By Maham Gillani
She silently headed out of the corridors of the hospital clutching her baby who was only a few hours old. Her face devoid of joy, her heart heavy with the series of events that had transpired moments after the birth of the baby. Other expecting mothers in the ward had requested their beds to be shifted farthest from her, older women had murmered ‘Astagfirullah’ upon hearing about the condition of the child and nurses had refused to accept any gifts offered to them on birth of the baby. The poor child had experienced his first rejection from the society just moments after being born. His crime: congenital disability.
A congenital disorder is a medical condition that is present at or before birth; it could take the form of mental retardation, physical deformities or mental ailments. Congenital disorders can be inherited or maybe a result of environmental factors, a child with congenital disorder may experience disability throughout life. While in the developed world newborns are screened to diagnose any disorder within the first three days after birth, no such facility exists in Pakistan. So unless the child is born with an obvious disability, it could take a long time before congenital disability is diagnosed causing loss of precious time in which it could be treated to go wasted.
In Pakistan, there is great social stigma attached to having a disabled child; the widespread perception about children born with disabilities is that they are a culmination of divine punishment for the respective family. The child is labeled as a curse and other healthy children are discouraged from befriending him. Ultimately, these ‘cursed’ children are a center of pity and grow up to be isolated youth with a low self-esteem; coupled with lack of educational and job opportunities they go on living as dependent and depressed adults. There is almost no acceptance for them anywhere in the society causing them to feel ostracized.
Due to widespread illiteracy, and lack of social and economic development there is not much awareness about the causes and treatment of children with disability so many a times even if a certain disability could be treated, it is not. Superstitious beliefs of people in the traditional society of Pakistan also play an important role in identifying disabled status. Thus, it is also a common practice to associate congenital disability with extra-terrestrial influences to rationalize such occurrences. This practice not only robs the disabled of dignity but also leads them to become outcasts in their own homes.
Another reason for the debilitating condition of the disabled in the country is due to the apathy of the rulers. Policy makers have long overlooked the plight of the disabled and continue to ignore the dire consequences of leaving out a section of the population when designing policies related to health, education, employment and infrastructure. The country cannot progress without catering to the special needs of the disabled in socio-economic sectors.
Disabled masses of Pakistan should be treated with equity by the state and the society; fair treatment from the state could only come if the society that they live in stops perceiving them as a liability rather than a resource. Remoulding of the attitude and perception of the society with respect to treatment of the disabled is immediately needed so that they are facilitated in whatever way possible, rather than treated with prejudice and discrimination in contrast to the prevailing norm. It is of course the responsibility of the state to design policies that accommodate the disabled in all major sectors of governance. Only in an accepting and inclusive environment could children with disabilities be able to utilize their potential in the best possible way and become a productive part of the society.
The writer has a Masters in Philosophy from National Defence University and has worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.