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Inclusive SDGs

December 3, 2016, marked the UN International Day of People with Disabilities. This year, its theme is ‘achieving 17 goals for the future we want’. As the world’s largest and most inclusive minority group — all ages, genders, ethnicities, religions and socio-economic levels are represented; and anyone can join this group at any time — people with disabilities must be included as key stakeholders in the process of achieving the 17 SDGs.

Part of the problem for disability inclusion in Pakistan is cultural, a tendency to view disability through the lens of sympathy and charity. Disability is thus seen as a burden that society must (benevolently or begrudgingly) carry rather than as a natural process, which may begin at birth but is just as likely to occur during one’s lifetime through injury, illness or old age.

Understanding disability as existing on the same spectrum of variable ‘normative’ function as the able-bodied population, and ranging from mild to severe, allows us to recognise our commonalities rather than dividing the population through this binary. Seeing this as a human rights (instead of charitable) concern, then, allows for more inclusive development.

While disability represents the functional consequences of a physical, sensory or cognitive impairment, it does not represent ‘handicap’ — the social and environmental consequences, or barriers, people with disabilities encounter. Thus, part of the problem in Pakistan is also structural — both environmental and institutional. Our urban infrastructure is inadequately designed, barely accessible for parents with young children, let alone for people with disabilities.

Nor are our institutions, with their inflexible procedures and practices, accessible to them. While disability rights groups have taken tremendous strides to have their demands for public accessibility met, these interventions are still piecemeal and poorly implemented — leaving large parts of the experience of navigating public spaces with a disability out of the equation.

Disability must be factored into development decisions. The most insidious part of the problem is psychological. Isolated from society, people with disabilities are more likely to internalise societal misconceptions about them. They, especially women, are more likely to face social and economic discrimination, and physical and sexual violence. Their global literacy rate is as low as 3pc (1pc for women), and workforce participation is similarly low. These factors contribute to a vicious cycle of exclusion.

When the state does address disability, such as through special education, its practices are exclusionary and unsustainable. Given the critical condition of mainstream public education, government-run special education schools are often given short shrift in terms of policy considerations and budgetary allocations. Without access to expensive, private special education schools in select urban centres, many in rural areas are left without access to education.

Running a parallel system strains already limited resources and perpetuates the practice of exclusion from mainstream society — denying children with disabilities the chance to learn to integrate and manage their conditions at an early age, and denying able-bodied or able-minded children the chance to learn tolerance for diversity and community spirit.

There is a place for special education, but small, inexpensive interventions (such as physical accessibility and teacher training) and community-developed assistive devices not only bring most students with minor to moderate disabilities into the mainstream education fold, they improve the learning outcomes of all students, as has been evinced in inclusive education systems across the world.

Whether it is to achieve quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), reduced in­­equalities (SDG 10), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) or any other SDG, disability advo­­cates must be at the heart of the development process as key stakeholders. With increa­sing lifespans and rising global disability rates, we must factor disability into every development decision we make.

For us to come close to achieving the 17 SGDs by 2030, the policies and plans we develop must be based on accurate research and data of population figures.

In Pakistan, actual disability statistics are difficult to come by. A 2012 HHRD report estimates the population of Pakistanis with disabilities to be more than the populations of Hyderabad, Multan and Peshawar combined. This staggering estimate was based on projections using data from the 1998 national census — which experts argue is a lowball figure given that the methodology for data collection was decidedly arcane, and compounded by failures of households to report disability due to societal stigma.

While a ‘model disability survey’ for Attock district was announced in 2015 under a WHO-Baitul Mal collaboration, it is critical that the much-awaited national census be conducted — with a revised methodology, and with census takers who are sensitised — if we are committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in mainstream society.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Reem Khurshid, "Inclusive SDGs," Dawn. 2016-12-04.
Keywords: Social science , UN International day , Minority group , Socio-economic levels , Human rights , Economic discrimination , Special education , Public education , Teacher training , Community development , Education system , Economic growth , HHRD report , Disability survey , WHO-Baitul Mal collaboration , Pakistan , SDGs