On the margins: Around 5m Pakistanis live with disabilities

What are the laws, if any, to protect them?.

Azam Khan July 15, 2013
What are the laws, if any, to protect them?.


Wahid Gul, a disabled cobbler, works under the blazing sun in the capital’s G-6 sector. He is tired, life hasn’t been easy.

“I earn Rs200 every day, and manage to save Rs100. However, after 10 days, I have to spend my savings to purchase things related to my profession,” he says. “With this income, I cannot afford to even spare money for shelter.”

After 20 years of relentless work, Gul’s dream of his own stable shelter is dead. His eyes, once animated, seem vacant now.

While it is encouraging that some organisations are now striving to provide better opportunities to the disabled, one jarring fact cannot – should not – be ignored: In Pakistan, there is still no law to protect the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs).

Forlorn and forgotten

Muhammad Ayaz, a deaf and speech-impaired man, works at a fast food franchise in Rawalpindi. As he analyses the price hike, he cannot help but complain about this year’s budget. “A labourer should at least be paid Rs15,000 per month,” he says. “We work hard but get meagre wages.”

Despite various executive promises, Supreme Court verdicts and a number of parliamentary resolutions, none of the successive governments could either ensure better facilities or give 2% job quota for persons with disabilities. Many office buildings are not accessible for PWDs, and there is no law under which one can sue a building or company for this inaccessibility.

Atif Sheikh, President of the Special Talent Exchange Programme (STEP) and a PWD himself, works for the inclusion of PWDs into the mainstream society.

“Pakistan’s PWDs face four kinds of barriers — social attitudes, accessibility issues, communication challenges and legislative negligence,” he explains. “Most people in our society think PWDs are beggars, or suffering from an illness.”

Sheikh adds that although a lack of sign language services, a shortage of audio services for the visually impaired, and a dearth of Braille for the blind all lead to social exclusion, the worst is the state’s response to the struggle of PWDs. “There should be a national commission on the status of PWDs, as there are similar commissions for women and minorities,” he notes.

Staggering statistics

According to the United Nations, over one billion people live with disability worldwide.

In Pakistan, Helping Hands for Relief and Development (HHRD) puts the number at around five million, but other estimates suggest as much as 7% to 10% of the population, or around 12 to 18 million Pakistanis, may have a disability.

Muhammad Akram Awan, a consultant at HHRD, has compiled data illustrating that in Punjab alone the number of disabled has exceeded 2.8 million, while in Sindh it is 1.4 million, 0.5 million  in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and more than 0.2 million in Balochistan.

A case of too little

According to a government official, authorities since 1981 have been issuing certificates of disability to the PWDs but they have no mechanism to keep records of these persons. Instead, they rely on the data provided by an NGO.

Khalid Naeem, former director-general of the National Council for the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons (NCRDP), says the government cannot make legislation for PWDs as this issue is a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment. And yet, provinces, too, seem clueless.

“The two per cent job quota for PWDs is just an executive order,” he laments. “It’s not an act.”

Iftikhar Hussain, a visually-impaired student at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, has a lot to say about the job quota, as well.

A beacon of hope

While most facts concerning the state of PWDs seem to be negative, not all is lost. Today, some private organisations are making efforts to help PWDs eke out an honourable living. The Survivors Foundation and Depilex Smile Again Foundation are working for the welfare of acid survivors.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2013.

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