Disability is not absence of ability

published in the spokesman-Monday, 10 June 2013 00:0

Published in Opinion-The Spokesman

Dr.Rakhshinda Perveen

A Pakistani society where disabled people (from all sexes and classes) can claim equitable space in public and professional lives is yet a distant dream. As such there is no one universal definition of disability but a widely accepted one interprets disabled person as the one who on account of an injury, disease or congenital deformity is handicapped to perform certain tasks, undertake gainful employment or profession and hence includes persons who are visually and auditory impaired and physically and or mentally disabled.
What needs to be clearly understood is that the disability is not the absence of ability. It is a social construction by the self styled custodians of power and prestige. Thus it remains as one of the most misunderstood human conditions and positions in unjust societies like ours that have little if any respect for powerless, disadvantaged and unprivileged communities. According to the World Programme of Action concerning disabled persons the consequences of deficiencies and disablement are particularly serious for women. Generally women are subjected to social, cultural and economic disadvantages, making it more difficult for them to take part in community life.
Thus it is apparent that being physically challenged or disabled is not amusing anywhere in the world. However, just as being poor in Pakistan and being poor in Europe, US, or other developed parts of the world has a much different connotation and cost it remains an undisputed statement that being disabled in Pakistan constructs a special set of problems that too with class and gender variations due to inherent ability of our social and governance systems to create access to architecture and attitudinal barriers and complicate simple issues and vice versa.
Heartrending- could be the politest word that can be used to comment on casual approach towards information about disabilities and disabled country in a country that has faced severe natural disasters in last 7-8 years.
The dearth of data rather absence of data in public records about disabled people also reflects insensitivity towards the issue of disability at the State level. In humanitarian settings (I have personally witnessed it when I was in many of the affected areas after earthquake in 2005 and floods in 2010 and 2011) the absence of age and sex disaggregated information further jeopardize the quandary of disabled people.
This melancholy translates into anxiety when empathetic researchers and development practitioners find outsized mismatch in the legislation and policy frameworks for the disabled and the prevailing truth or ground realities. In the wake of the United Nation’s year of Disabled in 1981, Pakistan enacted the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981 for the benefit of disabled persons.
Pakistan also has a National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (2002) and National Plan of Action (2006). The country signed Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and its Optional Protocol on 25 September 2008; and Ratified Convention on 5 July 2011.The Pakistan Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 2008 are currently being formulated (Pakistan 2009). In 2012 the Sindh assembly has passed this bill.
According to the official records this legislation primarily provides guidelines and sets out implementation policies, including those previously adopted by NGOs. The Ordinance established the National Council and Provincial Councils whose main tasks are to formulate and implement policies. Oversight rests with the National Council. The primary focus lies on government administered disability assessment, job referral system, employment exchange, and training/rehabilitation programs partly funded through a tax levied on employers for not meeting the hiring quota. Covered are employers with more than 100 employees. The provisions of the Ordinance govern employment and rehabilitation, training, funding, and administrative processes.
In actuality disabled people are not only subjected to subtle forms of discrimination and stigmatization at individual and collective levels but there are unabashed kinds of unfairness towards the people with disabilities.
One does not need to conduct an in-depth research study to identify these inequalities and injustices. All one needs is to just take a pause and look around with compassion and understanding. One will find that here are roads with no special arrangement for them, traffic signals do not support visually impaired, nearly all buildings even in big cities including many academic institutions, technical and aid agencies do not have provision of ramp, most of the web sites by the public, private and nonprofit organizations are not disabled friendly.
In a society that was systemically made retarded in terms of intellectual growth in the dark regime of the military dictator Zia and that is currently characterized by terrorists, bigotries, educated ones in leadership positions reluctant to revisit centuries old traditions and power structure supporting religious interpretations there are rare if any avenues of entertainment in public spaces. In a stifling scenario where the rich and mighty can follow any code of conduct in their private and public lives; where the poor have yet to be entitled to any entertainment and middle class have yet to reclaim morality in the pleasure it becomes almost unimaginable that the disabled especially those from poor and middle classes in general and women and girls in particular experience extra brunt on mind, body, heart and soul.
Amidst the mushroom growth of no profits only a handful of NGOs are trying to ease out the difficulties of disabled people in Pakistan. Gender, over the years has evolved as funding puller thematic area but gender perspectives in the area of disability with the consciousness of local realities are yet to be cracked in Pakistan.
Broadly speaking the usual level of vigilance even among the duty bearers on International normative framework on women and girls with disabilities is much less than the required.
As a perpetual awakened dreamer activist as well I hope and pray that our media would give due importance to long neglected issues of people with disabilities and that too with gender sensitivity and responsiveness. This cannot happen in vacuum. Not only those in the corridors of power have to internalize the fact that they are public representatives and that too of an economically poor nation and not fashion icons but also a paradigm shift in the editorial policies is needed. Enthusiastic young journalists must be trained to frame the right questions and dare to go beyond in-depth analysis of appearance and accessories of women legislators.
The need of the hour is to take speedy steps for including the disabled people and their issues in mainstream development initiatives and discourse rather than legitimizing their traditional exclusion in socio-economically and political realms within the hollow context of special needs for special people. It is needless to emphasize the urgent need of legislation on mainstreaming the rights of the disabled people.

The writer is a gender and social development expert based in Is

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