For the past couple of years one of my closest friends, and most admired disability activists, Zahid Abdullah, has been Dawn’s resident writer on disability issues. Only last week, he sent them this rather in-your-face article, but to our mutual amazement, it was not published!
Raw though this is in parts, I felt I simply had to publish it here: regardless of the reaction: whether we acknowledge it or not, the article speaks a bitter truth: and there are plenty out there looking to make a quick buck out of disability be they in Pakistan or beyond!
We all know this exists, but in general what I see in the movement is an unspoken denial, which somehow justifies their actions! You can guess the subtext: after all, with 95% of visually impaired people being out of work, and 70% of disabled people generally living below the poverty line, what is wrong with making a few pounds out of the only thing we have to offer!
So, our people don’t challenge it, and the mainstream wouldn’t dare either for fear of our lot crying discrimination!
This particular dichotomy has always troubled me: why preach on for equality when one’s actions are in direct conflict with the right being demanded? Disability is not the only perpetrator either: only yesterday a well-known Islamic scholar refused to speak at a seminar my friend was organising, because she couldn’t pay him 1000£ for his presence! Our Prophets (peace be upon them all), and our Imams (A.S) never ever made religion their source of income: even though their knowledge might have justified it, yet somehow we feel we have a God-given right to do so!
As Zahid rightly points out, those cashing in are the very people plunging the disabled community in to new depths of discrimination by playing the victim card, and those of us battling the movement and the world outside are overlooked and ignored for being too harsh or inaccurate in their eyes!
The cycle then continues, and it seems Dawn’s refusal to publish this says more about the tragic success such ignorant beings are gaining than any thing else!
Lords of Disability
Disability as a product is one of the easiest ones to be marketed and sold in Pakistan. Since disability is largely viewed by most Pakistanis as punishment for the sins committed either by the person, his parents or by the forefathers, they love to help the disabled out of fear that the similar fate may not be visited upon them. This has led to the emergence of ‘lords’ of disability who are adept in the art of exploiting primal emotions of pity and fear for the personal advantage. There cause is helped by a state that has decided to leave its weakest link on the mercy of market forces, international donor community and government officials that needs their assistance in their work on disability issues and the common people who want to ward off evil spirit and book their places in heavens through charity to the disabled.
Like true salesmen, lords of disability know fully well the ‘pitch’ that needs to be employ to different set of audiences. They have a different set of vocabulary for different set of audience. Use of Jargons like ‘inclusion’, ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘capacity building’ does the trick in the case of international donor community and addition of flattery to these jargons helps them deal with the officials. When the funds have to be elicited from the trading class, the communication takes place within the religious framework and jargons employed in the case of international donor community give way to the concept of ‘swab’ (reward in heavens’). It does not require rocket science to figure out that each disability has its specific characteristics and that the needs of persons with disabilities are characterized by the nature of their different disabilities. Furthermore, notwithstanding certain commonalities, issues pertaining to blindness, speech and hearing impairments, mental and physical disabilities are different in nature and special needs of blind persons may be entirely different from those of a person with speech and hearing impairment or, for that matter, with any other disability. Instead of working for one specific disability, the lords of disability enter into wholesale disability business using the term cross disability issues. The fact that they are disabled themselves, visual representation of disability to different audiences is not their major concern. However, in order to lend a touch of ‘objectivity’, they employ persons with different disabilities who parrot different sentences according to the dictates of the situation. These flesh and blood human beings with disabilities are dehumanized to the extent by these lords of disability that they become ‘items’ on a disability show-room. They are not paid for their services; often they have to contend with the crumbs that fall off from the tables of these ’lords’ of disability or, at best, frequent free meals, travel and lodgings with promises of trips on international disability tourism circuit which is always availed by the ‘lords’ themselves.
The dream of any educated disabled is to find job in the mainstream and become a productive and functionally active citizen of the society. Ironically, ‘lords of disability do not work in the mainstream because the amount of money they can earn in the disability field is far greater than the job in the mainstream. Interestingly, they pay lip service to the need of the disabled getting jobs in the mainstream job market-jobs the ‘lords’ of disability never tried to do themselves, or, in some cases, quitted in the mainstream for greener pastures of disability field. Whereas a disabled person working in the mainstream has to cope with the physical barriers and the attitudinal issues of the non-disabled at the work place, ‘lords’ of disability have to edge out fellow ‘lords’ and genuine disability leaders in the quest of getting hold over resources committed by the international donor community. The emphasis of the staff of international donor community is often on getting workshops, consultative meetings and conferences ‘done’. This tendency helps the cause of the lords of disability who help them conduct these events through their rent-a-crowd, edging out genuine disability leaders.
What disability movement in Pakistan needs is a sense of direction. Disabled have been oppressed in all societies in all times and the states everywhere have not been particularly willing to give them their rights. Wherever the change has come, especially in UK and US, it has come through direct action, a tall order for disability lords ever willing to be co-opted by the state and its officials. There are genuine disability leaders but their wonderful work for the disabled people has limited outreach and should serve as a role model to the state. It is the massive outreach of the state that can protect rights of the disabled scattered all over Pakistan and belonging to the poorest of the poor section of the society. Disabled people will have to organize themselves in order to launch peaceful protest rallies to shake the state out of its perennial inertia and make it responsive to the needs of the disabled.
Writer is a visually impaired rights activist based in Islamabad. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org