An office should be established to implement the directions of the Supreme Court with regard to persons with disabilities
The Supreme Court of Pakistan was hearing the constitutional petitions of persons with disabilities [PWDs] since 2014. While disposing of the case, the court, in its order announced on July 27, directed the government to fill the vacancies in employment and official residences against the quota for the disabled; improve the rehabilitation services; establish and publicise grievance redressal mechanisms; ensure suitable accessibility and facilitate travel and transportation and upgrade the data on the PWDs.
Realising that in many cases the provisions and facilities do exist but were dysfunctional, the honourable court has explicitly directed the federal, provincial and local governments to implement these instructions in ‘letter and spirit’. This is the Achilles’ Heel of our system. If the state does not awaken to the plight of PWDs, which is very bad in Pakistan, the Supreme Court instructions might not be able to make much of a difference.
The most woeful example of the neglect is the state of data on persons with disabilities. It is in this particular case that the Supreme Court’s directions must make a difference. Our data system on the PWDs is rooted in the conceptualisation of disability, which was prevalent in the twentieth century, when physical disabilities were the most common and the psycho-social development disorders were clubbed as mental retardation, about which nothing could be done.
The situation has drastically changed since then as the incidence of intellectual disability [ID] has far outstripped the physical disabilities. In fact, assistive technologies have made such an impressive progress that the physical disability is no longer taken as a big problem elsewhere in the world.
Pakistan has never conducted a national disability survey. As a disability counter was not included in the 2017 census, the government still uses the 1999 census results, which puts the incidence of disability at 2.4 percent of the population. The WHO puts this ratio at 15 percent plus on the basis of recent surveys in Attock and Ziarat.
Disability questions for national surveys are often marred by a poor questionnaire design. The national survey carried out by BISP to update the National Socio-economic Registry is using the Washington Questionnaire, which is not suited to the ground realities of Pakistan and might throw up misleading results.
The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, which has been directed to update the data on disability by the Supreme Court with the help of NADRA, should work together with the provinces and other stakeholders to carry out a disability survey with the right kind of questionnaire so that a national registry of the persons with severe and permanent disabilities be established. Only then would we be able to estimate the nature and quantum of un-met needs.
In Pakistan many bills have been introduced in the provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory to enshrine the rights of the PWDs. This is done primarily in compliance with the UN convention on PWDs. However, these legislative exercises have not so far resulted in major improvements in the condition of PWDs. These sporadic efforts have failed to produce an effective, integrated policy framework to address a complex challenge. The recent Supreme Court decision paves the way for developing such a framework.
In this regard, the first thing which needs to be done is to define those services to the PWDs, which are to be provided directly by the State as the primary responsibility of the state directly or through some robust insurance tool. In our case, the care of the PWDs was thought to have been devolved to the provincial governments with the devolution of the Ministry of Social Welfare. This has not worked well. Practically, the state has left the care of the PWDs to the parents, philanthropy and market with heart-breaking exploitative practices when it comes to the selling of services to PWDs.
In Pakistan, the provincial laws and social welfare services usually presume that the disability is mostly congenital. The new face of disability all over the world, including Pakistan, is the psycho-social disorders.
Most of the psycho-social disorders are originating from the social environment, be it corporal punishment at school, disability caused by pollution, particularly in cities, disability caused by work accidents, transport and construction accidents, etc.
The existing laws on disability in Pakistan and Supreme Court order do not deal with the causes of disability. There is a need to separate the category of man-made disability and review the existing laws and introduce the principles for fixing of direct and indirect responsibility for causing the disability with heavy punishments.
In case of psycho-social disorders, like anxiety and depression, which in some cases can lead to suicide, more and more of the case law these days is apportioning the responsibility of abetment to the people involved, if it is found that there was a conscious effort to inflict psycho-social harm.
In order to properly address the naturally occurring disability as well as man-made disability, there is a need to adopt a National Social Protection System for PWDs through a new national legislation. That would set the standards of minimum social protection to PWDs as their right. That will include the provisions on establishing a national disability registry, a national information management system, employment exchanges, support for the care-givers to intellectual disability, enhanced punishments for the perpetrators of man-made disability and PWD’s right to inheritance.
This would not violate the spirit of the 18th Amendment as the delivery of the services would continue to be made at the provincial and local government levels. Countries like Canada and Australia have national disability policies and frameworks, defining the minimum care to be provided by the state and clarifying the responsibilities of respective tiers of the governance.
The way a state should take away the care of a vulnerable PWD from a harmful guardianship, the Federation should be able to take care of the PWDs if a province is found wanting on this account. Like many other countries, Pakistan should also have a National Commissioner on Disability, who should continuously monitor implementation of the national standards at various tiers of the government.
An office should be immediately established to implement the directions of this landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It should be entrusted with the development of a more responsive National Social Protection System for persons with disabilities in the country. Pakistan needs a new paradigm in imagining, counting and serving PWDs.
The writer recently retired as Special Secretary Cabinet. He has been Member Governance, Planning Commission and is Executive Director Social Protection Resource Centre, Islamabad
The most woeful example of the neglect is the state of data on the persons with disabilities. It is in this particular case that the Supreme Court’s directions must make a difference.