Integration has a long way to go
Sanzid Hasan was five when his parents, impoverished residents of Mohammadpur's Geneva Camp area, discovered that he could not communicate as easily as other children.
When they took him to the doctor, Sanzid was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder which severely restricts social interaction, communication, and causes repetitive behaviour. He was also diagnosed with low vision and seizures.
A child with multiple disabilities, he was rejected by all the schools his parents took him to get admitted.
With the help of a non-governmental organisation, Sanzid was finally admitted to a community therapy school and on his way to receiving an education.
At his school, he had access to special education, speech and occupational therapy, and a series of vocational training as he grew older. His parents were also given capacity building training so that they could help him at home.
It completely transformed his chances of employment and gave him opportunities he would otherwise not have access to.
Now in his mid-20s, having completed a training on office management at the same NGO, Sanzid is now working as an intern office assistant at a local office of the directorate of social services.
"I used to be treated as a burden for my community. Now, I am earning and supporting my parents. My community gets to know that disorder like autism does not make a person invalid. We can work, we can earn if we are included in society," he said.
Sanzid considers himself lucky to have gotten access to these specialised learning facilities as children with autism in this society face indescribable discrimination and challenges in integrating at mainstream schools and society.
Although legislation in the country provides for equal access to quality education, children with disabilities are rejected by most schools, ultimately reducing their chances of employment.
A disability identification survey by the Ministry of Social Welfare, updated on its website as of yesterday, counts 60,983 children and adults living with autism in Bangladesh.
However, a 2017 survey conducted by the Institute of Paediatric Neuro-disorder and Autism (IPNA) of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), indicates the number of persons with autism is much higher.
Its survey revealed that 17 out of every 1,000 children aged between 17-30 months in urban areas, and 14 per every 1,000 children in rural areas in the same age group had this condition.
Salma Begum, consultant of Autistic Children's Welfare Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation run by parents of children with disabilities, said, "Inclusive education for children with autism still has a long way to go in our country.
"Most schools do not agree to enrol children with autism. They say that if they enrol these children, their non-disabled students might be affected. Parents of non-disabled children also create obstacles when we go to enrol our children."
As a result, in most cases, parents like her have to go to special schools where their children study alongside others with various types of neuro-developmental disorders, she added.
Autism is recognised as a neuro-developmental disorder (NDD) in Bangladesh and is treated along with three other types of NDDs -- cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and intellectual disability.
More than six years on from the formation of the Neurodevelopmental Disability Protection (NDDP) Trust, a government organisation under the social welfare ministry tasked with ensuring inclusion of children with NDD, its activities are hardly visible and restricted to arranging some workshops and seminars.
NDDP Trust Chairman Prof Dr Md Golam Rabbani said, "We don't have any permanent staff yet. We are in the process of recruiting officers to become fully operational.
"I know many people with autism and other NDDs who have been employed and are doing fairly well in their workplace. They are extremely honest, diligent, and punctual; if they are taught to do a particular task, they will do it with extreme perfection."
Prof Dr Gopen Kumar Kundu, deputy director of BSMMU's IPNA and a deputy director of the autism cell at the health ministry, said, "One of the main characteristics of children with autism is they face difficulties in communication and in social interaction. Sometimes they become very angry and show repetitive behaviour.
"However, if autism can be detected within the age of three and speech and occupational therapy can be ensured timely, most of these difficulties can be overcome. In this way, a person with autism can become fully employable if we can provide some support and vocational training."
However, like inclusive education, regular employment of people with autism and other NDDs is not widespread.
"Most people cannot fathom that people with autism or other NDDs can be employed," said Karishma Ahmed, director of SEID (Society for Education and Inclusion of the Disabled), which has been working to ensure education, training and employment of children with disabilities. SEID is the organisation which helped Sanzid enrol in school and provided him vocational training.
After consulting hundreds of employers for months, she said, they are able to convince only two or three -- mostly small and medium-sized enterprises.
On March 29, SEID and the Down Syndrome Society of Bangladesh, in association with Inclusion International, organised a workshop for potential employers to sensitise them about the employability of persons with NDDs.
The workshop was facilitated by two young professionals with NDDs -- Mosammat Shila Moni, a young woman with cerebral palsy currently working as a salesperson at a cosmetics shop, and Shahadat Akbar Atanu, a person with Down Syndrome currently working as an office assistant at an NGO.
"It is very hopeful that we have started getting responses from potential and current employers and we are getting extremely encouraging feedback about the performance of these employees," said Karishma.
"At present, people with NDDs work mostly in the informal sector in low pay positions. Now, our goal is to ensure employment of NDD persons in the formal sector where they will enjoy full employment rights and benefits."