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Turning a blind eye to Pakistan's visually impaired

Protesters decry state apathy to their plight, demand government jobs

Turning a blind eye to Pakistan's visually impaired

Blind protesters hold a sit-in at Mall Road in Lahore on Nov. 13. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

For the past five years, visually impaired people from Punjab district have been organizing sit-ins in the provincial capital demanding government jobs.

About 20 protesters clad in rags raised their white canes as they chanted “Jobs for the blind” and “Employment or death” as temperatures dropped below 16 degrees on Nov. 13. Cameramen guided others holding their hands to join the group for a photo shoot in front of the Punjab Assembly in Lahore. 

Others lay on mattresses or strolled near the barricades as police officers diverted the traffic. Umar Rashid, president of the Blind Daily Wagers Union of Punjab, coordinated the sit-in from his camp in the middle of the road.

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“We demand contracts for daily wagers according to their education and jobs for the blind as per the disabled quota. Some of us have been working in different departments but the government is making excuses and not giving us permanent jobs. We only want seats as per criteria,” Rashid told UCA News. 

“None of the government officials or NGOs have visited us since Nov. 10. We have been listening about passages of summaries for years. There are no orders addressing our issues. Many wanted to participate but managing the protest under the open sky is a big challenge for us. Those participating are willing to stay hungry until the fulfillment of our demands.”

Following negotiations with Punjab Chief Secretary Jawad Rafique Malik, the group moved to a park on Nov. 14 to continue their protest.

“Several protesters are ill with fever due to winter rains but we cannot return to the shelter. Our younger siblings depend on us,” Rashid said.

These include Ghulam Hussain, 29, who earns a living with a weight scale for joggers in a Lahore park. Hussain dropped out of school in grade five after the death of his father and became a Hafiz e Quran, a person who has memorized the Quran by heart.

“We are using social media to gather more protesters. I am the eldest. We do not allow our women to work outside. Who will earn for us? The coronavirus epidemic has further affected our livelihoods. We do not want to beg. A salary is our right. Free food at the shelter house cannot solve the problems of our families,” he said. 

Following the November 2019 protests, both Hussain and Rashid have been living with more than 300 blind people in a shelter house after the Punjab government agreed to offer them jobs in 17 departments. Rashid, who holds a master’s degree, used to teach at a special education center in Johar Town in Lahore.

“There was no designation. Late salaries was another issue. Sometimes the monthly wage of 15,000 rupees (US$93) was delayed up to three months. We were called but there is no work. We spent the day sitting in the Special Education Department waiting for any task,” Rashid said.

Official apathy

In May, the government abolished the 2 percent public and private company employment quota for persons living with disabilities (PLWDs) through a presidential ordinance. President Arif Alvi deleted section 459 of the Companies Act 2017 that ensured employment opportunities for disabled people.

According to Alvi, the quota for PLWDs was deleted by chance. "The section didn't catch my eye; it was a voluminous document. Now there is a big issue regarding their jobs. Sometimes it's a miscarriage and oversight. Now I have requested the prime minister and law ministry draft the opinion on this matter," he said in a TV interview.

Media reports say only 10 percent of the 33 million PLWDs in Pakistan enroll in special education institutes and only 1 percent study in universities.

Sabir Michael, a blind Dominican and assistant professor at the University of Karachi, condemned the state reaction. 

“The ongoing negotiation is an excellent example of betrayal. Governments have repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to people with special needs regarding the provision of health cards, facilitation under the Ehsas Program and education and employment opportunities. This is not a welfare state,” he said.

“All vulnerable citizens including widows, the elderly, PLWDs, religious minorities, women and children are denied justice as per our constitution. All jobless PLWDs should be granted a monthly allowance of 10,000 rupees. We demand the restoration of the quota for PLWDs.”

He highlighted similar concerns at the Nov. 13 program to mark the Day of Solidarity with PLWDs at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi. Cardinal Joseph Coutts joined the organizers in distributing 25 wheelchairs among bed-ridden PLWDs and 25 white canes among blind people.

Last Sunday, Michael handed over a wheelchair to the imam (prayer leader) of the mosque in the Saeedullah Goth area of Karachi. 

“PLWDs need our attention the most. Sadly, their needs our overlooked due to other problems,” said Cardinal Coutts.

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