Notes from the Field

Integrating Disability in Pakistan’s Development Approach

June 11, 2014

Last month, over 1,000 students, journalists, civil society representatives, and activists walked from the Roshan Khan Complex to Jinnah Stadium in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, to raise awareness of exclusion of persons with disabilities in education. At the walk, UNESCO’s director, Dr. Kozue Kay Nagata, said, “Pakistan has made visible progress on the education front, but exclusion of disabled persons, especially children, in education, remains an alarming challenge.”

While there is no denying that persons with disabilities constitute some of the most vulnerable globally, in Pakistan, as in most developing countries, the disabled tend to be even further marginalized. Despite some surveys that suggest that the overall attitude of the Pakistani society toward those with disabilities is generally positive, it is also paradoxically disempowering. Disability is often treated as a disease and the prevailing mindset is that those upon whom it is “inflicted” need to be protected, or at best, provided the right kind of medical facility and care. As a result, those who are disabled are mostly confined within their homes with a heavy dependence on their families for their mobility. This has left them largely excluded from the mainstream, with fewer opportunities to access education and limited social, political, or economic participation.

The 2011 World Report on Disability, published jointly by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, found that 13.4 percent of the population in Pakistan suffers from disabilities –which covers all forms of difficulties in human functioning due to impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Disability prevalence among the working-age group stands at 6 percent and out of these, only 29 percent of persons with disabilities are employed, compared to 52 percent of persons without disabilities.

While there are charity organizations that are working for persons with disabilities in Pakistan, they are mostly focused on provision of healthcare facilities or special schools for those suffering from intellectual disabilities or visual and hearing impairment. And, these services are mainly concentrated in urban centers. According to Sightsavers, an international organization that works on disability and community development, very few organizations address the issues of disability through an integrated approach as is done with gender in the development process. Their study on disability network organizations in Pakistan asserts that the exclusion of persons with disabilities undermines their “abilities, competencies, and capabilities” to play the greater role in society they could have if provided with an opportunity as an integral part of development initiatives.

In order to integrate disability, it is vital to include the voices of the disabled at each stage of any development initiative to understand the barriers that the disabled face and consequently design interventions leading to greater inclusivity of this vulnerable group. Collected data should also be disaggregated to reflect the situation of the disabled in the same manner as data is disaggregated by gender. Moreover, interventions should focus on integrating disability within existing projects such as health, education, and economic empowerment, which means ensuring that development program budgets take into account all aspects, from accessibility of the disabled to training of relevant stakeholders for increased awareness about the needs of persons with disabilities. According to the World Bank-WHO report, such a strategy is in fact more cost-effective. For example, making a new building accessible for the disabled adds just one percent of the total construction compared to the higher cost of retrofitting an old building to make it more accessible. Similarly, it is less expensive to make mainstream schools inclusive through teacher training and provision of supplementary resources rather than building a separate school for the disabled.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed upon at the turn of the millennium failed to include disability in any of the eight goals that the world community set out to achieve by 2015. Many argue that this is the main reason that the disabled have been excluded from having a say in the development programs that were designed to accomplish these goals, making the efforts counter-productive. Given that disability and poverty are inextricably linked, the onset of disability puts additional pressures on families of those who are disabled, thus increasing their social and economic disadvantage. Therefore, the exclusion of this marginalized group is only going to hinder efforts of countries like Pakistan to reduce poverty. Further, a more integrated and broader perspective on disability beyond just a health issue is particularly pertinent in the present scenario in the country, with increases in the number of persons with disabilities, among other factors, owing to growing armed conflict and with targeted attacks on health workers impeding efforts to eradicate polio. The time to enable the disabled by integrating disabilities in development is now.

Rafia Khan is The Asia Foundation’s team manager for the Foundation’s Access to Justice program. She can be reached at rafia.khan@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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