“Our challenge is that persons with disabilities are treated as a tragedy”

December 1, 2019

In an interview with Shafiq ur Rehman, Milestone president

Milestone, an organisation for the welfare of persons with disabilities (PWDs), was established in 1993 focusing mainly on mainstream inclusion of PWDs into the society by incorporating the concept of independent living (IL), a barrier-free society, awareness and capacity building. We speak to Shafiq ur Rehman, president of Milestone, on employing the concept of IL for improving the lives of PWDs.

The News on Sunday: When we talk about social integration of persons with disabilities (PWDs) there is talk of independent living (IL). How essential is it to mainstream PWDs through IL?

Shafiq ur Rehman: According to the concept of independent living (IL), PWDs are neither gods who have to be worshipped nor children who need to be taken care of. Instead, they are human beings who can and should take responsibility for their own lives and can make responsible decisions about their lives.

Our challenge is that PWDs are treated as some kind of a social disaster, a tragedy. World over there is a struggle to end disability through genetic engineering or the like. In reality, disability is not something that human beings suffer from. It is caused by the unavailability of required services in the environment of the PWDs. In developed countries, PWDs are not only contributing to economies but are also playing active roles due to practical implementation of IL. In Japan, PWDs have started services using the concept of IL where they have set up centres providing attendant services. In this way, they have become active members of the economy. In underdeveloped countries, PWDs are limited to basic survival activities such as eating and sleeping, and are not engaged as useful members of the society.

TNS: How much social acceptance is there towards independent living of PWDs? How willing are they to take control of their lives in a society like ours?

SR: Our society’s attitude towards PWDs has largely been that of pity. This is the general behaviour of people in Pakistan. It is because of this that they often acquire the habit of taking pity on themselves, especially those who have a physical disability from birth. For some of these individuals, living on charity offered by others becomes the easiest solution. They lead their lives without taking any responsibility. When we talk of a lack of social acceptance regarding independent living it is because there is very little PWD visibility.

Courage and fortitude are often portrayed as desirable traits in our society, particularly for those faced with various disabilities. Self realisation and acceptance are the core values that should be focused upon. People don’t understand this. We need to understand what resources we have, the environment we live in and how we can improve our lives through technologies. What could be better than learning this basic principle right at the start instead of trying to make the same mistakes over and over again? How is repeated failure an accomplishment?

TNS: What sort of work is being done regarding employment opportunities for the PWDs?

SR: The Lahore Businessmen Association for Rehabilitation of the Disabled (LABARD) has done a lot in the area of providing employment opportunities for PWDs. Run by the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), the institution offers several vocational training programmes. The Punjab Skills Development Programme has also started offering various six-month vocational training programmes, including cooking, cutting and the like. This is a good initiative. The first session of this programme started four months ago so we have yet to see the results, which we should be able to judge in a year.

TNS: In terms of policy regarding the PWDs and their employment, how has the government fared?

SR: This debate surrounding PWDs started during the era of Gen Zia ul Haq whose daughter had a disability. That is when it all began in Pakistan. The Disabled Persons’ (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981 set aside an employment quota as well. To our misfortune, however, that is where the debate pretty much ended. Unfortunately, after Zia, none of the presidents and prime ministers of this country had an offspring who was disabled. And I say this with regret, because from our experience we have learned that this is how legislations have been addressed in this country. Today, legislative cover on this front remains weak – a dilemma for the remaining PWDs who could have been an actively contributing segment of the society.

TNS: How can the IL model be implemented by the government on a larger scale?

SR: Independent living is a low-cost solution to making PWDs independent. If there’s a single PWD in a family it paralyses the entire family. But look at this situation from a different angle: it creates job opportunities for caregivers and attendants. In a traditional set up, parents are left worrying about the well being of their child with disability. Through affordable caregivers, there is opportunity for creating new jobs while making the rest of the family of a PWD more independent through affordable attendant services.

In Japan alone, there is a need for 500,000 attendants for their PWDs population. There is great potential to create an entire industry surrounding the concept of IL within Pakistan by employing the younger population to further development in the social sector. There is a huge opportunity in this population of PWDs that is hidden away in homes by their own families, away from the gaze of the society that thinks of it as a burden. Only if we can think rationally, all this could change.

The writer is a staff member

“Our challenge is that persons with disabilities are treated as a tragedy”