Monsur Ahmed Chowdhury, Founder Trustee, Impact Foundation Bangladesh, and Member, Executive Board, Disability Council International, talks to The Daily Star's Naznin Tithi about how to ensure an inclusive environment and society for persons with disabilities.
What are the major challenges that persons with disabilities have to commonly face in our society? Have we made any progress over the years in ensuring their rights and entitlements?
Persons with disabilities still face serious discrimination in all spheres of their lives despite the fact that we have laws to protect their rights. The major challenges that they face can be broadly categorised as: lack of access to education, healthcare services and public transport and lack of opportunity for employment. Besides, there are many social challenges that they face.
In terms of ensuring the educational rights of the students with disabilities, the attitude of the school authorities is still not very positive. For instance, when students with disabilities want to take admission in a regular school, the school authorities do not really encourage them, rather they cite many problems to discourage them. Often, guardians of other students do not want their children to attend schools with students who have any disability.
Access to public transport is also a big challenge for persons with disabilities. There is very limited scope for, say, wheelchair users to travel comfortably by bus, train or water transport. Although a visually-impaired person can travel by a bus or train, the drivers and helpers are not well trained or conversant to deal with them.
The same thing happens when someone with a disability goes to a hospital to seek treatment. There is no separate counter or desk to attend to a disabled patient in most hospitals. It is still very difficult for a vision or hearing-impaired patient to communicate with the attending nurses or doctors.
However, there have been some developments in creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. For example, Bangladesh Business and Disability Network (BBDN) under Bangladesh Employers Federation had arranged job fairs in Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong for people with disabilities before the pandemic. Many job seekers who attended the fairs got jobs in garments and other industries under the initiative. However, many of them already lost their jobs amid the pandemic. I think, we have to motivate the employers and those working in the HR departments of big companies to promote inclusion of physically and mentally challenged persons at workplaces.
We have many policy frameworks to ensure an inclusive environment for the persons with disabilities. Are these policies really helping them to get their rights ensured? What is the situation on the ground?
Yes, we have ample laws to ensure the rights of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most of them remain on paper only. Bangladesh has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and also enacted Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013. But there is a serious lack of initiative for implementation of the Act. The Act has provisions for two national level committees—the coordination committee, which is headed by the social welfare minister and the executive committee, headed by the secretary of the ministry of social welfare. Under the Act, there are a large number of districts, upazilas as well as municipal committees. But due to a lack of budgetary allocation as well as a lack of manpower at the field level, most of these committees do not even meet once a year at the national or at the field level. The national committees are responsible for coordinating and monitoring different action plans and programmes concerning persons with disabilities of different ministries and government agencies. However, there are also exceptions. For instance, the government's ICT division has taken an initiative for training persons with disabilities on ICT as well as employing them within their division through the Bangladesh Computer Council.
What should be our approach in ensuring that persons with disabilities are not left behind, which is the commitment of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030?
Apart from legal provisions, to ensure equal opportunities and rights for persons with disabilities, there must be strong commitment by the political leadership and policymakers. In addition, there must be adequate financial allocation in our national budget to enable every ministry or division to initiate inclusive programmes for them in the annual development plan. It may be mentioned here that a national action plan in this regard (in line with the spirit and principles of SDGs, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act 2013) was approved by the government last year, which should now be implemented.
Can children with disabilities go to the same schools with other children?
Children with disabilities are legally allowed to attend the same school with the regular students at the primary, secondary, higher secondary and at the university level in Bangladesh. The problem is the attitude of the educational institutions—whether they are ready to accept a disabled student. Furthermore, in some institutions, there may be problem of accessibility in terms of using the classroom or toilet. It may be mentioned here that because of the personal commitment of our prime minister, the visually impaired students in all classes, from pre-primary to class 9, are getting brail books from National Curriculum and Textbook Board every year, starting from 2017. However, there is very limited scope for education for hearing-impaired students or students with other disabilities at the secondary level. It is also highly appreciable that the government is supporting all students with disabilities from primary to the university level with a monthly stipend to partly support their educational expenses.
Would you please share with us how you have learned to live with the particular type of disability that you have?
I lost my sight at a very young age but learned to live with my disability as I got tremendous encouragement and support from my late parents, members of the family, teachers as well as my friends while I studied in Dhaka college from 1966 to 1968 and in Dhaka University from 1968 to 1974. It should be mentioned here that I have carried forward my activities with confidence, commitment and professionalism. I have been working to promote, protect and support persons with disabilities for more than four decades at home and at the international level. I faced challenges, barriers and sometimes rude and harsh attitude by people who failed to understand the difficulties that I went through. People should judge our ability, not disability.
Tell us about your experience of working with people with disabilities in the remote areas.
My experience in dealing with persons with disabilities in rural Bangladesh is very rewarding. They are very keen to live with dignity and self-respect. But it is most difficult to live a life with dignity if there is no support from the family and community. The ignorance, indifferent attitude, negative reaction from parents, social stigma, etc., are, in my consideration, the major barriers for a person with disability to develop with confidence. It is also sad to observe that sometimes family members deprive the disabled member of the family from their legal right of inheritance of property, assets, etc. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable and deprived of their due share of property. This must change.