Nearly six months have passed since the deadly attack on the Army Public School took place on December 16, 2014, claiming more than 150 lives — mostly children — and leaving many injured. But what has the nation done about it thus far? We visited the injured at hospitals and offered them a few reassuring words, sent survivors on a state-funded ‘healing’ trip to China and renamed 107 government-owned schools across the province to commemorate the slain students — all short-term measures to reintegrate them into normal life and get rid of the guilt we felt for not being able to protect them. To ensure that their studies would resume as usual, the school was reopened on January 12. The auditorium was re-painted and refurbished, new benches were installed in classrooms and the boundary wall was raised, but in their haste, authorities failed to take into consideration some relatively significant structural changes that would now play a crucial role in the lives of those who were maimed in the attack on that fateful day. While their courage may have persuaded them to return to the school where they witnessed carnage, the architectural barriers will prevent them from taking charge of the very future that militants attempted to extinguish in the first place.
The real tragedy is how this nation has marginalised its differently-abled population, numbering approximately 27 million persons. Far from designated parking slots and special toilets, we don’t even have basic ramps, hydraulic lifts in public buses, wider doorways and handrails to allow access to our people. For a moment, try to imagine having to rely on someone to haul your wheelchair up a flight of stairs every time you want to deposit a cheque, visit a place of worship, mail a letter, dine at a restaurant or even attend school or university. Old age can be frustrating because of increased dependency, but in this case school-going children who are perfectly capable of functioning independently, are made to feel helpless due to lack of facilities.
Despite having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, which guarantees full participation, effective integration and inclusion of differently-abled persons into society, murder of mobility is endemic in the country. According to recent estimates by Unesco, as many as 1.4 million differently-abled children are left without access to either inclusive or special schools. And it is this exclusionist attitude that could cost Pakistan’s economy US $20billion a year by 2018, reports The Economist Intelligence Unit.
It’s most unfortunate how people with varying abilities have limited access to education in Pakistan. When I was at university, I recall seeing a student on a wheelchair for a week. Eventually, due to the absence of a lift and ramps, accompanied by a steep and narrow staircase, the student was forced to leave due to the inconvenience faced on a daily basis. And although everyone knows who is to blame, the feeling of shame will be ultimately felt by the person whose rights have been usurped.
Everyone becomes differently-abled at some point in their lives: it could either be a broken leg, a parent pushing a stroller up a staircase or an elderly person. Therefore, how long before we stop robbing people of their dignity? In the West, they are proudly crossing the street, buying their groceries and living a life of independence. In Pakistan, however, such sights are a rarity: the less we see, the less we know and the less we talk about a barrier-free environment.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2015.