In 2018, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) conducted an audit where it surveyed 55 polling stations in Islamabad to find out if they were accessible for Persons Living with Disabilities (PLWDs). Out of the 55, it found that 95% did not meet the mandatory accessibility criteria, and hence were inaccessible for PLWDs. This included not having clear pathways, adequate external lighting, and appropriately sized doors. The voting areas were not level with the entrances, and there were no ramps available for PLWDs.
Alarmingly, most of these polling stations were situated in schools, which indicates an even bigger crisis: most educational institutions being inaccessible for children with disabilities.
Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PLWDs) in 2011, helping the global movement for the rights of disabled persons to make its way into the country, and allowing for greater recognition of the fundamental rights of PLWDs. There is some domestic legislation in place as well. This includes the ICT Right of Persons with Disability Act 2020, the Accessibility Code 2006, the Sindh Empowerment of ‘Persons with Disabilities’ Act 2018, and the Balochistan Persons with Disabilities Act, No II of 2017.
Then why is it that even in the face of such extensive regulation, we find results such as the ECP’s? The first problem is a lack of uniform and comprehensive legislation.
The ICT Right of Persons with Disability Act 2020 is the latest piece of legislation on the matter and is applauded for its increased inclusivity. However, many have still pointed out that the Act only extends to Islamabad Capital Territory, and no other areas of Pakistan. This leaves PLWDs in other areas of Pakistan still vulnerable to a lack of proper facilities or recognition of fundamental rights.
Before the ICT Act 2020, the Disabled Persons (Employment and Rehabilitation) Ordinance 1981 was in effect. The Ordinance extended to the entirety of Pakistan and therefore was uniform, but it lacked a plethora of provisions that could cater to actual issues faced by PLWDs, and only focused on the establishment of national and provincial councils for the rehabilitation of disabled persons.
Hence an act similar to the ICT Act 2020, which recognizes fundamental rights, is needed but one that should extend to the entirety of Pakistan. History has taught us that uniform legislation is not the only thing that can work, and it needs to be coupled with a comprehensive framework encompassing the issues that PLWDs face.
A second, and perhaps the biggest, the problem is implementation. Disability rights activists have consistently pointed out that there has been no proper implementation of any of the regulations mentioned above.
In fact, the bodies responsible for making sure that PLWDs get the proper facilities that they deserve are not properly living up to their own circulars and regulations.
Section 6.2.3 of the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) Building and Zoning Regulations 2007 says that all commercial, public, and apartments must have a ramp of a certain size, and each floor should be accessible through the ramp in the case of non-provision of a lift. The regulations also call for a toilet to be provided for the disabled. Section 5.2.3 of the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Building and Zoning Regulations 2019 says the same thing.
However, both cities are heavily void of ramps and other infrastructure that PLWDs need. Activists such as Naveed Ikram, President of the Disabled Persons Association, have spoken openly about the lack of ramps in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, and as someone living in Lahore, I have observed that many buildings do not have working lifts or ramps in them. This is a failure of the RDA and LDA as they are responsible for development in their respective cities.
Banks are required to have ramps as well. In BC&CPD Circular No. 01 of 2020 of the State Bank of Pakistan, the State Bank ordered all banks/DFIs/MFBs to construct ramps at new and existing places of business for the accessibility of PLWDs. It also followed up on a circular it issued in 2014 which called for braille stationery and talking ATMs to be introduced in banks. However, no report has been made public of this on the progress on this front.
Looking around oneself, only newly constructed banks seem to have ramps or talking ATMs. This leaves many PLWDs at a disadvantage and renders them unable to use the proper services.
All of this still exists despite the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordering all transport and building authorities in Dr. Shahnawaz Munami v The Federal Government [2020 SCMR 1713] to make sure that reasonable accommodations, such as ramps, toilets, etc., is provided for PLWDs. The apex court also acknowledged that a lack of these provisions makes it difficult for PLWDs to access public spaces, and does not let them enjoy their right to life and dignity to the fullest.
This violation of rights is so fundamental that even the Lahore High Court in Hafiz Junaid Mahmood v Govt. of Punjab, etc. (PLD 2017 Lahore 1) recognized that the “right to life and dignity of a person with disabilities can only be realized if the State and its institutions take steps to provide a reasonable accommodation that will facilitate and ensure that the person with disabilities can enjoy life with honour and dignity like others in the society.”
Without ramps and other accommodations, results like the ones we saw in the ECP study mentioned at the start are bound to come up.
PLWDs are discriminated against in public spaces as they are unable to perform nominal activities the way others are. Hence, even though regulations exist, their poor implementation is what is costing so many PLWDs from living their lives with ease.
It is imperative that those in charge take note of how the fundamental rights of so many are being encroached upon. As a significant section of our society, PLWDs require the necessary attention and care that they need, and as citizens of Pakistan, they should be allowed to lead a life where they do not need the help of someone else to do basic tasks.
The lack of initiative taken by authorities is astonishing and shows that PLWDs still remain a neglected part of our society.