Rights not charity

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

Last week the deputy attorney general told the Lahore High Court that the federal government had appointed 1,386 people with disabilities to various posts against the two per cent quota for them provided by the law.

Another 800 are to be recruited shortly in the same category. This move was widely lauded and rightly so. But the fact is that the rights of the disabled are not simply limited to job and education quotas as is generally made out to be the case.

In the absence of public awareness of the rights (endorsed by the UN) of this considerable segment — said to number 16 million — of the population of the country, the government has shown limited interest in the welfare of the disabled. Society has been equally indifferent and insensitive.

One just has to look around to understand how difficult it is for a person with a disability to lead a productive life in Pakistan. Only one law has been adopted to facilitate the disabled in the country so far and that too has not been observed faithfully by all. The Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance was enacted in 1981 making it compulsory for every organisation with a minimum of 100 employees to reserve at least one per cent of its jobs for people with disabilities or pay a fine to the Disabled Persons Fund.

In 1998 this quota was enhanced to two per cent. Even the initial move was not born out of any recognition of the legal responsibility of the state. It was on the personal initiative of Gen Ziaul Haq whose daughter was a `special` child. It is widely acknowledged that the military dictator took a number of measures for people in a similar situation, such as increasing the budget of institutions working for the disabled. But lacking an understanding of the governance process he acted in an ad hoc manner without creating an institutional framework to provide comprehensive social security for the disabled. Strangely, human rights activists have not addressed this issue either. Even jobs and admission to educational institutions can be rendered meaningless if various challenges the disabled face in their day-to-day life are not met. For instance, how can a student on a wheelchair cope with life at a university where there are no ramps and other similar facilities?

Our universities do not even have disability units to facilitate the studies of those with hearing or visual impairments. Were universities to set up such units, they could arrange for the audio recording of books or scan literature to be read on computers with the help of programmes activated with sound.

In fact cases have been reported where people who suffer loss of vision have not been allowed the facility of an amanuensis because the examination authorities had not thought it fit to provide one. Whatever little bit is being done to facilitate people with disabilities is not institutionalised and one has to be grateful to NGOs which have taken it upon themselves to provide badly needed services. But these are limited.

While we have lagged behind, the world has addressed disability issues by formulating a legal framework to make every sector of life inclusive for the disabled. The UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006.

After much pressure from disability rights advocates, the government proceeded to sign the UN convention in September 2008 but has yet to ratify it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating — in other words in the implementation of the convention. This may be a challenge for a society that is now driven more and more by greed, ambition and ruthlessness.

The convention was found to be necessary notwithstanding pre-existing human rights instruments because persons with disabilities were being marginalised. It lays down eight guiding principles. It is a different matter that all states refuse to be guided by them and society`s behaviour towards all its members is not ideal.

Given the present state of affairs that places even people who have no disability at a disadvantage because they are not on the right side of the social fence, should one find it strange that the disabled are neglected?

These guiding principles call for respecting the inherent dignity of the disabled including their right to make choices, non-discrimination, full participation and inclusion in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, gender equality and respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and their right to preserve their identities.

One may even feel that these demands are no extraordinary ones. That is true but when it comes to actually providing facilities to enable the disabled to use their full potential, it is so easy to sideline them. There is also the need for an attitudinal change which is not easy to bring about in a society that is hidebound in its perceptions. As the convention says, persons with disabilities must not be viewed as `objects` of charity or medical treatment. They must be recognised as subjects with rights who are capable of making decisions and participating as full members of society.

One positive development to have taken place is that persons with disabilities, at least those with education and awareness, are asserting themselves. The convention itself is proof of this. What is needed is a paradigm shift vis-Ã -vis disability. The preamble puts it succinctly when it states that disability results from interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The disability rights movement has also picked up as technology has been put to good use by people with impairments to make a remarkable contribution in their area of work. As has been scientifically proved, the loss of a facility is invariably compensated for by the extraordinary development of other facilities. History abounds with examples of people who made it to the top in spite of their impairments. Remember Milton and Beethoven?