Many disabled children in Pakistan feel as though they are a curse from God. For fear of marginalization, they remain hidden away at home and have few educational opportunities. An aid organization wants to change that.
Naeem Ghani had the chance to see what often remains hidden in Pakistan through his job as director of medical clinics located in a number of local cities and villages. When patients came to see him for treatment, some brought along their disabled children - children otherwise concealed from neighbors' eyes out of shame. Religious conservatives in Pakistan view disabilities as God's punishment for wrongdoing.
Naeem Ghani and his team offered families with disabled children free treatment and medication. But medical support is far from sufficient for improving disabled people's chances for a better life - for more participation and inclusion - in Pakistani society.
"Education is a fundamental necessity for everyone," Ghani said, "Because education and socialization have major influence on every phase of human life."
The recognition that the disabled have major unmet educational needs prompted Naeem Ghani to found the Sultana Foundation in Islamabad in 1993.
The organization began as a small elementary school for boys. In two narrow rooms, pupils whose families could not otherwise afford to send them to school were able to get an education. Volunteers taught them the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Three years later, the Sultana Foundation established a second school for children with disabilities. The foundation is planning a high school that would serve the same group, but the project first needs government approval.
Today the school gives instruction to 24 boys and 32 girls, and the day to day lessons go well beyond the classroom. The Sultana Foundation Special Children School uses strategies to integrate its students better into society. One example: alongside a standard curriculum, pupils also get job training. The goal is to let them live with more self-determination and less reliance on their families, in part by helping them see how to organize assistance for themselves as needed.
The Sultana Foundation Special Children School organizes events and teams that allow the disabled students to take part in sports. Activities and trips that let the students get to know their city and its surroundings are also part of the school's extracurricular program. But offering medical treatment is the school's most important service, and the one used most.
The Sultana Foundation's teachers are volunteers. Many of them are retired individuals wanting to help their communities having rounded out their careers as engineers, teachers or researchers. For most, working in the school represents a rewarding challenge. They must first get training in sign language to communicate with students with hearing problems. The children follow along with lessons with the aid of photos and graphics on flash cards.
One group remains left out
The Sultana Foundation Special Children School has set a standard for other aid organizations in the region. More and more regional and foreign NGOs are founding schools in Pakistan for disabled children. However, one group is still left out of these initiatives: young people with mental disabilities. Many of these individuals are relegated to psychiatric institutions because their families lack the money to care for them. Furthermore, many parents are unaware that mentally disabled children can still learn to read, write and do basic math when given the right instruction.
In spite of these programs, disabled people in Pakistan still have few educational opportunities in general. That is no big surprise in a country in which more than half of the population above 15 years of age is illiterate.
Barriers on the streets and in minds
Naeem Ghani has devoted much of his life to giving people with disabilities better prospects. His goal is to give them an entry point into a normal social life - a small but key step in the path to integration.
But a life of self-determination remains a dream for most of Pakistan's disabled people. In most cases, they remain dependent on help from others, regardless of their level of education, because there are almost no barrier-free buildings in Pakistan. Elevators are rare even in tall, multi-story buildings.
The barriers do not just come in the form of stairways and blocks to mobility. They exist in the minds of many Pakistani people, who continue to view the disabled as a social stigma.
Author: Rachel Jasmin Baig / gsw
Editor: Jessie Wingard