By partnering with medical professionals, religious leadership, parents, lawyers, citizen organizations, local government, and the media, Aamir Sohail Saddozai is working to deconstruct the social and economic myths surrounding the disabled in Pakistan. By increasing their access to education and healthcare, he encourages their healthier integration into society. His mission is to establish a society where people with disabilities are integral part of the development process.
Aamir is changing the attitude of people towards disabled communities in underdeveloped areas in Pakistan through the Social Alliance for Human Activation Rehabilitation & Ability (SAHARA). SAHARA effectively changes families’ attitudes towards disabilities through counseling, the engagement of community and religious leaders, and by mobilizing medical professionals towards treatment and prevention. SAHARA has also gained the assistance of corporate and private companies that have actively supported the establishment of medical camps, advertisement, as well as the purchase of wheelchairs and other equipment. The organization has a broad membership in the citizen sector, and actively garners support for their cause through fundraising, volunteering, and goodwill endeavors.
Aamir is expanding the program district by district through local government support, aimed at mobilizing resources including funding, facilities, and regulations. The district government of Dera Ismail Khan (DIK) has provided space for facilities, contributed funds, and assisted in the development of a program to promote a disabled-friendly school system of Inclusive Education, where children with any form of physical disability may enter and learn. Thanks to his work, the public school system currently supports teachers’ training for this purpose and is beginning to accommodate for the disabled through appropriate structures and furniture. He gave a comprehensive plan to the district government and after the approval of District Assembly Dera Ismail Khan is declared a Disabled Friendly District—a joint program was launched in 2004.
While government support has helped Aamir widen the scope of his program, he has also attempted to energize the citizen sector by spreading the word about his work through radio programs. His efforts have been quite successful as people of different areas continue to approach DIK for medical help and advice. Additionally, he has engaged local organizations dealing with disability, bringing them recognition and providing program building advice by taking the lead in a national network of physically handicapped. By adopting new strategies and opportunities, Aamir facilitates others in the network to open up and employ his ideas, hoping to use that energy to bring about significant reforms on both the provincial and national levels.
Although 3.29 million people were reported as disabled in Pakistan in 1998, the figure is considered inaccurate because many in disadvantaged areas will conceal disabilities within families for a host of reasons including, superstition, poverty, and social taboos. Congenital and accident related disabilities are often perceived as divine punishments, and those afflicting children tend to be perceived in economic terms: A loss of labor or an additional mouth to feed. Similarly, the disabled are viewed as social outcasts, and people look upon them with pity and disdain. This multifaceted stigmatization results in extensive concealment, leading to a lack of diagnosis and treatment for those in the most need. Consequently, the disabled become a burden to their family as well as society, only furthering their prejudiced mistreatment.
Since the 1980s, the government has paid increased attention to the rehabilitation of the disabled and improving medical and treatment facilities. More recently, federal and provincial bodies are enabling local governments to take more active roles in the rehabilitation process and policy-making. Despite these improvements, the attitude of the government remains charitable rather than development-oriented.
The number of trained personnel and well-equipped facilities in the health sector—particularly with respect to physiotherapy—is improving; however, people view these services as social taboos and as costly. As a result, these facilities and their expertise are not utilized to their maximum capacity, and ultimately fall into disrepair as the staffs seek jobs in metropolitan areas. On a similar note, philanthropic assistance is often diverted to activities focused on other vulnerable populations.
Within SAHARA, Aamir has brought together a diverse group of professionals to carry out surveys and projects such as organizing medical camps and distributing wheelchairs, crutches, and other necessary items to those in need. While taking on these smaller projects, Aamir invited local philanthropists, civil servants, and the political elite to get involved so they could see how the work being done by everyday people had the power to transform the inappropriately dubbed “disabled” population into productive citizens.
In addition to the camps, Aamir has embarked upon an awareness campaign through radio programs and local religious and community activists, to motivate people—especially the parents of disabled children—to send their children for treatment and to school. The aim is simple: To better integrate the disabled community into society. Various initiatives have been put into action, including the creation of a vocational center specifically geared towards disabled women, and the expansion of physiotherapy centers and ortho workshops as the demand for medical services grows. Aamir adopted the Community Based Rehabilitation approach to achieve the basic aims and objectives.
Concurrently, Aamir has discovered advocates for the disabled among citizens and businesses. Disability as a taboo has been decried from the local mosques, and social activists and village elders have identified households with disabled children and motivated families not to hide them, but to treat them and send them to school; to provide opportunities and rights for them to become active members in society. This is a unique program which not only promotes awareness about the rights of people with disabilities but increases their participation in the community.
Since its inception, SAHARA has been a partner of the Association for the Rehabilitation of Physically Disabled (ARPD). ARPD has many other partners, and Aamir played a key role in forming a network with them; considering it a vehicle for policy advocacy at the provincial and federal levels.
In the next three years, Aamir will establish SAHARA as the coordination arm of the network and extend his message of integration to the many organizations working for the disabled, while also expanding to other districts in NWFP and Punjab.
Because Aamir is the son of a chieftain’s family, he was able to receive a high quality education, and support various progressive political parties as a student. In one demonstration he participated in, he was the victim of severe police brutality and suffered serious injuries to his back. As time progressed, his injury worsened, eventually forcing him to become bedridden.
In the early 1990s, he underwent a two-year surgery and treatment to replace his hip joint and finally get him out of bed. During this prolonged treatment he realized the severity of what disabled individuals endure on a daily basis. It was then he decided to take action and do something to improve the quality of life of the physically disabled, particularly by helping them throughout the treatment phase.
After meeting with the late Farhat Rahman, founder and head of the Association for the Rehabilitation of Physically Disabled, Aamir knew the urgent need to address this issue at the public level. He decided to reshape SAHARA into a broad-based development institution to provide medical and educational services to all disabled individuals, and ensure their fuller participation in the development process. His mission is to create a barrier-free disabled-friendly society.