3rd December, 2019
An Overview of Persons with Disabilities in Pakistan
It is likely that discussions on the International Day of Disabled Persons have left you with some questions about what is unfortunately a seldom discussed issue. Read ahead as we provide a primer to guide you through the day's debates and provide a starting point for policy interventions.
Who are persons with disabilities?
Persons with disabilities are understood to be people “who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
Disability is not an attribute of a person but rather a result of “interactions with various (social) barriers”.
Disability lies on a spectrum, with some impairments visible and easy to recognise by society while others that are hidden, such as intellectual impairments.
Persons on any spectrum of disability are restrained by their impairments to carry out many day to day activities, including personal maintenance, mobility, exchange of information, social relationships, education, work, leisure, spirituality, livelihoods, civic and community life.
There are more persons with disabilities than imagined and acknowledged. They are the largest minority in the world constituting approximately 10 to 15 per cent of the world population. This includes but is not limited to a wide range of people who are blind or deaf, individuals who are born with congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy, soldiers who have lost their limbs in combat, and senior citizens with dementia.
The assumption that persons with disabilities (PWDs) are unhealthy is incorrect. 40 per cent of people with severe or profound disability rated their health as good, very good, or excellent. Similar to the overall world population, Pakistani PWDs belong to diverse age, socio-economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Disability has a differentiated impact on sub-groups depending on their socio-economic status, gender, access to social services and condition. Rural women and young girls are found to be the most disadvantaged sub-group. Similarly, persons with intellectual disabilities face greater marginalisation than individuals with physical impairments.
Pakistan does not have a uniform definition of persons with disabilities, nor have they been enumerated comprehensively.
Why couldn’t they be enumerated in the last census?
The census forms used by officials during the 2017 census did not have any columns to record the population of persons with disabilities. Officials were handed new forms to enumerate the population of PWDs (and transgender persons) three months after the census was over, at which point all households had already been surveyed once. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics was reluctant to count these persons citing organisational constraints. The Supreme Court ruled that a second round of surveys be undertaken to tabulate the population of PWDs.
Added to the organisational constraints of PBS in conducting the census, households are reluctant to divulge information about family members with disabilities given the stigma and social prejudice attached to their status. In stark contrast to the 13.4 per cent estimated by international bodies, the government counted a meagre 0.48 per cent or 0.99 million out of 207.7 million enumerated in the 2017 census.
What challenges do they face?
PWDs face a host of issues that stem from more structural ones such as accessibility issues to those that are attitudinal such as discrimination and stigmas imposed by society. Some challenges best suited to be addressed by policy interventions are listed below.
Low levels of education and employment
Levels of literacy, employment, and financial independence are low for persons with disabilities in Pakistan. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund found that the literacy rate of persons with disabilities is as low as 28 per cent, compared to an average of 58 per cent of Pakistan’s overall population. It has been found that lack of awareness regarding availability of schools and training centres for PWDs is a major factor adversely affecting their education and training. Inaccessibility, affordability, and training of teachers have also been identified as exacerbating factors. Figures citing employment of PWDs are also low. Only 14 per cent of PWDs are estimated to be employed. As a result, Pakistan is losing at least 4.6 per cent of its GDP. Many employers believe that persons with disabilities are not adequately trained or educated to perform well in jobs and are reluctant to hire them. Added to this, accessibility also poses an obstacle. Given that PWDs have low education and employment levels, 70 per cent have to rely on their family members for financial support.
Lack of clarity regarding rights and responsibilities
Awareness of rights, provisions, and government interventions is limited amongst people with disabilities. This is either because they are unable to access avenues of information dissemination or because targeted awareness campaigns have not been launched. Hence, unlike many other minority groups, people with disabilities are impaired from taking a rights-based approach in improving their lives and bringing about positive change. Rights awareness for PWDs is also largely absent amongst the general public who more often than not do not recognise their role in ensuring the implementation of employment quotas, efficient spending of funds reserved for PWDs, and other such provisions.
Barriers to political participation and lack of representation
Not a single person with a disability has ever been elected into the Parliament of Pakistan. There are no reserved seats for PWDs in the Parliament nor any quotas set in political parties. Voices of persons with disabilities are largely absent from law making bodies. Added to this is scant participation of persons with disabilities as political agents in a democracy. Elections are upheld as a touchstone of democratic participation, and voter turnout for PWDs is estimated to be very low. Apathy on part of the state is such that in the last election cycle the exact voter turnout of PWDs was not even recorded. It is reported that the absence of accessible voting booths in many constituencies, poorly trained election booth staff who did not how to engage with PWDs, and lack of awareness on party manifestos and voting procedures were some factors that made the elections a largely inaccessible exercise for PWDs.
Vulnerability to abuse
Global trends reveal that women with disabilities are more likely to face sexual violence and abuse. Additionally, some people with disabilities are denied autonomy such as when they are forced into institutions, subjected to involuntary sterilisation or when they are perceived as incompetent to study or work simply because they are impaired.
What has been done for them?
Laws Enacted and International Conventions for PWDs
Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance, 1981
National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, 2002
National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities, 2006
The Accessibility Code of Pakistan, 2006
Special Citizens Act, 2008
Special Citizens (Right to Concessions in Movement) Act, 2009
Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) ratified by Pakistan in 2011
Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Act, Punjab, 2012
Punjab Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015
The Balochistan Persons with Disability Act, 2017
Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018
Free primary education in all special education centres established by the Directorate General of Special Education across the country
Visually impaired students are exempted from payment of admission and tuition fee
Free education up to intermediate level for students with disabilities
Program for education Waseela-e-Taleem under Benazir Income Support Program (BISP)
Free education up to intermediate level for students with disabilities
Financial Assistance &
2% to 5% quota for initial recruitment (varies with provinces)
In 2018 the government included PWDs in the Bahbood Savings Scheme, estimated to benefit 192,000 PWDs
0.2 million PWDs in Punjab have been scrutinised and 80,000 to 90,000 Khidmat cards have been issued for technical training
Program for vocational training and skills development Waseela-e-Rozgar under Benazir Income Support Program (BISP)
Free medical treatment in all Federal government hospitals
100 per cent coverage under the Sehat Sahulat Program - (launched in 2019 as grants for underprivileged citizens’ access to healthcare)
Free health services in public healthcare centers and concessions in private healthcare centers under the Balochistan Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 and Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018
Presence in Public Life
Interventions are needed in socio-economic arrangements that normalise the presence of PWDs in public life, such as the creation of jobs; infrastructure overhauls that enable access and utilisation of public spaces are required; political participation should be mainstreamed to make PWDs’ representation possible in decision making forums.
Usage of public infrastructure
Access to public accommodations (hospitals, schools, markets, libraries, et cetera) is necessary for attaining healthcare, education and recreation, and critical to livelihoods and political participation of PWDs. PWDs often report a lack of accessible transport as a major obstacle to their labor force participation. Similarly, an absence of accessible toilets and building entrances also pose difficulties to them.
Signage, Braille & Public Safety
Structural modifications to public facilities, equipment with inclusive design features, and communication of information in disability friendly formats can all enhance participation of PWDs in public life. Large print and braille signage in buildings and outdoor public spaces, presentation of information such as job postings, emergency and disaster announcements in braille, large print, and audio and video format will also assist in the inclusion and safety of PWDs.
Additionally, a strengthening of safety mechanisms is required for PWDs to navigate public spaces independently. Law enforcement agencies must be trained in ways that allow them to communicate with a wide range of PWDs, from those who have physical impairments to those who have intellectual disabilities.
Affirmative Policy and Political Participation
It is necessary that PWDs be able to access voting booths during elections, attend rallies and corner meetings, work as election observers, and run as electoral candidates. The Election Commission and Supreme Court’s directives helped create access for PWDs in the general elections of 2018, but several polling booths did not have the requisite equipment and materials in place for easy access and use. Equally important is access to public information in the form of leaflets, party manifestos, and voting guidelines.
Employment allows PWDs to become independent and regain personal dignity often diminished by social attitudes and stigmas. Employment offers the most effective manner of integrating PWDs in public life. Awareness programs and general rules of engagement with PWDs need to be disseminated among employers and co-workers so that PWDs are not scrutinised, unnecessarily questioned or treated with undue sympathy. Some countries have done this through training programs lead by PWDs, offering them opportunities for employment while also creating awareness.
A culture of respect and dignity must be created for disability and PWDs, without subjecting them to undue sympathy and ostracisation. It is problematic to think of persons with disabilities as ‘brave’ or as ‘heroes’ as this reinforces their status and places their impairment at the forefront of who they are. Persons with disabilities should be recognised for their personality traits rather than their impairments.
PWDs have varied needs and preferences. When hiring a person with a disability, it would be helpful to ask if they have any special needs, and how best they themselves would prefer to describe their impairment. Unfortunately, colloquial expression does not have a broad range of words to describe or convey disabilities.
For drafting policies or referring to PWDs in English the list below provides a helpful guide on what terms to use. Given the many words that are employed for persons with disabilities, it is likely that outdated, offensive, or discriminatory terms are used when talking about them. Some useful pointers for talking to and about persons with disabilities are listed below:
Given the many terms that are used for persons with disabilities, it is likely that outdated, offensive, or discriminatory terms are employed when talking about them. Some useful pointers for talking to and about persons with disabilities are listed below:
Referring to PWDs
Persons with Disability
Able Bodied, Persons without Disabilities
Handicapped, Differently-abled, Cripple, Crippled, Victim, Retarded, Stricken, Poor, Unfortunate, Abnormal, Special Needs
Disabled Spaces, Special Spaces
It is generally acceptable to use the terms “disability”, “disabled”, and “people with disabilities” but if you think a person with disability feels uncomfortable by your use of these words then ask them how they prefer to be addressed.
Alvi, Mumtaz, “Pakistan’s literacy rate stands at 58pc”, The News, 27th April, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/309542-pakistan-s-literacy-rate-stands-at-58pc
Associated Press Pakistan, “Disabled constitute just 0.48 per cent of total population”, 16th September, 2017. https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/09/16/disabled-constitute-just-0-48of-total-population/
Bacha, Ali Hazrat, “Special persons boycott polls, demand quota of reserved seats”, Dawn, 26th July, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1422818
Balochistan Persons with Disabilities Act, No II of 2017, 20th May 2017 http://pabalochistan.gov.pk/pab/pab/tables/alldocuments/actdocx/2018-10-23%2011:12:48act-2-2017-disability.pdf
British Council, Moving from the Margins: Mainstreaming young persons with disabilities in Pakistan, 2019 https://www.nowpdp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/British-Council-Report.pdf
Iqbal, Nasir, “Punjab approves system for online registration of disabled, SC told”, Dawn, 27th November, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1447877
Khan, Yasir Habib, “Framing the Disability Debate”, The News, 1st December, 2019. https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/576114-framing-the-disability-debate
Malik, Asad, “SC orders govt to count persons with disabilities separately, Dawn, 17th March, 2017. https://www.dawn.com/news/1321027
National Youth Leadership Network, Respectful Disability Language, 2006. http://www.aucd.org/docs/add/sa_summits/Language%20Doc.pdf
Network of Organizations Working for People With Disabilities Pakistan, Know Your Rights, 2015.
Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, Disability Evaluation Report, 2012. http://www.ppaf.org.pk/doc/Disability/51-disability%20evaluation%20report.pdf
Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, Documentation of Disability Data, 2012. http://www.ppaf.org.pk/doc/Disability/50-DOCUMENTATION_OF_DISABILITY_DATA.pdf
Potohar Mental Health Association, Bringing Disability in the Constitutional Net, 2018 http://pmha.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/PMHA-Report-2018.pdf
Rana, Shahbaz, “Pakistan has only less than a million citizens with disabilities”, Express Tribune, 11th September, 2017. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1503496/sixth-population-census-people-disabilities-stand-less-1m-pakistan/
Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018, 11th June 2018 http://itacec.org/document/2018/Sindh-Empowerment-of-PWD-Act-XLVIII-of-2018-june-11-2018.pdf
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Fact Sheet on Persons with Disabilities. https://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/toolaction/pwdfs.pdf
United Nations World Health Organization, World Report on Disability, 2011. https://www.unicef.org/protection/World_report_on_disability_eng.pdf
University of Illinois, Disability Resources and Educational Services, Acceptable Language: A Guide for Disability Etiquette. https://www.disability.illinois.edu/academic-support/instructor-information/accessible-language-guide-disability-etiquette
© 2019 Jinnah Institute. All Rights Reserved.