Imran Ahmad, father of young Javeria suffering from Down’s syndrome had become used to his daughter being gawped at but he could never reconcile with it. “Even if people didn’t really say anything, I could see it in their eyes,” he says, remembering all the times he would take little Javeria for an outing. “Kids would often laugh at her disability and as if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, even grown-ups would steal awkward glances at her. It felt terrible and so rude!”
Waqar Ahsan has a similar story to tell which implies a rather condescending attitude towards the disabled. “The very choice of words used to describe a physically challenged person show the lack of empathy in our society,” he says of the experiences with his mentally handicapped brother Aamir. “Instead of saying ‘andha’ or ‘blind,’ why can’t people use the term ‘naabina’ or ‘visually impaired?’ Why call a disabled person a ‘bechaara?’ Rather than sympathising and rubbing a person’s disability in their face, I always choose to empathise.”
The examples of Javeria and Aamir are testament to what one has to bear whilst raising a child with special needs: other people tend not to be very kind. And what’s more, their negative approach is only exacerbated considering how much parents of disabled children already have on their plate. “Being a mother to a mentally handicapped child is extremely difficult,” says Gul e Rana, mother of 30-year-old Raheel Mubashir who still needs her assistance in everyday activities like using the toilet, changing clothes and eating, etc. “Sending Raheel to school is a daily challenge as he doesn’t understand its importance. He also needs constant monitoring and a wide array of activities to keep him involved due to his short attention span. His ‘episodes’ have scared away many maid and guests but I have to handle him with love. He is my son after all!”
It is a pity that despite over 15 per cent of the world’s population (almost 1 billion people) suffering from some disability or the other, most people fear or ridicule the former for their limitations. According to the Helping Hand for Relief and Developement (HHRD) a total of 5.035 million Pakistanis are currently living with a disability, a number greater than the population of Multan, Hyderabad and Peshawar combined! Yet, we fail to accept the disabled as a part of our society, let alone offer them support and the necessary amenities. This chunk of our population is discriminated against in almost every aspect of life which only serves to impede their growth and development even more.
The prejudices faced by disabled people are most evident in the job market wherein about 80 per cent of them fail to secure half-decent jobs [UN Statistics], despite better retention rates and a higher probability to succeed compared to their non-disabled counterparts. Although the ‘Disabled Persons Employment and Rehabilitation Ordinance’ was instated in 1981 to provide support to the disabled and help them find employment across different fields of work, Talal Waheed, a visually-impaired Project Manager at Helpage International shares a different story altogether. “The quota for 2 per cent disability employment levied by the government is not being implemented fairly,” he says, angrily. “It seems that Pakistanis lack commitment and don’t care for such a marginalised part of their society. The right for suitable employment should be given to all citizens, disabled or not but when it comes to us disabled people, we only get our right as charity, i.e. if we get them at all. Why is that so?”
The discrimination in the job markets hardly constitutes as breaking news when one takes the dire situation of literacy in Pakistan under consideration. According to United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 90 per cent of disabled children living in developing nations are not sent to school owing to the lack of necessary special amenities they need. “My family is very supportive towards Salman’s needs and give him utmost importance in everything,” says Tehreem, sister to bright and friendly 19-year-old Salman who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. “But when it comes to schools, we hardly have much choice. Most of them don’t teach anything; they exist to make money and pass the time. So, we are unsure of sending Salman to school.” Speech therapist Faseeha Shafqat attributes these factors to the government saying that, “Our public sector has a severe shortage of trained faculty who can cater to a special child’s needs, nor do they seem to care too much. The government’s careless attitude and lack of financial support truly hinder the progress of our disabled community.”
Perhaps one cannot blame the general public for their awkward reactions when in the company of the handicapped. Seeing as how most people have little or no experience when it comes to them and they are often left wondering if there is a special way to behave around the handicapped or if they should offer the handicapped person help or not lest they become angry. People may imagine having a disability as a horrible way to live and not realise that the disabled are as human as themselves. Nonetheless, passing jarring comments or denying them their rights can never be justified
The unfortunate truth is that there are many deeply embedded attitudes in our culture regarding people with disabilities and usually, the more severe the disability, the larger the attitudinal obstruct one will encounter. Beliefs about disability are planted early on, such as when one pulls their child out of the path of a wheelchair, perhaps to simply prevent a collision but the child gets the message to stay away from a wheelchair in the future. “I have noticed many parents avoid explaining disabilities to their children,” says 28 — year-old Maleeha Naeem. “I think if a child is above a certain age, then the parents should tell them ‘what is wrong with that man on the signal who can’t stand up.’ It will encourage empathy and understanding towards the handicapped.”
What we need to realise is that while having a disability may hold one back in some aspects of life, the patient’s abilities in other areas may supersede it . Shazma Khursheed’s victories at the 2013 Special Olympics held in Australia last December lends credence to the fact that with conviction and focus, everyone can overcome their problems. Despite her speech and hearing impairment, the bright youngster brought back a gold and silver medal in table tennis to Pakistan and yet, her laurels have gone unnoticed. “Some media did acknowledge my daughter’s achievements and those of the other winners but we were quite disappointed that the Government showed no appreciation at all,” says Shazma’s mother. “Do the special achievers not deserve any celebration too?”
It is high time our society moves away from the narrow definitions of physical beauty. We must recognize the handicapped as part of our society who deserve to be given their due chance for making a contribution and so, it is crucial that we educate our people and change the general perceptions they have of those who are different from them. Remember: we are all citizens of the world and it is up to us to make it a better place for one another.
What you can do to help:
• If a disabled person seems to be struggling, ask how you can be of assistance politely.
• Never make assumptions about anyone based on their apparent disability — they too have a range of capabilities that you may not be aware of.
• Never make it obvious that you have noticed a person’s disability — they have a heart too!
• Help your child develop an understanding of the handicapped. If there is a student with a disability in your child’s class, invite him or her over for a play date or include them in the birthday party list. Not only will this encourage tolerance and empathy in your child, it will also give the special child an opportunity to mingle with his peers and socialise as any other child would.
• Last but not the least, do not stare at anyone. It makes the disabled person conscious and can harm their self-esteem.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, January 5th, 2014.
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