In Pakistan, disability has been overlooked and ignored in all aspects of life, including administrative, financial, and legal spheres. As a result, people with disabilities are the most disadvantaged since we are unseen, unheard, and miscounted in the country.
Notably, one billion individuals, or 15% of the world’s population, are believed to be disabled. People with disabilities are marginalized in society and face a world steeped in prejudice, pity, and humiliation. We often have limited access to decent education and meaningful jobs. The number of people with disabilities in Pakistan is estimated to be about 30 million. Disabilities are classified as physical hearing, vision, speech, and intellectual. These are further classed as mild, moderate, and severe/profound.
Understanding the specific plight of disabled women in Pakistan is critical since we are often at the lowest rung of social, economic, and cultural marginalization. Women are generally mistreated and subjugated in Pakistani society; disabled women endure the most of this discrimination. We are frequently excluded from family gatherings; people look at us with pity. People stare or ask intrusive questions—on the streets, in marketplaces, even in educational institutions—which causes or exacerbates the depression with which many of us live.
People with disabilities, as well as groups advocating for our rights, confront several challenges and restrictions. The challenges of disabled women and girls are not treated separately from those of men and boys with disabilities, which erases the specific issues we encounter at the intersection of ableism and sexism. Unfortunately, there is no data on disabled Pakistanis outside the gender binary. There is little public awareness of the issues affecting people with disabilities in general, let alone disabled people of marginalized gender; government commitment and will are also lacking. As a result, the key stakeholders are unfamiliar with the rights of disabled people of marginalized gender, as well as the laws, policies, and protocols associated with us. Consequently, there is minimal adequate implementation. We routinely get left behind.
In 1981, the government of Pakistan passed a law to provide for the employment, rehabilitation, and well-being of disabled people in the country for the first time. The original law established a 2% quota for people with disabilities in all government and non-governmental organizations; a few provinces have since seen the quota increased to between 3% and 5%. The law also states that disabled people’s working conditions cannot be less favourable than those of other employees in an establishment. People with disabilities cannot be hired at a lower wage or with fewer benefits. In addition, the Pakistani government ratified the “ILO Convention on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment of Disabled Persons.” It has also ratified the “United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
I’ve confronted several challenges to employment in Pakistan, as many other disabled people face. First, employers have a negative attitude about hiring me—despite my talent, qualifications, and capabilities. In Pakistan, the stigma is exacerbated by the fact that, for many, the only image they have of a disabled person is that of an impoverished street beggar.
Even if the stigma is removed, structural hurdles to accessing employment for people with visual, hearing, speech, mental, or physical impairments remain. This includes: getting to work (road quality and transportation), moving around the workplace (ramps, accessible bathrooms, etc.), and doing the work itself, with the help of technology and other accommodations.
Most importantly, Pakistan has one of the lowest percentages of female labour force participation in South Asia; women with disabilities face even more impediments to employment. Furthermore, rehabilitative and educational programmes tailored to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities are few, making them less employable.
There are additional challenges when an economy is predominantly agricultural, as it is in Pakistan. For someone with mobility issues, for example, being a productive worker in a rural economy can be impossible when navigating terrain that is inaccessible. Moreover, as I experienced, the country has a broad pool of potential employees. Without incentives, companies are less likely to choose applicants in whom they must invest money to accommodate workers.
Another barrier I face on the job is a persistent lack of job advancement opportunities. My employer, who wishes to establish an inclusive workforce, says it is difficult to find qualified women. Nearly all people with disabilities that it has recruited so far are men. Therefore, there are few job and training options for women with disabilities. However, there are positive instances of other local and multinational companies in Pakistan that have successfully established an inclusive workforce, where the best talent acquisition and management practices are used. Foreign stakeholders actively promote diversity in industries such as telecommunications, fast-moving consumer goods, and tobacco.
Discrimination and biases make it hard for disabled workers to find work. However, there are other factors that keep people with disabilities from seeking work in the first place. Many people with disabilities face a variety of challenges when looking for work, going on interviews, and working in an office.
For example, I also face obstacles when using public transportation. It is difficult to travel by taxi or auto-rickshaw. This makes finding new or better job opportunities a challenge. Public transit is usually uncomfortable and even dangerous. Buses are neither well-regulated nor easily accessible to those with disabilities. Not only are there no ramps, bells, or braille buttons, but buses frequently do not stop for those with disabilities at all. While changes in some locales are being seen, the overall infrastructure is still unacceptably abysmal.
Discrimination against people with disabilities in Pakistan is serious and prevalent, yet I believe it is primarily motivated by ignorance rather than hatred. I don’t think that Pakistani people dislike people with disabilities; many simply do not know how to interact with us.
I am hopeful that we can work together to develop and execute initiatives to boost employment and earnings for Pakistani disabled people of marginalized gender. A critical intervention is to minimize early prejudices towards disabled girls, women, and children and adults outside the gender binary as well as their own internalized stigma. Well-established, evidence-based anti-stigma interventions should be used in education to develop students’ knowledge, understanding, and beliefs about people with disabilities.
Other initiatives include improving education-to-career transition activities to reinforce ideals of independent living, economic self-sufficiency, and increased post-secondary educational achievement among disabled people of marginalized gender. We must also try to decrease isolation through mainstreaming, mentorships, networks, and early job experience.
I strongly believe that the way forward for disability justice in Pakistan must include full participation from disabled Pakistani women, girls, and others of marginalized gender. Our contributions to policy, decision-making processes, and laws affecting us must be recognized for the true value that they hold. It is high time to make a commitment to end the exclusion of disabled women, girls, and others of marginalized gender. The crucial first step must be recognition of the untapped strength and resilience we possess, so that we can lead the way.
Ruqiya Anwar (she/her) is an independent researcher and sociopolitical analyst from Pakistan. She holds a Master’s degree in Media and Communication Studies.