In a country where physical disability is deeply misunderstood, Izhar Hussain Awan is creating opportunities for the disabled to attend school, learn vocational skills, gain access to medical services, and no longer be marginalized as second class citizens. Izhar joins the blind, deaf, dumb, and physically handicapped together to learn from and support each other while also reaching out to the public through media and with camps where the disabled and non-disabled interact.
The New Idea
Izhar’s dream is to see the physically disabled assimilated into regular school, home, and work life in Pakistan. He is doing so through combination of direct service provision, training and education, and advocacy on the behalf of disability rights. Izhar is helping the physically disabled come out of their houses through camps that welcome them, provide a safe environment, and most importantly, that show them how many other people are living daily with disabilities just like theirs. The camps are also intended to welcome the non-disabled from the community to help fight prejudice and alter misperceptions about the disabled as being somehow non-human. This is a key first step: As long as children and others with disabilities are literally locked in their homes, they will never be able to live anything close to normal lives, nor will they be able to integrate into mainstream society as employees, students, neighbors or friends. Designed integration must come before full, natural integration. Izhar also sees basic educational, vocational, and medical services as key to integration of the physically disabled. He has developed a model service center in his own district that provides schooling, vocational training, and medical services including physiotherapy. As a follow up to vocational training, Izhar has just started a loan and small grant program to help clients set up small businesses. In addition, Izhar is lobbying with the federal government to ensure that the disabled are employed in the public sector as per the quota awarded to them. At the same time, Izhar uses both print and electronic media to create better awareness of the disabled and in particular of their potential and talent. He features the disabled on radio and television shows, each time highlighting a particular talent or passion of the individual. For example, he introduced a deaf young girl on the radio where she played a musical instrument to let herself be heard. Izhar has developed partnerships with national level citizen organizations to support and adopt his initiatives. In turn their network disabled clients helps Izhar reach more people. To date he is working primarily at the village and district level in Chakwal, but has begun developing a strategic plan for growth. In the future, Izhar plans to add a home for the senior and physically disabled who are left alone.
It is estimated that 8.5 percent of Pakistan’s population is afflicted with some form of physical disability. Most of these men and women are systematically alienated from society and are made to live a life of dependency and remorse. For those living in rural areas, the situation is worst, as they have less access to social services and disability friendly infrastructure than their urban counterparts, and must also deal with age-old myths and other psychological constraints. In the district of Chakwal, for example, with over 85,000 physically disabled citizens, there is little social infrastructure to meet their most basic medical, educational, and transportation needs.
Izhar sees the ‘charity’ based attitude of the society towards the disabled as counterproductive in terms of helping them live independent, integrated lives. In fact, he sees these attitudes as being closely tied to the discriminatory practices that continue to marginalize the handicapped and treat them as sub-human burdens on the rest of society. But from experience, both in Pakistan and from what he has witnessed elsewhere in the world, he is certain that with minimal inputs and support, the vast majority of those living with disabilities can take care of themselves, and would prefer to. Such a demonstration of self-help and independence in Pakistan would go a long way in helping society overcome its stigma attached to disability—and eventually lead to procedural and policy changes at the institutional and government levels.
Behind the apathy and stigma for the disabled lies ignorance. The majority of Pakistani people see disability as destiny and fate and the disabled as a separate type of people not fit for normal life. This perception prevents to the disabled from accessing many educational, vocational and medical services, or from participating in social and public events. Even simple tools and equipment like wheelchairs that are donated by global charities, are often difficult to find. In essence, the disabled are viewed as though they have a terminal illness, and as such any kind of societal investment into their lives is simply not worth the trouble.
After completing a survey for the Rehabilitation Center for Physically Disabled (RCPD) in 2000, Izhar, himself disabled, was startled at the high number of disabled citizens living in his home district. He recognized that due to their isolation, accurate assessments of their existence and their needs were unlikely. He felt a strong urge to bring all types of people living with physical disabilities together and properly assess their needs. Izhar also became convinced that to break the stigma of ‘disability’ especially in rural areas, handicapped people must form their own association. In 2001, he formed IRADAH to do just that.
Initially, IRADAH build on an idea of RCPD to host disability camps—but Izhar added the important element of including non-disabled participants to create an atmosphere of understanding, empathy, and integration. From what he learned after organizing three camps—essentially simulated integration environments—Izhar embarked on the ambitious project of starting a facility center for the disabled where they would be able to acquire schooling, vocational training, health services, and tools and equipment to integrate into society outside the camp environment. The center was founded on donated land and welcomed individuals with all types of disabilities and all ranges of needs. From the beginning, its message to all was one of hope and empowerment.
The center is designed for people of all ages. A schooling facility targets disabled children so they can learn from a young age how to cope with their disability—this includes life skills like travelling on pubic transport or formal communication, in addition to key social skills and finally creative learning like art and theatre. Most recently a boarding school for girls’ education was founded. For youth and young adults, a vocational learning facility was established to help participants master a skill and market themselves on the job market. Those who successfully complete the training have the option of borrowing from IRADAH’s microfinance facility and set up small businesses. For clients of all ages, medical services like physiotherapy are available to help individuals reduce their pain or increase their mobility. As many of them cannot travel to larger cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad for treatment, IRADAH provides them with simple exercises they can do at home. All medical treatment provided is affordable and conducted by local trained doctors and volunteers. Finally, IRADAH distributes physical aids such as wheel chairs, tricycles, hearing aids, and other equipment to facilitate integration and normal living.
With the help of local and international citizen organizations, IRADAH organizes seminars and conferences to share best practices and broaden its network of support. More recently, IRADAH has started to reach out to people through the print and electronic media—both publishing reports of its findings to client groups and supporters, and hosting a radio program on disability awareness.
In the next three years, Izhar is looking to add a shelter and home for disabled people who are senior citizens and have no one to look after them. He will also grow the center’s research and training facilities and reach out to young people interested in disability rights so they can spend time working at the centre both as researchers and directly with clients.
Izhar continues to seek community-based organizations to partner with in order to popularize the disability camps and to spread what he has learned from his support center. Finally, he plans to employ the mass media to spread the message of disability integration and to attract the disabled and their relatives to start service centers in their own communities.
Izhar was born into a poor family in Chakwal and because of the lack of education facilities in his village he was home schooled for large parts of his education through high school. For university he went to Lahore where he was recognized for his leadership skills and elected general secretary of the student union. During these college days, Izhar also recognized a passion he had for working with marginalized populations.
He had just completed his education and got a job as a schoolteacher when he was in a bad car accident. Because of gangrene he had to have his both foot and hand amputated. Izhar refused to become dependent on his father’s meager income and despite the disability he continued his job and continued to look for treatment. During his visit to Islamabad, he came across a military facility for the disabled and felt a forum and a platform was needed for the disabled to communicate with and support one another. The closure of the facility to make room for expansion of a medical education facility made him realize the low priority government gave to disability services. He became determined to start such a facility in the citizen sector.
An invitation to attend a camp set up by RCPD opened doors for Izhar to initiate such an activity in Chakwal. He refused the RCPD offers because he saw it as a medical service that strengthened the perception of the disabled as dependent. However, the survey supported by the RCPD made him realize the high number of disabled even in his own district and the lack of support they were getting. He therefore got his friends and colleagues together to start an organization for the disabled that provided not just medical services but comprehensive educational and vocational training for individuals with all types of disabilities focused above all on empowerment and integration.