Mohammed Shahidul Haque, himself physically disabled, seeks to show Bangladesh that its policy of not allowing those like him to contribute works to the detriment of both the country - and the disabled.
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Shahidul is providing physically disabled individuals with the skill they need to become productive working members of society. More than simply opening job possibilities, this training focuses on teaching self-help skills. It seeks to empower disabled people with a sense of purpose and self-confidence that they find hard to develop in the discouraging, negative environment they otherwise confront. As this confidence begins to build, he draws disabled people into community-based rehabilitation projects that help them learn how to tap available local resources in order to live independent lives.Shahidul urgently wants to change society's attitudes toward the disabled. By helping to work disabled people into the mainstream of society and its development effort, by involving community members in the process, and by providing local communities with information regarding the abilities of the disabled, Shahidul hopes to create a more understanding and supportive community environment for the disabled. Shahidul believes that this change will give the physically disabled a higher profile, more consideration in day-to-day dealings, and some attention in national development planning.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately ten percent of the 110 million people in Bangladesh are disabled. Yet, Bangladesh's disabled, potentially a very valuable resource, have long been neglected. In addition to coping with myriad barriers in daily life, these people must also deal with discrimination in many forms, even in the academic and professional sectors. The issues Shahidul is taking up have never been comprehensively addressed in Bangladesh before. Development organizations have ignored disabled Bangladeshis. The Association of Development Organizations of Bangladesh and the government define disability as a component of the health sector, giving little thought to how much the disabled need education, employment, and rehabilitation. The few institutions that do work with the disabled are limited in their scope, and can find only very limited support from the government and donors.
The physically disabled now are blocked at every turning due to the lack of awareness, information, resources, and organizational capacity committed to the problem. Shahidul, himself a physically disabled person, has had ample experience with the barriers the disabled must confront. He is one of the very few who struggled successfully to obtain his degree and then a job. He attributes many of the difficulties he encountered to the widespread lack of even the most basic information regarding disabilities.
Shahidul founded the group Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Physically Vulnerable (SARPV) to go to work on the problem. He gradually developed an approach he calls "Self-Help Development Process" that focuses on assisting disabled persons to lead more independent lives through available local resources. He is setting up self-help groups in both rural and urban areas. Both types of groups will focus heavily on helping their members become economically viable. In the rural areas this will involve looking for natural resources the disabled can effectively develop and sell. In the cities he will focus more on developing skills and then campaigning for equal rights and opportunity for those with these skills.
SARPV has taken part in drafting a policy paper for the government in conjunction with several others working in the field. The paper brings to light how Bangladesh has fallen behind its neighbors in regard to education and training for the disabled and makes recommendations for implementing reforms that will enable the disabled to participate fully in social and commercial activities.
Shahidul will also create the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to provide research, documentation, and information on job and other opportunities, health organizations, medical treatment, and the disabilities themselves. The center will also be a key player in his counseling and training programs. The DRC will also focus on organizing community awareness projects, documenting the problems and situation of the disabled, and working to ensure their legal rights. Through the DRC and its trained staff, physically disabled people will come to appreciate their own abilities and learn to make use of local resources in order to lead more independent lives. Eventually, as public awareness and policy attention to the disabled build, the center will serve an increasingly broad audience.
Two profound incidents took place in Shahidul's life before he started his community-based rehabilitation work. The first occurred during his childhood, in the Gazipur district, where he contracted polio. Then, in 1971, during the Liberation War, he received a bullet injury that forced him to walk with crutches. Both physical tragedies, one being a disease and another an injury, raised his awareness of the discrimination and difficulties to which disabled individuals are subject. Proving he was by no means "disabled," Shahidul built his academic and intellectual capabilities, ultimately completing his master's in public administration from Dhaka University.
Only after a prolonged struggle to overcome government service rules that discriminate against the disabled did he join a nationalized bank as an officer in 1983. He continued to confront prejudice in both his work and social situations. Each new incident was a spur that ultimately led him to launch his life's work (and its supporting organization) to change how Bangladesh feels, thinks, and acts vis-a-vis the disabled.