Leave No One Behind: Voices of the persons with disabilities in Pakistan

Date: 9th April 2018

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Editor’s Note: For the last month, the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), WaterAid and WSSCC have facilitated national level consultation meetings with marginalized communities to identify key issues and messages to be represented at SACOSAN, the South Asian Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, which takes place 10-14 April 2018 in Islamabad, Pakistan. This blog provides insights on the consultation in Pakistan.


By Rashid Mahmood, Director, Punjab Urban Resource Center, Lahore and Convener FANSA Pakistan

Holding a consultation meeting with disabled and elderly persons in Lahore was a unique experience for FANSA Pakistan. The meeting hall in the Lahore Children Complex (disabled children’s section) on 29 March 2018 was glittering with the stars. It was amazing to learn that each participant from the community excels in one field or another. If one participant is a known writer, the other is a motivational speaker. If a participant is good in community work the other is a good vocalist. A number of philanthropists, young town planners and volunteers were also present at the meeting. Punjab Urban Resource Centre in collaboration with the Punjab Welfare Trust for the Disabled (PWTD) organized this consultation, supported by Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA), Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and WaterAid.

Zahra Abbas, an energetic and outspoken 26-year-old young woman, is a motivational speaker and corporate trainer by profession. She has been involved in welfare activities for the disabled and shared her experience of trying to use public toilets. As she uses a wheelchair, the biggest obstacle for her is lack of enough space while using a public toilet; in particular, she stated that “since the doors of public washrooms open inwards, I am often not able to enter with my wheelchair and have to wait for someone to help me and this may take too much time. Further she stated that “difficulties in accessing the toilets not only cause inconvenience but increases the risk of kidney infections and failure among the disabled.” Another participant Sadia added that she does not drink water when she travels long distances due to the difficulty in finding and accessing disabled-friendly toilets.

Saima Ashraf, another young motivated content writer, novelist and playwright, explained that the lack of awareness of rights to sanitation is a major problem. She said, “We should know the rights of people with different abilities,” so that they can demand for their rights and make sure that the institutions make it mandatory to provide the disable friendly toilets. “The disabled friendly WASH facilities available in some public places are always locked, ” said Humayun Zaheer, another participant. Further adding she said she wished she could make people understand that accessible latrines can make a significant difference in a disabled person’s self-esteem.

There were an estimated 3.28 million people with disabilities in Pakistan according to the 1998 Census. Unfortunately, in recent Census disability is not included and fresh data on prevalence and incidence of disability is not available. There are 531 special schools in Pakistan and about 200 non-governmental organizations and disabled people’s organizations offering education to people with disabilities. These organizations have their work cut out for them as there are two major types of barriers that restrict access to WASH facilities and services i.e. structural and social.

Structural barriers to access the WASH facilities are numerous for the persons with disabilities. These include a lack of space for wheelchairs to be maneuvered; lack of support in the form of bars or handles that help people to maintain their balance in the facility; toilets or latrines constructed with steps or raised above the ground; slippery floors made of wood, tile, or other materials that encumber those with walking or balance impairments, forcing them to crawl; inaccessible sinks and washing points, making it harder to collect water or wash oneself. The sad part is that there is lack of technical knowledge in addressing these and make facilities more user-friendly.

Another participant, talking about the barriers, said that “the social barriers for persons with disabilities extend beyond design and hardware issues. While social barriers vary across cultures, the differently-abled often face stigma and discrimination when using both household and public facilities.” This stigma and discrimination could occur in the form of prevention from use of certain public facilities, or stigma associated with taking a long time. Negative attitudes in the family towards the differently-abled may be compounded by issues of time allocation for those who require assistance because of inaccessible facilities.

Dr. Izhar Hashmi, Director Program and Operation, Punjab Welfare Trust for Disabled (PWTD) stated that according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 per cent of the world’s total population suffers from different disabilities and this number is rising. A recent carpet survey conducted in district Attock by WHO revealed 15.5 % disability in the said population. The two way link between poverty and disability creates a vicious cycle. Poor people are at more risk acquiring a disability because of lack of access to good nutrition, health care, sanitation, as well as safe living and working conditions.  It is estimated that by 2050 one person in every five will have a disability, presently it is one out of every seven persons. To resolve WASH-related issues, he said, people with disabilities need be made self-empowered. We need to empathize and acknowledge the differently-abled as human beings. They need empathy and growth opportunities. He shared his organization’s initiatives, such as easy and interest-free loan schemes for the people with disabilities to enable them to be equipped with assistive technologies such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, walking sticks, etc., to start small-scale businesses, or to build user-friendly and accessible WASH facilities in their homes.

The participants hoped that the government will enforce strict adherence to and implementation of building codes/by-laws on the accessibility of WASH facilities at work and public places. They also suggested more vocational training programmes for the disabled and greater mainstreaming in the job market to increase their income, which would consequently help them to acquire WASH facilities.

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