Monsur Ahmed Choudhuri’s life has been a campaign for the rights of the physically handicapped. Since the late 1980s, he has led the effort for government and public institutions to recognize physical disability as one of the many disadvantages existing in Bangladesh and called upon the president to set up a national endowment for the sector. Monsur is also co-founder of the National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD)—instrumental in guaranteeing the rights of disabled people through national legislation.
The New Idea
The UN and other international bodies adopted disability issues in the early 1970s; however, the sector only gained momentum in Bangladesh just over a decade ago. Though a handful of specialized schools and institutions established by the government and others existed from the late 1950s and 1960s, they were small in scale, without many facilities, and mostly unknown. The situation is further complicated by the prevailing view that the disabled are responsible for their circumstance and are a burden to their family and society. They face daily discrimination and most families are ashamed and tend to hide or deny their existence.
Monsur has been a key figure in bringing significant systemic change to the disability field by changing public understanding, law, and the allocation of resources to enable people with disabilities access to specialized services, medical care, education, and employment opportunities. He has been instrumental in pressuring government to foster innovation, organize civil society to respond to the needs of the disabled, unit different groups to work together to ensure the disabled rights are achieved, and demonstrate new approaches in the field. Monsur’s pioneering work over the past quarter of a century has meant that physically disabled people today are more visible and are gradually being integrated in society—important achievements in a culture where even discussing disability was taboo.
Building on his past work and successes, Monsur intends to close the gap between national laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled and the challenges they continue to face, establish an Asia-Pacific platform for disability advocacy, and document the history of disability in the region, with particular reference to Bangladesh.
Monsur’s life demonstrates how little appreciation existed for the capabilities of people with disabilities and the difficulties they faced gaining acceptance in society, even if they belonged to the upper strata. Born into an educated and relatively affluent family, he attended a special school for the blind but faced petty harassment from education administrators at every level. He was forced to switch examination boards for secondary school examinations since the Chairperson of Dhaka Board did not allow him to sit for the exams; though there was provision for doing so. When he enrolled in Dhaka University as the first blind student, he was denied entrance in the English department for the same reason. He was thrown out of the library for being read aloud to and the finance department refused to give his merit scholarship money on the grounds that his signatures would not match. He was even asked to provide medical proof of his blindness during his Master’s final examination. Despite such prejudices Monsur was elected unopposed as Class Representative to the Student’s Union and was responsible for organizing a three-week tour for thirty-two students to (then) West Pakistan. At every step he fought the system and succeeded in pursuing his goal; paving the way for others like him.
The number of permanently disabled people in Bangladesh is near 13 million, roughly 10 percent of the population, of whom half a million are multi-handicapped and 3 million are children. It is estimated that 70 percent of the disabled population is totally illiterate and 14 percent own less then 1 acre of land (functionally landless). Annual growth among the disabled population in Bangladesh is approximately 250,000. At least one third of the population will experience a temporary disability through accident, injury, illness, and aging. A significant percentage of disability is preventable and stems from lack of awareness, malnutrition, inappropriate medication, and inadequate medical treatment. Like many other cultures, the causes of disability are poorly understood, suffer from social stigmatization, and families’ are discriminated against. Culturally, during marriage proposals, women were forced to walk and show their hands and feet to the groom’s family who checked for disabilities.
Previously, the disability sector was fragmented with some areas such as visual impairment receiving priority over others. Monsur understood the need to work across all sectors and brought together the different groups to bargain collectively with the government and other stakeholders. His efforts ensured the rights of the disabled were legislated and the scope and reach of services expanded. While Monsur’s work over the years has contributed to the establishment of new approaches to rehabilitation, education, medical care, awareness, and prevention, there is still much work to be do to sustain the movement and guarantee that legislative rights passed by parliament are widely followed and implemented throughout the country.
Monsur felt that until the disability sector was organized, it would be difficult to fight for their rights as equals in society. In 1989, at a national seminar he proposed and developed the idea of a national platform for disability-focused organizations to work together to forward the cause of disabled persons. The 123 member National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled works along thematic groups and is the only recognized apex-federating body of organizations working in all fields of disability. It is also unique in combining advocacy at the national level with development of real working models at the community level.
At the same time, Monsur engaged the government in continuous dialogue to sensitize and educate government officials on issues of physical disability. By creating an alliance of the many groups facing different types of disabilities and then using that forum to pressure the government, Monsur succeeded in giving special status to the physically handicapped in a new national law. This means the allocation of resources from the national budget, access to education and employment, specialized services, medical care, and encourages the formation of disability groups, mobility and provision to other key services. Political participation and empowerment follows access. During the last local elections, for the first time, a conscious proactive effort of disabled candidates participated in the electoral process and some won!
Sensitizing, educating, and training government and policymakers is an ongoing process for Monsur. Civil servants rotate posts and governments change political parties. Unless this process is sustained the laws passed for protecting the rights of the disabled will not be implemented nationally. Monsur has observed that due to the fundamental rules of business that govern ministries, the law has become largely symbolic and is not bringing about changes and improvements in the lives of the disabled. In the present system, all disability issues and related functions have been placed under the Social Welfare ministry. As a result, other ministries avoid taking responsibility by referring all such matters to the Social Welfare department. The Social Welfare ministry has neither the capacity, nor commitment, nor authority, to coordinate the activities and regulations that fall under the legislation. It becomes difficult to hold any particular department accountable for failing to meet their obligations. Unless these rules of business are amended, it will be nearly impossible to ensure the legislation positively impacts the sector. Monsur is therefore working to bring about change by strategically placing himself on the board of two government-constituted bodies—the National Coordination Committee for the Disabled and the National Foundation for the Development of Disabled Persons. Through these committees he is able to access policymakers at the highest levels, educate, and expose them to innovations, problems, and issues related to disability and the fundamental structural flaw inhibiting the impact of the legislation.
Even if these efforts are unsuccessful, Monsur has strategized that the changes may be easier to bring about during the caretaker government to be formed before the next parliamentary elections in 2006. He has discussed this problem with past caretaker government advisors who agree on the need for change. Monsur is interested to learn from others in the region who have brought about disability related legislative changes and the relevant rules of business in their countries. The experience of Ashoka Fellow Javed Abidi and Jagdish Chandra, Associate Professor of Delhi University (presently completing his doctorate at Syracuse University, is of particular interest).
Monsur is also moving a national agenda for action to ensure that disability issues are taken up by development citizen organizations (COs) not just specialty COs. He has launched a major campaign with the CO community to get the World Bank to include disability in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper framework. Monsur explains that unless this happens the government will not approve any CO program that proposes to work on disability issues because it is not in the plan! Monsur passionately states, “I, a disabled citizen, strongly believe that people with disabilities in Bangladesh should enjoy human rights. To achieve our goal of equal opportunities we need political commitment from the highest authority, the State. Every political party should make that commitment and reflect it in their manifesto. They need to pronounce and write down what they will do for disabled people. In the previous seven elections not a single political party gave us a commitment. I am a voter, a taxpayer, and a citizen, yet they still ignore me.”
Monsur has been active regionally and internationally in the disability field for many years. From his experience, he observes that there is no indigenous regional platform in the Asia-Pacific region that is advocating for the disability sector with governments and international agencies. Instead, there are organizations like Disabled Peoples International and Rehabilitation International with regional structures that work according to the agenda of their head office located in the north. Monsur believes that an Asia-Pacific based body is essential to effectively impact disability issues regionally and internationally. It is specifically needed for a) negotiating with different governments, ESCAP, ADB, the World Bank, UN, ASEAN, SAARC and other similar bodies b) for regional collaborations, sharing of information/services c) for providing technical support to least developed countries, and d) transferring the knowledge, experience, and expertise regionally and intergenerationally.
Monsur built this platform by organizing a regional symposium on disability and development in Dhaka in December 2003. This international event brought together 323 experts, celebrities, governments, COs and social entrepreneurs, including the special rapporteur of the Indian Human Rights Commission (who is visually impaired), from twenty-seven countries to focus on strengthening global action for people with disabilities. Monsur identified potential members from among this group to structure the regional body.
Due to his leadership and close involvement with disabled persons and the cross-disability self-help movement, Monsur is in many ways a living history of Bangladesh’s disability movement. He is working on a project to write his work’s history to create the disability movement in Bangladesh and capture some of the essential principles of organizing coalitions and influencing government policy and public attitudes. Monsur is also searching for technology that will enable the disabled to benefit from IT. He has seen programs in India, but they are all expensive. Therefore, he is exploring options to develop the training and software in Bangladesh and there may be scope for other Fellows with the expertise to assist.
Monsur’s involvement as board member of different disability groups enables him to be a focal point of the disability sector. He comes in contact with a new generation of disability leaders to educate, encourage, and mentor for the future. As the most respected and leading figure of the sector, Monsur has been a source of inspiration to others and has championed their programs and innovations to a wider audience. His success is reflected in the fact that in 1981 he was the only disabled person among the fifty-four member committee for the International Year of the Disabled. Today, however, there are many more leaders representing the disabled nationally and internationally. Monsur is recognized by his peers for his work and dedication and Fazle Abed, founder of BRAC, has described his work as “exceptional!”
At the age of seven, Monsur was struck in the eye by a tennis ball which dislocated his lens. Subsequent surgery resulted in an infection, which spread to his other eye and resulted in complete blindness. When the Rotary Club established a school for the blind, Monsur enrolled as the first of two students. When his father was transferred to another city, nine-year-old Monsur pleaded with his mother to allow him to board so that he could continue his education. Even at a young age he was determined to have the opportunity to be educated. It was an opportunity he would later use to fight on the behalf of others.
After completing his university studies in Dhaka, he was accepted for the Bar-at-Law to the Inner Temple in the United Kingdom but was refused a visa on the grounds of his disability. He then began to work on service delivery programs for the blind. During this early part of his career he was only aware of the needs of the visually impaired. Monsur became the Chief Executive of the National Society for the Blind in 1978. In 1981 he moved to another CO, Assistance for Blind Children (ABC), where he held the post of General Secretary for nine years. While at ABC he developed a program for the education and rehabilitation of the disabled. Even though the government had established an integrated education program, there was no hostel and blind students in rural areas were unable to travel to schools. Monsur extended ABC’s program to include six hostels for boys and one for girls. He also started two centers to provide training in orientation, mobility, and daily living activities for the blind. In 1981, he attended the first World Convention of Disabled People where he had his first “exposure to people with other disabilities.” He understood the need to work across the disability field and began to work and speak on behalf of all people with disabilities—contributing to different initiatives internationally.
Monsur is presently the Director and Trustee of the Impact Foundation Bangladesh, part of a global network of Impact organizations started by the Late Sir John Wilson in the UK. Ashoka Fellow David Green is also part of the Impact family. Monsur oversees one of the most innovative programs in disability care in Bangladesh. The work of the organization centers around the Jiban Tori (Life Boat)—the first floating hospital in Bangladesh—utilizing Bangladesh’s extensive network of rivers to reach clinical and surgical services in remote areas where people with disabilities can neither access nor afford such specialized care. Impact is also developing a health care approach to directly impact the prevention of disability by significantly changing the health and nutritional status of the rural poor, particularly women and children. The hospital has traveled to sixteen remote areas in six districts and provided surgical services to over 12,000 people, clinical services to over 100,000 people, and imparted health education to prevent avoidable disability to over 60,000 rural residents.
In addition to his work at Impact and NFOWD, Monsur Chairs the Center for Disability and Development and is on the board of Sir John Wilson School (proceeds from the school go to Impact Foundation). He remembers his parents, teachers, and the late Sir John Wilson for inspiring his work in the disability sector. His family was very supportive and particularly sensitive to the issue of disability. His late younger brother had a speaking disability. Though Monsur tragically lost his wife to cancer a few years ago, he lives in Dhaka City with his son.