Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jean Do. Sarah Bernhardt. What can the president of a country, an author of a best-selling novel and a popular stage actress have in common?
Franklin Roosevelt was the only president of the United States to be elected four times in a row. He also had several disabilities including vision impairment.
Jean Do was a well-known French journalist who wrote “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, which was later adapted into an awarding-winning movie. After suffering from a heart attack, Do's body was paralyzed from head to toe and he could only move his left eyelid. It was then that he wrote the book by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again.
Sarah Bernhardt has been referred to as the most famous actress in the history of the world. During the peak of her career, Bernhardt had to have her entire right leg amputated as a result of an accident and had to use a wheelchair for several months. Despite this, she continued to woo millions with her voice and is considered an inspiration by many modern day actors.
All these people suffered from some sort of physical disability in their lives. However, incredibly, they are known for their work, for their contributions to the society and not for their disability.
Now, imagine that these people were born in Bangladesh. Would the world still be singing praises of the administrational abilities of Roosevelt? Could a person like Jean Do have the courage to write a book in the face of continuous obstacles and stigmatisation? Could Sarah Bernhardt still inspire thousands with her acting prowess?
Now take the example of Emdad Hossain Mollik Ibrahim. Emdad, 26, lost both his upper limbs after he fell while working on an electric pole six years back. He has since been living at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Savar.
Defying all odds and in response to the taunts he received after losing his arms, Imran was determined to earn a living on his own without depending on anyone else.
“During my initial stay at CRP, I was introduced to Lovely, another resident at the centre. Lovely, like me, had lost both her arms. But she decided to make the best of her situation and learnt to paint using her mouth. I was inspired by her dedication and decided to learn this art form,” says Emdad.
Eventually, Emdad learnt how to use his mouth to paint on a canvas. News of his talent soon reached the outside world and people started thronging CRP, enquiring about his artwork and asking about how one could buy them. A couple of art exhibitions displaying his works were also organised in the capital city. He was also involved in designing t-shirts of certain retail shops.
However, people began to lose interest in Emdad's abilities once the hubbub surrounding the immense talent of a double amputee began to die down.
“Initially, I was crowded with offers. People were interested to see how a person with no arms could still paint competently with his mouth. But over time, the offers began to trickle down. Individuals and organisations that had earlier shown keen interest in me and my work seem to have suddenly disappeared,” says Emdad wryly.
Emdad considers himself lucky, however, as he is still able to earn a livelihood. He works as a vocational trainee at the CRP and is a regular participant in the art classes of the centre. He pays rent to for his small room where he lives with his mother. He says that he still gets regular working assignments from well-wishers, who have a genuine interest in him and his talent.
It goes without saying that people with physical disabilities face numerous challenges in our society that looks at them with a mixture of pity, neglect, disgust and disregard. Disability is often seen as an individual's problem. Quite like colonizers, most non-disabled people seem to have created a binary distinguishing “us”, the normal people, from “them”, people with disabilities. Most are of the opinion that “they” face difficulty in their lives because of their impairment and not because of “our” lacking. If a person on a wheelchair can't attend a meeting because he can't climb the stairs to the meeting room, the blame is immediately put on the wheelchair and not the stairs. A person with disability is, thus, defined by what they can't do as opposed to what they can.
“Social attitude and perception about physical disability is yet to change. Our society is not an inclusive one. We don't offer an all-encompassing environment for people with disabilities to ensure their smooth transition into the mainstream society. People's understanding about this issue is extremely poor,” says Palash Kundu, Donor Liaison Officer of CRP.
Last year, CRP offered vocational training to around 300 people with physical disabilities. Other organisations like the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) also offer specially designed training opportunities for people with physical disabilities to establish inclusive practices within the mainstream society. Despite this, people with physical impairments find it difficult to find jobs outside of NGOs and development organisations.
“People with physical disabilities face crushing discrimination when they search for jobs and even within their own families. Even though organisations like CRP and CDD offer training to them whereby they are trained according to their skills and potential, we find that very few people are employed when they seek to reintegrate in the society,” says Kandu.
Kandu says that the organisations that employ persons with disabilities seem satisfied with their performance. And why shouldn't they be? After they are vocationally trained, people with physical disabilities become proficient in their work, they don't switch jobs as quickly, they take lesser number of breaks, they don't get involved in fights or strikes and they are regular and consistent in their jobs.
Monsur Ahmed Chowdhury has proven to the country and the world that a person's physical impairment does not define his or her identity. A former member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities, Chowdhury is well-regarded internationally for his commitment to the welfare of people with disabilities. Currently working as a trustee of Impact Foundation Bangladesh, Chowdhury, who lost his sight in childhood, helped the National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons create its initial conceptual framework.
“The society usually rejects people with disabilities, believing that they won't be able to cope with the rest because of their impairment. How can you say that someone won't be able to perform if you don't even give them the chance to prove themselves?” Chowdhury asks.
“I usually host a radio programme where I interview successful people with disabilities. One of the people I interviewed was born without arms. But that didn't stop him from working. He uses his toes to type at the computer and is quite good at it. His employer had to only lower the table he worked at to suit his convenience. This positive enabling environment helps him contribute to the economy while allowing him to be self-sufficient,” he says.
Chowdhury himself has had to suffer social stigmatisation for his impairment. Instead of helping him integrate in the mainstream, people were always ready to blame his impairment for the way the society treated him.
“While I was sitting for my Masters examinations, the then controller of Dhaka University asked me to prove that I was visually impaired by providing a medical certificate. The irony is that this kind of demand was not made when I was sitting for my Bachelor's exams. After I graduated, I applied for a teaching post at the university but was rejected on the grounds of being blind. Well-respected teachers of the university told my classmates that even though I had good results and was a good student, I wouldn't be able to teach because of my impairment,” Chowdhury says.
He is positive, however, that things will change for the better with greater awareness and a shift in social attitudes.
At a roundtable discussion titled “Livelihoods for Disabled People: Opportunities and Challenges” organised recently by The Daily Star, Executive Director of the CDD, AHM Noman Khan stated that only around five percent of people with disabilities are employed in the country. Citing the example of bank loans, Khan said that people with disabilities who have received vocational training should be given loans so that they can be self-sufficient.
"Employment for people with disabilities is necessary to not only ensure a livelihood but to also instill confidence and sense of worth in people with disabilities. We did not agree with the government's decision of offering bank loans to all people with disabilities at zero percent interest. This decision could be exploited by many. However, we want people with disabilities who have had training to be given an opportunity to avail such loans,” Khan said.
Kazi Mohammad Ashraf types away at his computer, looking up from his work only when visitors approach him for directions and other queries. A graduate of the University of Dhaka, Ashraf works as a senior receptionist at the CRP and is considered a dedicated, proficient employee of the organisation. Ashraf is paralysed from the waist down but this does not hinder his work as he is wheeled on a bed to his work station by a helper.
“I used to be a businessman until my accident. After receiving unsatisfactory treatment at a government hospital, I came to CRP where I was given physical treatment and vocational training to help me rehabilitate into the society,” he says.
After being released from CRP, Ashraf went back to his village but returned after two months when he found an opportunity to work at the CRP.
"It was difficult for me to adjust in the mainstream society. I had to deal with people's perception of me as a disabled person. Most people fail to understand that we too have the ability to do something. We may be physically disabled but our mind is the same, we can still contribute to the society. We just need a suitable environment with disabled-friendly facilities that will allow us to reintegrate into the society,” Ashraf says.
Social inclusion is an integral part of the reintegration of people with disabilities into the mainstream community. If people with disabilities are employed in “regular” jobs, they will become more visible to the society. Instead of judging them for their disability, people will begin to see them for their abilities. Moreover, if provided with employment opportunities, people with disabilities can definitely contribute to the economy.
“There are many good examples of disabled people working in garment factories. The productivity of the disabled people is often greater. We saw in many of our projects that women who are deaf and cannot speak are looking after cattle in a much better way. People with visual impairments are doing well in kitchen gardening. We need to mention these positive examples,” said consultant Julian Francis at the aforementioned roundtable organised by The Daily Star.
Engineer Sultan Mohiuddin Babul lost the use of his legs more than 28 years ago, after falling from a mango tree. He was devastated for over a year after that but eventually realised that he still had the chance to restart his life.
“I set up an electronics repair shop near my house and ran it for ten years. After that I joined CRP as an electronics trainer and worked there for another ten years. I was also elected President of the Spinal Cord Injuries Association of Bangladesh in December 2012,” says Babul with a smile.
Work is underway on a building owned by Babul. As he needed to oversee the work being done by construction employees, Babul designed a hand-operated elevator for the building. He has designed a similar elevator for the School for Special Needs Children at the CRP.
Babul got married after his accident and even has a son who is currently pursuing further education. He doesn't let his physical disability weigh down his enthusiasm for life. He does the household shopping for his family, volunteers at the CRP and continues to run his business.
“Some people might be disturbed by my wheelchair when I carry out everyday tasks but that is not my problem. I don't think I am disabled because I have the ability to contribute to the economy and care for my family. People work with their brain; legs are only for mobility,” Babul adds.
The government has a huge hand to play in mainstreaming people with disabilities. There are policies for the welfare of people with disabilities but limited measures have been taken to implement them.
“The government needs to reduce corruption, enhance monitoring, ensure proper allocation of resources and rehabilitate people with disabilities within their communities so that they are well-integrated into the society. People with disabilities have the right to employment and it's the government's job to ensure that their rights are met,” said Palash Kandu.
We can't just say that people with disabilities are welcome to the “normal” world without bothering to assess their needs or understanding how we can make it easier for them. True inclusion will only take place when the society treats people with disabilities equally. People with disabilities will no longer feel disabled if we stop making them feel that way. Give them the chance to prove themselves by offering them the same opportunities enjoyed by the rest of the society and you will see that they truly can.