What is your average day like? You would probably wake up, freshen up, get ready for the day and simply walk off to your destination. Now, this is true for most people who inhabit Pakistan, but not so much for more than 5 million PWDs[i] (people with disabilities) who reside with us; who cannot even carry out mundane tasks on an everyday basis. A study conducted by the HHRD[ii] (Helping Hand for Relief and Development) highlights 968,000 crippled citizens (more than the population of Malta, which is 423,000) and 412,000 rendered blind.
The study states, disabilities if kept unchecked are to grow at the rate of 2.65 percent[iii], which is greater than the rate of increase of population itself in Pakistan. While detractors of these figures would point out that this is not an official source but data on disabilities is scarce, a major concern in itself. The lack of a proper census since 1998[iv] means that not only is the data collected by the governmental machinery grossly outdated, but it also seems to be misrepresented; in 2014 the UN expert group on disability pointed out several issues in the data collection and classification. Some attribute this alarming rate to cousin marriages while others cite the main problem to be the abysmal living conditions and lack of regulations for public safety.
I would, however, like to bring your attention to a greater, more systematic problem within Pakistan. What are we doing to help the people who, by no fault of their own, are left in need of assistance and help? What are we doing to provide the more than 1.4 million children who don’t have access to education, either because of lack of access to adequate transport to schools, or lack of schools catering to their needs at all,?
In Lahore alone, approximately, 140,000 PWDs reside with the majority of the population inhabiting the urban locales. More specifically, nearly 36,000 of them were found to be crippled, 14,295 people, suffering from blindness and the list goes on. But do you see any regulations passed in order to support these people? How many buildings and public spaces do you see accessible to the handicapped? There has always been a distinct lack of empathy for the people who don’t look or function similarly to us and that is evident not only in the policy of the government but also in the actions of our society.
While a generic lack of governmental interest in the education sector exists, where the idea of handicap accessibility has not even been looked upon for large-scale application. The private education sector acts indifferent to the needs of the disabled students who potentially can and should walk through their doors. I realize that mentally challenged people can have problems keeping up with the rigor of formal education and thus need special attention in schools, but in all other cases of disability, there must be some effort to share the burden and to take the responsibility of educating the rest of the population without discrimination. A large percentage of the population is denied high-quality educational facilities simply due to an “inconvenient coincidence”.
We must incorporate all PWDs in society and create an inclusive atmosphere whereby a citizen is not judged and marginalized because of his or her disabilities but is celebrated for how he or she can contribute to this society. Integrating these people in our schools, public locales, jobs and society will not only help these people thrive but will help all members of our social system to realize what it means to be able-bodied and how to help or cater to the needs of those who are challenged. Let’s work on not treating disability as a social taboo so that real solutions could come about.
Every one of us has the responsibility to help those in need in any way, shape or form possible. While I feel that the government should enact strict policy for all public locations and services to facilitate this segment of society, I think that none of us should wait for this initiative to be taken. If you are a student, go to your administration and raise this issue; if you own a building, make it accessible for the handicapped; if you are a journalist, write about this problem. Do whatever you can to combat the marginalization of “differently- abled” people, because not helping them could mean that they, as a group, remain in times of hardship but inaction will lead to a society that is crippled beyond repair.