Pakistan has a long way to go before social attitudes towards persons with disabilities change
While persons with disabilities (PWDs) have always been part of all societies, they have struggled to create space for themselves, for being recognised by the system and above all for being accepted and integrated into mainstream societies.
Each year, December 3 is celebrated as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Despite being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) since 2011, Pakistan has a long way to go before social attitudes towards the PWDs change.
According to the 2017 census, 0.48 percent of the population is disabled. In earlier times, persons with disabilities were considered unhealthy, defective, feared and pitied. People thought of them as incapable of participating in or contributing to society fully and they depended on welfare or charitable organisations for their livelihood. The situation is slowly changing in some segments of the society.
Saira Shams ul Qamar, a former district nazim from lower Dir and an MPA in the Youth Parliament in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is wheelchair bound. “I lost my father a couple of years ago but when I decided to join politics many questions were raised,” she tells The News on Sunday. “My father accepted my disability and always supported me. On the other hand, I was deprived of my mother’s affection. Questions are always asked about how I’ll be married but I am not interested in marriage. There is more to life,” she says, adding “I have been working for years to raise awareness and get better facilities for people like me from the government.”
She also highlights health issues faced by women with disabilities. “Many women with disabilities are operated on to have their reproductive organs removed. This not only takes their reproductive rights away but it also complicates their plans for marriage.”
Women with disabilities have to face another level of cultural barriers as they can’t be assisted by men. There are only a few female nurses in some areas making things a lot more difficult for families in remote areas to handle the situation.
Shazia Khan, an activist from Breaking Barriers Women, says PWDs have to face numerous social barriers, starting from home. “Persons with disabilities are made to feel that dealing with them is a challenge for the family. They are excluded from many family events, which has people look at them with pity. In educational institutions, on roads and even in markets people stare at them or ask intrusive questions leaving them depressed.”
Khan says while people from privileged backgrounds can afford an electronic wheelchair for their mobility, even they can’t move freely as there are no ramps in public spaces. “Even while travelling by air, they don’t get access to aisle chairs. Airlines in Pakistan usually don’t have aisle-chairs for wheelchair-bound passengers.”
Over the years, the terms used for PWDs have evolved as the society’s attitudes towards them changed. Rizwan Safdar, a sociologist, says things are slowly changing in Pakistan. “Particularly, in urban set-ups where awareness campaigns and social media posts play an important role in educating people on this subject, attitudes are changing. However, people in rural areas still call PWDs with pejorative terms. Schools don’t have facilities for children with disabilities so parents send their male children to madrassahs while girls lead a restricted life,” he says. “People also consider PWDs a curse on the family or a punishment for their deeds.”
Psychological help is a taboo in our society, yet a few people do reach out for help. Parents of children with disabilities also need help to cope with these situations and realise that it is not easy to live a life dependent on others.
“With age, we all face some form of disability and live with it. While some people may have a disability from an early age, others might come to have it after an accident. Anyone dealing with a disability has to live a life different from others. Due to this difference we are not aware of their needs and often are unaware of how to resolve these issues,” says Tooba Fatima, a psychotherapist in Lahore.
Disabilities are of two kinds, she explains. “One is physical and the other is mental. One is apparent while the other is not, which results in different reactions from people.” Fatima says disabilities are not restricted to a specific gender, males, females and the transgender people all have their struggles to deal with.
“Financially better off people can send their children to special schools or even abroad for treatment and education, while children from less privileged backgrounds can’t afford such facilities.”
Marriage is an integral part of our culture and lives, but not all PWDs get married. Muhammad Salman, a visually impaired person, works in a government office. “We are four siblings and all of us are visually impaired. When it was time for us to get married we faced a number of rejections. Today, we are all married and fully capable of dealing with everyday chores.”
Even though Salman says he has an inclusive environment at his work place, he says he was not so lucky during his university days. “I could tell when people did not want me around. That feeling of being unwanted was very painful.”
Minerwa Tahir, a Chevening scholar, has written her dissertation on combatting exclusion of disabled bodies from Pakistan’s activist spaces. “In Pakistan, there is no mainstream campaign or discussion that attends to the question of disability,” she says. Tahir, who now works as a researcher, says even activist spaces and human rights organisations are oblivious to how able-bodiedness operates and creeps into public spaces. “Disability is a political issue just like gender. We can’t overcome the oppression of the disabled without challenging the capitalist system.”
The writer is a staff member and can be reached on Twitter at @umaimablogger