Children of a lesser God
BY ABUZAR SALMAN KHAN NIAZI
Recently, I had the opportunity to watch one of the most powerful movies ever produced in the history of Hollywood, titled “Children of a Lesser God”. The movie is based on struggles of a deaf woman to fit in and be acknowledged by the rest of the world. In the movie, it is depicted that although the deaf woman is intelligent, smart, passionate and independent but due to her disability she suffers from diffidence, irregular thinking patterns and emotional instability. Her disability and negative behaviour of the society towards her adversely affected her personality development. Under such circumstances, she was forced to kill her dreams and work as a floor cleaner in an old school. The movie is based on the theme that the world is unkind and generally it treats persons with disabilities (PWDs) like second class citizens. The attitude and prejudice of the society towards PWDs both at individual as well as at collective level has compelled them to think that they have been created by a lesser God since they are treated like lesser humans.
PWDs is one of the most neglected and mistreated groups in Pakistan; they mostly live an unnoticed, unheard and uncared for life. Wellbeing and interests of PWDs is always at the bottom of government preference list, even already existing programmes for PWDs lack satisfactory funding and adequate supervision from the state. It is a harsh reality that in Pakistan PWDs have to cope with plethora of social, economic, physical and political hurdles, which play a significant role in impeding their physical and cognitive development. Despite the presence of a number of progressive policies in the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973 and liberal statutory schemes, PWDs are still considered as an irrelevant minority in our country.
As the PWDs are incapable of moving around freely and independently, it is impossible for them to perform certain functions which most of us can carry out in blink of an eye. In their childhood, they are fully reliant upon the availability of a car to reach school due to absence of local transport facilities for PWDs. Since ramps and elevators are not provided in our schools, the parents have no other option but to choose schools which provide classrooms located on the ground floor. Given that the shopping malls lack ramp facilities, PWDs watch their friends go out for shopping or dinner, all they do is stay at home and wait for the next day to hear about it. This way, they are automatically forced by the society itself to feel different from others i.e., a sense of exclusion is injected in them by values present in our social fabric.
The government of Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in the year 2011; the said convention has embarked upon to support the complete actualisation of rights and freedoms of PWDs. Pakistan has also ratified the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The sorry state of affairs is that the contents of the CRPD are yet to be fully incorporated into the law of the land; unsurprisingly much like the CRPD any substantial progress with regard to the UN rules and UN convention is yet to be seen.
The first serious piece of domestic legislation catering needs of PWDs was Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981. Pakistan also enacted its National Policy for Persons with Disabilities in 2002 which recognised the burning need to focus on Pakistan’s PWDs with the objective to provide a conducive atmosphere for full participation of PWDs in mainstream life. However, sadly both the 1981 Statute and 2002 Policy failed to make an impact either due to poor enforcement mechanism or apathy of the government. Following the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, all the provinces enacted their respective statute in light of 1981 Act. For instance, the Punjab Assembly amended the 1981 Statute vide the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Act, 2012. However, just like aforementioned laws and policies this legislation also met the same fate solely due to the reason that the government was apathetic in its approach towards PWDs.
The irony is that all the other signatory countries of the Convention have made substantial improvement; however, Pakistan is still lingering far behind and has made nominal progress. Even three years have passed since Pakistan ratified CRPD, but no plan of action has been devised to implement it, thus again hinting towards the notion that the government was and will remain unresponsive towards the welfare of PWDs.
The government, advertently or otherwise, has paid no heed in providing PWDs with access to public places, for instance access to public buildings, transportation etc. In order to fill the vacuum left by the government, several civil society movements advancing and safeguarding interests of PWDs have emerged in the last two decades. However, it must be remembered that no civil society movement can ever complete a job as efficiently as a state can; therefore, it is crucial that the government must take the charge and assume the lead role.
The laws catering to the needs of PWDs do exist in theory but their implementation is notably deficient. This lethargic attitude of the government is in blatant violation of the constitutional protections, in contravention of the various statutory laws and against the philosophy of good governance. For example, if a PWD needs to buy groceries there is no public transport that provides access to a destination as basic as a grocery store. This is a gross infringement of PWDs right to life guaranteed under Article 9 of the Constitution. While interpreting the said Article, the Apex Court on numerous occasions has unambiguously adumbrated that right to life means the right to a decent and honorable life; it is not just a right to live a vegetative life.
The PWDs are dependent on their family and friends to move around due to the lack of ramps, elevators and public transport. Under such circumstances, they need to be physically lifted to access many places thus making a mockery of Article 14 which states that the dignity of man shall be inviolable. In Lahore, for example neither the newly established Lahore Metro Bus System nor do the buses of the Lahore Transport Company set up by Transport Department have ramps that let access to persons using wheelchairs. In view of this, it can be said that the government has placed unwarranted constraint on right to freedom of movement guaranteed under Article 15 of the Constitution.
Also in Lahore the Lahore Development Authority has the responsibility of planning and developing the metropolitan area of Lahore. Regulation No 6.2.3 of the LDA Building and Zoning Regulations of 2007 provides for ramp and toilet for disabled persons; however, this regulation only exists in theory and LDA has failed to ensure its complete enforcement. The Communication and Works Department (CWD) has the goal to work on design and construction of public works including roads, bridges and buildings in the most just and equitable manner to ensure optimal development for all people, however, CWD has failed to take into consideration the aspirations of PWDs while putting into operation its aforesaid objective.
Intelligent, coordinated and well planned efforts by concerned ministries and departments are required. Before introducing a new law or a policy, the government must include persons with disabilities and organisations working on disability issues into their meetings and discussions. Credible census should be conducted after every five years to find out the exact number of PWDs, as the existing figures we have are almost 18 years old. Basic changes are required, for instance, setting up broader pathways to accommodate people in wheelchairs, introducing tactile panels for the visually impaired and installing visible signs for people with hearing difficulties. Provisions for ramps, wheelchairs, toilets, elevators and parking spaces for PWDs in public buildings must be introduced and strictly put into practice.
It is an undisputable reality that the dilemma of being physically disabled creates dreadful thoughts and appalling feelings even in a mentally healthy mind, thus resulting in creation of an insecure, disturbed and underdeveloped personality. It is the responsibility of the government and the society to understand that PWDs are just like others with same dreams and ambitions. They are also party to the social contract which exists in form of the sacrosanct document known as Constitution. They have the right to live an honourable life and deserve equal opportunities as guaranteed by the Constitution. PWDs are not children of a lesser God, they deserve to be treated in a manner which will muster up their confidence, they deserve an environment where there will be maximum utilisation of their inborn talents and most importantly they don’t deserve to be viewed with strange fascinations and associated with negative stereotypes.