWDs’ marginalisation, he says. “Through open-merit and quota system, the PWDs should have been made vital contributors to the society instead of being pitied.”

In collaboration with more than 10 departments in the province, he says, around 0.2 million PWDs have been scrutinised and around 80,000 to 90,000 Khidmat Cards have been issued to them.

According to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission Report, 2018, laws based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Pakistan ratified in 2011, have yet to fully manifest themselves.

Abid Laghari, CEO of the National Disability and Development Forum (NDF), a registered and PCP-certified non-profit organisation, says that being a signatory to the UN convention since 2011, Pakistan is obligated to submit a report on the status of the PWDs after four years. “Will you believe that nine years have gone by but no report has been submitted. This makes a mockery of our international commitment,” he says.

He says that though the Sindh Act, 2018, is better than others in that it allocates a 5 percent employment quota, it does not provide a special quota for the PWDs similar to that allocated for women and minorities. “We need political participation to get heard,” he says.

“We are still not counted as the PWDs’ data required to help formulate disability-friendly policies and laws are dubious,” he adds. He says that the recent census showed a decreased PWDs population whereas the UN and WHO estimates suggest that the PWDs constitute around 15 percent of the population.

In a positive development, the government recently announced that persons with disabilities would receive a hundred percent coverage under the Sehat Insaf Card Scheme. It is hoped that the government will come up with disability-inclusive policies to help mainstream the PWDs as soon as possible.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Pakistan struggles with mainstreaming Persons with Disabilities