Last week, a post did the rounds on social media, featuring a visually impaired couple who were looking for a job to support their family and raise their four-year-old son. They have been unable to find a job for the past nine years, in spite of having graduate degrees. The husband Rafiqul Islam completed his graduation from University of Chittagong, while the wife Shahida Afroz studied at the University of Dhaka. They got married in 2011, and in 2015, their son Siyam was born.
They have been surviving with the help of relatives and neighbours. But they are tired of begging for scraps, and so are looking for a job from the government in accordance with their qualifications.
The status update also says, “If we fail to get a government job, if any kind-hearted person can help us to form a small business, we will be able to support our family. We want to raise our child as a good human being. We don’t want to beg from others, in spite of having graduated from the top educational institutions. We want to live on our own. Please help us by giving a chance to prove ourselves.”
This post disheartened a lot of people, drawing many ‘sad’ Facebook reacts. But is their current state really a surprise in a country that has consistently failed to envision them as productive members of society? Despite their abilities, efforts and qualifications, the state and society-at-large continue to pity them and treat them as dependants rather than create enabling environments for them—a fact that is apparent if we take a look at this year’s proposed budget.
According to nine organisations working for persons with disabilities in Bangladesh, the allocations for disabled people is inadequate and limited only to the social safety net. They are still excluded from the development budgets of the government, with little to no investment in the creation of accessible environments in which they can function and flourish.
According to the latest budget, the allocation for the disabled is 2.19 percent of the budget for social safety nets, and only 0.31 percent of the total budget. Allowances make up a whopping 85.3 percent of the total allocation for the disabled. As per the latest budget, 15.45 lakh insolvent persons with disabilities are going to receive a monthly allowance of Tk 700, which was given to 10 lakh persons with disability previously.
In addition, this year, the number of recipients of stipends for disabled students is going to be increased to one lakh from 90,000 and the rate of the stipends increased from Tk 700 to Tk 750 for primary students, from Tk 750 to Tk 800 for secondary students, and from Tk 850 to Tk 900 for higher secondary students. Disability rights organisations, however, point out that this allocation is simply not enough to cover the significant number of disabled students studying in different schools, colleges, and universities.
Ashrafun Nahar Misti, executive director of Women with Disabilities Development Foundation (WDDF), shares her disappointment with this year’s budget, adding that WDDF has been advocating for years to keep allocation for the disabled in the development budget of the government, including education, infrastructure, employment, and the communication sector. “We did not want a budget that would make us dependent on just allowances; rather we wanted an employment-based budget to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, and investments in creation of accessible environments. We hoped this year would be different because we got many positive responses in the last few years while working with different bodies of the government,” she says.
The finance minister proposed a five percent rebate on the total tax of a taxpayer, if 10 percent of the total workforce from physically challenged people. Misti, however, is sceptical of this proposal being implemented. “This is just an oral statement and the prime minister made a similar commitment 10 years ago during a programme on International Day of Disabled Persons. But the statement was never published as a notice or circular, and the National Board of Revenue (NBR) were not officially asked to give a tax rebate. So, neither the organisation, nor the disabled people, will get the benefits until it is published as a notice,” says Misti. Rights activists also highlight there are many differently-abled persons who could not receive proper education and they stay idly at home. If they could be given special training on income generating activities and employed in accordance with their skills, they would not have to live as a burden to others. “The Ministry of Social Welfare and the National Disabilities Development Foundation provides nominal therapeutic services, assistive devices, special education, and trainings. But beyond therapy and medication, there must be more trainings targeted towards livelihood and income generation,” says Salma Mahbub, general secretary of Protibondhi Nagorik Sangathaner Parishad (PNSP) Network and Bangladesh Society for the Change and Advocacy Nexus (B-SCAN).
Salma thinks that there are many things that the government still needs to do to make life better for the disabled. There are many severely disabled people who cannot go out of their homes, and are solely dependent on their parents. They need basic medical care, but our domestic helpers are usually not skilled enough to handle them, she says.
“The government can arrange training on care-giving for disabled persons so that not only the uneducated people from rural areas but also the educated people come forward for taking care of the disabled persons,” she adds.
Meanwhile, although the disability rights organisations have long been demanding accessible infrastructure in accordance with the Protection of the Rights of the Person with Disabilities Act 2013—which clearly mentions that public establishments must be accessible to people with disabilities—we have not seen any significant changes over the years. It goes without saying, if we want to train and employ differently-abled persons, we must build accessible infrastructures for them.
The Building Construction Act 1952 and National Building Code 2008 also states that every establishment should be designed and made accessible to disabled persons so that they can enter and exit the building without difficulty. They should also be able to use the toilets at these establishments. But in reality, only a few organisations have introduced ramps and pavements, including the national museum, the parliament building, Mirpur national stadium, University of Dhaka, and the Daily Star Centre. In fact, ministries have no ramps or pavements for disabled persons at all.
Our transport and communication sector got allocated the third highest share of the total budget, but sadly, there is no specific allocation to make roads, highways, footpaths, footbridges, and public transport disabled-friendly.
“The bus drivers, as well as helpers are as always unwilling to help us get onto the bus. Currently, no bus service has a portable ramp for wheelchair-ridden persons. But most differently-abled persons use public transport as very few are able to avail private vehicles and other modes of transport, such as rickshaws, are difficult for us to get on,” says Salma Mahbub.
Using the train is next to impossible for physically challenged people, considering that even fully-abled people face difficulties getting onto a train, The railway department imported 270 couches in the last term, and is importing 250 this term, of which 50 couches have already arrived. Sadly, only 10 percent of them, have some seats reserved for physically challenged people along with washroom facilities, says Md Shamsuzzaman, additional director general (Rolling Stock) of Bangladesh Railway.
“We couldn’t install ramps in all the stations. We have a few ramps in some stations, and hopefully will work on it in the future,” he admits. “I think it is just a matter of time because we started the initiative just three to four years ago. But we will surely bring the issue to our rolling stock and infrastructure development,” he adds.
People with disability want to prove that though they may be differently-abled, they are not a burden; that they, too, can lead meaningful and productive lives and contribute to society. But it is the responsibility of the state to create an accessible and inclusive environment in which their abilities can flourish. Reinforcing their dependent status, limiting their assistance to only allowances, essentially risks making them more powerless.