While shopping at an upmarket departmental store in Lahore, I was pleasantly surprised to see a staff member carrying a customer’s shopping bags to the latter’s car.
On the face of it, he was just another man going about his day’s work, but when I looked carefully I could see that he was ‘differently-abled’ — that is, he only had one arm to work with; the other was a stump without a hand.
I observed him for a while to see if he asks for help from anyone to carry grocery and other stuff, or a milk carton (with 12 cases), but I was amazed to find that he didn’t. Such was his dedication and energy. The customers, too, seemed rather comfortable with him.
He had a certain aura about him which compelled the journalist in me to talk to him. So I stepped up, as just as he got free. I complimented him for his work, before firing away a volley of questions that he responded gladly to.
Ashfaq (real name changed), pushing 30s, said that he “worked to earn a respectable living all my life.” He was about seven years old when his forearm had to be amputated after it was severed by a feed cutter (toka) in his village, Haveli Lakhan, near Sahiwal.
I asked him if his disability had proved to be a hurdle in his daily activities, he said, “I’ve never let it [his disability] come in the way. I know that Allah has blessed me with strength and the will to work; so, I am working and earning halal money instead of begging in the streets.”
Ashfaq has two daughters and a son. Both the girls go to school, and he intends to give them a good education. When asked if he had ever applied for a job in the public sector, he said, “Yes,” with a smile, “But I didn’t get a response.”
He said that wherever he had worked he never faced any discrimination: “In fact, the people are happy with my work, and always praise me.”
Meeting Ashfaq was an eye-opener for me; he helped me look at life from another lens altogether.
On my way back, at a traffic signal, a beggar knocked on my car window and asked for charity. I saw that he did not have an arm. Usually I give some alms to such people, but that day I asked him why he was not working. He replied, “Baji, aap naukri lagwa dein, kar lun ga!” (You get me a job, I’ll take it.) This left me speechless.
This was yet another angle to the same crisis. But then we cannot forget the fact that many beggars are part of organised squads who earn much more than an average man does. With these questions on my mind, I headed back home. I called a friend, Shazia Khan, who is an activist working with persons with disabilities (PWDs). She herself suffers from a nervous disorder in her leg; yet she lives life to the fullest.
Khan told me that even though Pakistan has a quota of two per cent for the PWDs in government sector, they are not hired accordingly. “Most organisations don’t follow the quota due to which the PWDs are often seen protesting.”
She also spoke of accessibility as one big problem for these people, “Most offices do not have ramps for wheelchair movement, or elevators; nor are there specially designed washrooms. Even the marked parking spaces are usually occupied by regular vehicles.
“We still lack facilities to bring them into the mainstream.”
On the attitudes and behaviours of employers in particular and the society in general, she commented, “The minute you see a person with a disability, even if he has one finger less, you start to sympathise with him/her and may also ask all sorts of embarrassing questions. The reason is that we presuppose that these people are not capable of leading full, independent lives. This is not true, as there are a number of wheelchair bound people who are employed in Wapda, PTCL, the banking sector, as well as NGOs.”
She gives the example of Yousaf Saleem, a blind boy, who recently became a judge after a long struggle. Besides, the Pakistan Blind Cricket teams of female and male have both won home trophies.
After speaking to Shazia Khan, I tried to identify organisations that are hiring the differently-abled people. KFC, an international fast food chain, has employed deaf and dumb people at their outlet on the Mall, Lahore. The staff is trained to take customer’s orders and serve them on the table.
An experienced veterinarian, who walks with a limp, and works at a well-known vet clinic in Lahore, has saved hundreds of lives of furry babies. Rising Sun Institute for Special Children (RISC), in DHA, has worked with special children since 1984, and a number of corporate offices have hired students from the institute. The institute has two purpose-built campuses in Lahore and helps special children to become self-reliant through education and rehabilitation services. It has nearly 800 students, 250 teachers, and exceptional facilities for training and rehabilitation.
Umer Javed, a former RISC student, was picked up by Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre (SKMCHRC) in 2007 for the job of the usher. As his mother puts it, “I am grateful to the institution for giving my son an opportunity to improve his personality. He has become more confident, compassionate, and responsible over the years.”
People who are differently-abled make up the largest minority in the world. World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are over a billion people — almost 15 per cent of the world’s population — with some sort of disability. According to the Census 1998, there were about 2.54 per cent of PWDs in Pakistan. Over the years the number has increased. However, the Census 2017 does not include these persons in the count because of which they came out in the streets and staged protests.
In developed countries, the PWDs have been afforded facilities that make their lives easier and also help them to excel in every possible way. Of the many examples, Stephen William Hawking’s is certainly the most remarkable. This man spent the most part of his later life in a wheel chair after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), yet he unlocked the secrets of the Universe, also because he was aided by a system known as the ‘equalizer.’ Australia-born Gill Hicks lost both her legs in the 7/7 Tube attack in London, and rose to become a motivational speaker, a global voice against terrorism, with prosthetic and psychological support. The list goes on.
It is high time our government and society understood the needs of the disabled, and provide them with their basic human rights. Office spaces should provide facilities that help them progress. Special ramps and paths ought to be built in parks and on footpaths. Recreational activities should be designed for them, and transport issues resolved. Besides, we need more institutions where these people can be trained and their physical and psychological needs are met.
As a society we need to stop shunning these people or shutting them out from most offices and fields of life. These people are not disabled; they are only ‘differently-abled.’