They are differently abled, not disabled

Published: December 3, 2012

When you’re constructing a staircase in a public building, you’re not thinking of it as a special concession for people with legs. But when we’re building ramps, we think of it as a form of charity. PHOTO: REUTERS

Who among us has stopped at a red light in the inner city and not been visually assaulted by a dozen individuals with gross physical abnormalities walking, limping, crawling and rolling towards our cars?

What we’re observing is not necessarily poverty, but ‘ableism’.

Ableism’ is a belief that only those with a certain set of physical and mental attributes may be counted as a normal part of the society. Those lacking such attributes must either hustle to fit into a non-compliant society, or remove themselves from the mainstream entirely.

One of the most heart-rending sights you may come across is that of a gentleman in a wheelchair hanging around awkwardly at the bottom of a staircase at a government office. He looks around helplessly, waiting for somebody to pick him up – like an infant – and carry him up the obstacle course than an ‘ableistic society’ has gifted him. The staircase, to him, screams that he’s not part of the normal system, but an outsider. The onus is on him to find a way to deal with this existing system, usually by becoming dependent on the ‘normal’ individuals.

It is not the society’s burden to accommodate him into this setup.

If the message you derive from this is that we need to be kinder and more sympathetic towards the disabled individuals, then that’s the wrong way to go about it. The objective is to create a system that views these people not as disabled or dysfunctional anomalies, but as regular people with different needs than ours.

A fine example of ‘ableism’ at play is the widespread use of the slur ‘retard’. Traditionally, the term ‘retardation’ has been used to describe people with mental disabilities. By using the word interchangeably with ‘stupid’ in general conversation, we’ve equated a legitimate disability with ‘stupidity’, or any other epithet or curse of this nature.

When you’re constructing a staircase in a public building, you’re not thinking of it as a special concession for people with legs. It’s not the product of your boundless magnanimity, but something fairly normal that people need. But when we’re building ramps, we think of it as a form of charity.

People sometimes argue that in Pakistan, considering the miniscule proportion of disabled individuals, it’s too inconvenient or economically unfeasible to allow wide-scale construction of ramps and elevators for paraplegics, tactile paving for the blind, or regularise the use of sign language interpreters in public speeches.

About 2.5% of the people in Pakistan are classified as PWD’s (Persons with Disabilities) of whom 60% have physical or visual impairments. The reason you don’t get to see a lot of these people every day is because they mostly remain indoors, being taken care of by their families.

In a country where albeism holds sway, these citizens are forced to retreat from the mainstream society. Despite having the potential of becoming normal, functional citizens, they instead become a burden upon their loved ones.

Why ‘normal’, you may ask, when they’re obviously abnormal anatomically, physiologically or psychologically? Whenever you take a random sample of 1000 Pakistanis, about 25 of them would always be PWD’s. This means that their occurrence is a normal phenomenon in a social sense, even if their individual conditions are anomalous.

The projects being carried out by the Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP) and UNESCO do not serve as charities, but as prudent investments aimed at revitalising a good chunk of the population that has been unnecessarily made useless. Not only can we improve the lives of the differently-abled and their families, we can empower them to play an active role in nation-building.

Read more by Faraz here or follow him on Twitter @FarazTalat

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • I.

    Nicely written.
    I heard somewhere on tv that most of PWD’s accept their Disabilities and aren’t demotivated because of them.
    What demotivates them is when some random person calls them “bechara” and sees them with pity as if they donot belong to this world.
    We need to change our attitude towards them , so they equally contribute to our society as they have that that potential given that proper opportunities are provided to them.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    Another good blog from our favorite mediblogger. :) Recommend

  • Nayla

    If people would stop marrying their 1st cousins, time and time again within family lineage, there would be much fewer “PWDs”.Recommend

  • Rambino

    Being physically impaired must be bad enough without having to deal with people’s misguided pity. Recommend

  • Yumna

    …and you came up with another excellent piece of work!
    Umm I am trying not to sound like a creep but umm would you mind adding the Subscribe button to your Facebook? :D Subscribing an intellectual and getting to hear his thoughts would be nice.Recommend

  • http://www.excelfrt.com Rubab Khan

    @Noman Ansari:

    Superb FARAZRecommend

  • Mahrukh

    @Nayla:
    I think that was a mean thing to say. Yes, my parents were first cousins, and I do have a cochlear implant that helps me to hear, but I would never want to give up my hearing loss to become people like YOU who cannot be sympathetic. Are you trying to imply that ALL differently abled people have parents who are first cousins and that ALL children of parents who are 1st cousins are differently abled? If so, you are WRONG. My brother does nto have any sort of ablity that makes him special whatsoever, and I know people whose parents are first cousins and who are perfectly fine. Please think twice before speaking or in this case, writing something.Recommend

  • Insaan

    @Mahrukh: “Are you trying to imply that ALL differently abled people have parents who are first cousins and that ALL children of parents who are 1st cousins are differently abled?”

    Marrying first cousins or relatives (inbreeding) INCREASES the chances of inherited diseases (abnormalities). Inherited diseases (abnormalities) can happen even when husbands and wives are not related.Recommend

  • Mahrukh

    Okay, so what if it increases the chances of inherited diseases? Are you saying that cousins should not get married because of that? That is a immoral and mean thing you are trying to say. What if you know you’re syed and there is no other option for you but to marry a syed? What if you love your cousin? This ridiculous issue should not be a barrier between two cousins should they wish to marry.Recommend