“The state and its institutions are under a constitutional obligation to go extra mile” to facilitate persons with disabilities, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah has ruled in a recent judgement.
Currently, there are many prejudices, negative attitudes, cultural myths, and superstitious beliefs towards physically challenged persons in Pakistan. This contrasts with the Islamic teachings, calling for treating people with disabilities with the same rights and respect as the nondisabled.
Some 4 to 6 per cent of Pakistan population has a disability, according to 1998 national census. However, the government admits that the reported prevalence of disability is underestimated against the global figure of about 10 per cent.
It has been observed that a majority of special persons are imbued with extra-ordinary courage and determination to surmount all odds and make a major mark on the society through outstanding performance.
No doubt, it is a great achievement for any person to perform extraordinary acts, but it is even more so when this is done despite a terrible disability — physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or various types of chronic diseases. However, a disabled person would need an enabling environment — good care, proper education, training — and grooming for realising his/her dreams and unleashing potential.
It is universally agreed that no nation can progress by neglecting special members of its society. Given conducive environment, some of them have risen to become heads of state/government or celebrities — writers, jurists, doctors, artists, journalists, actors, actresses, singers, etcetera — despite disabilities, surmounting all odds and making notable achievements in their respective fields of activity.
Despite polio disability, Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded in getting himself elected as New York State governor and, later, US president for four terms. George Washington and Woodrow Wilson had learning disability, but became presidents of the US.
More prominent among persons who made outstanding achievements, despite physical challenges, are characters like Albert Einstein (Mathematician/Physicist) who had a learning disability and did not speak until age three. He had a very difficult time doing maths in school. It was also very hard for him to express himself through writing.
Another Mathematician/ Physicist and author of A Short History of the Universe, Stephen Hawkings is considered as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century after Einstein. His physical illness — Motor Neuron disease or a variant of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — could not make him stop from his research. His scientific career spanned over 40 years. His books and public appearances made him an academic celebrity and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 2009, he was awarded the highest civil award — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — in the United States.
Hellen Keller was an American author, political activist and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of how Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become known worldwide through dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Sullivan taught Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand.
John Milton (English author/poet) became blind at age 43, but he went on to create his most famous epic Paradise Lost. Britain’s great romantic poet, Lord Byron had a club foot, and walked with difficulty, but toured Europe extensively and captured the popular imagination through his poetry and personality.
Dutch national Vincent Van Gogh is regarded as one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen. In his 10 year painting career, he produced 900 paintings and 1100 drawings. Some of his paintings today are the most expensive: Irises was sold for $53.9 million and Portrait of Doctor Gachet was sold for $82.5 million. Van Gogh suffered depression, which worsened over time. On July 27, 1890, at the age of 37 Van Gogh shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.
Beethoven is regarded as one of the greatest composers in history. He gave his first public performance as a pianist when he was only eight years old. In the year 1796, Beethoven began losing his hearing. Despite being completely deaf for the last 25 years of his life, he created some of the greatest works of music.
Frida Kahlo contracted polio at age six. Despite her disability, she emerged as a renowned painter — the first Mexican artist of the 20th century whose work was purchased by an international museum.
Christy Brown was an Irish author, painter and poet who was disabled by cerebral palsy and was incapable, for years, of deliberate movement or speech. Doctors considered him to be intellectually disabled as well. However, his mother continued to speak to him, work with him, and try to teach him. One day, he snatched a piece of chalk from his sister with his left foot to make a mark on a slate. When about five years old, only his left foot responded to his will. Using his foot, he was able to communicate for the first time. He is most famous for his autobiography My Left Foot, which was later made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name. This book is considered “…the most important Irish novel since Ulysses.”
French fashion magazine ELLE’s Editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, was a well-known journalist and author. In 1995, he suffered a massive heart attack causing him to go into a coma for 20 days. After coming out of the coma, he found himself with a very rare neurological disorder called Locked-in syndrome, in which the mental state is perfectly normal and stable but the body is paralyzed from head to toe. Jean-Do was able to move only his left eyelid. Despite his condition, he wrote the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again. Bauby had to compose and edit the book entirely in his head, and convey it one letter at a time. The book was published, in France, on 7 March, 1997. Bauby died just two days after its publication.
In his early life, the great inventor Thomas Edison had a learning disability. He could not read till he was twelve. Later, he became deaf. He captured world attention by inventing the phonograph. His most popular invention is the electric light bulb. He also developed the telegraph system. He became a prominent businessman.
Tanni Carys Davina Grey-Thompson is the disabled athlete who had been competing in Paralympic Games since 1988, winning 14 paralympic medals, including nine golds, for Britain. As a wheelchair athlete, she has broken over 20 world records. She established herself as a TV presenter.
Walt Disney had a learning disability; while Hollywood star Tom Cruise is severely dyslexic.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz, who is blind, had been delivering Khutaba at Nimra Mosque to millions of Hujjaj for the last about three decades.
At Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, a visually impaired person is imparting education for the last many years. Earlier, surmounting this handicap, he obtained a Ph.D degree.
As visual impairment is one of the most feared disabilities that greatly impacts the socio-economic wellbeing of the affected person, therefore, it remains a serious ‘public health concern’ since ancient times. Most of the world’s visually impaired people live in the developing countries where basic health facilities are insufficient, or they are unable to meet the needs of the blind, who are impelled to lead a miserable life.
According to a conservative estimate, there are about two million blind persons and six million partially blind persons in Pakistan. Accounting for 51.5 per cent of the total incidence, cataract remains the major cause of blindness in adults over 30 years of age. However, about 80 per cent of it is avoidable, say experts. Some 17 per cent of the country’s population is suffering from diabetes, which is also a major cause for the spread of blindness. Other causes of blindness are: corneal opacity, uncorrected aphakia, glaucoma, posterior capsular opacification and refractive error.
The authorities at Al-Shifa Trust Eye Hospital, Rawalpindi have revealed that there are over “two million glaucoma patients in Pakistan and almost half of them have already lost their eyesight, permanently, due to delay in diagnosis and treatment.”
Addressing an awareness session in connection with the World Glaucoma Week, on March 17, 2017, Al-Shifa President Lt. General (retd) Rizwan Asghar pointed out that glaucoma was the major cause of blindness not only in Pakistan but also around the world. He regretted that 90 per cent of Pakistan’s population has no awareness about this disease, resultantly, more and more people are becoming permanently blind due to untreated glaucoma.
Blindness in children is a vital problem worldwide. In Pakistan, some 66 per cent of blind children by birth usually have cataract, which is curable up to five years of age. If parents neglect the treatment during the first five years of the infants’ life then those children have to live with blindness forever.
Blindness has a great economic cost attached to it, depending upon the cause and duration of blindness. Globally, productivity loss from blindness and low vision is projected to grow to $110 billion in 2020.
The two leading causes of blindness — cataract and uncorrected refractive error — can be easily treated by cost-effective interventions, like surgery and eyeglasses. After surgery, persons with these maladies become economically productive citizens, once again.
Committed to preventing blindness, some public welfare organisations, like Al-Shafa Trust Eye Hospital, Rawalpindi, are providing the visually impaired persons excellent treatment facilities. Among such organisations, one would also like to mention Islamabad Society for Prevention of Blindness (ISPB), which is treating patients with eye problems and also conducting eye surgeries since 1991. ISPB provides these services free of charges to the poor; while charging rich patients Rs5,000 as the cost of medicines, disposable operation equipment and intraocular lens. After sutureless surgeries, the patients walk home with eye dressing on, which is removed after four hours.
The nation and state need to make appropriate arrangements for the treatment, rehabilitation and commuting of the physically challenged persons. Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) seems to have taken the lead by establishing Accessibility Centres for catering to the education requirements of the blind. Located at AIOU’s head office and regional centres, these centres are equipped with computers, scanners, printers and software through which visually impaired students can access content on the internet.
Given conducive environment, the physically challenged persons can perform great feats and earn laurels for the nation and the country.