Abia Akram is studying for her Masters degree in England. Not an easy job in itself, especially when you are working 4,000 miles away from your home in Pakistan.
But then Abia is used to travelling the world - not for a quick holiday or to see the sights: she has been attending conferences, meeting with international organisations, reviewing proposals, all to ensure that the voices of persons with disabilities, like herself, are heard and recognised, at school, work, and in the international arena.
Abia was born with the genetic form of rickets, a rare disease that causes the softening and weakening of bones, which left her physically disabled.
She began her education at an education centre for persons with disabilities before attending a mainstream school. But it was at her new school that the 'special' dispensations her teachers afforded her because of her disability caused Abia to realise that teachers and students needed greater training on working with children with disabilities.
“It was difficult to work in the mainstream school system because of the attitude and behaviour of the teachers there,” she said. “If I did not complete my assignments they would say, 'It’s okay, we can manage'. At the time I was not a wheelchair user but they would discourage you from using one if you needed it as they believed they could cope with getting you to your classes. They would use the word ‘special’ for persons with disabilities.
“But persons with disabilities are not ‘special’. They are human beings and need to be treated equally. Children with disabilities who need to use a wheelchair should be allowed to use it as it gives them their independence to make their own way. They considered persons with disabilities as 'challenged' but it’s just a different lifestyle.”
Abia began talking to people at her school to change their attitudes, and thanks to the joint efforts of disabled people’s organisations and international organisations who trained teachers in schools, things have begun to change. But for Abia it highlighted the need for systematic training of teachers.
“The fear is that a child with a disability will not attend school because of the attitudes he/she will face there. Persons with disabilities do need extra facilities at schools to enable them to use the building, but they should not be considered 'special' because of this, they are like everyone else.”
After completing her education, Abia worked at several organisations including Handicap International, and started the Ageing and Disability Task Force - a coalition of 12 different organisations working to mainstream ageing and disability concerns across all humanitarian agencies. She is currently a Project Manager at Independent Living Centre in Pakistan; Chair of the National Forum of Women with Disabilities Pakistan; Women’s Co-ordinator at Disabled People International, Asia-Pacific; and a member of the Commonwealth Young Disabled People’s Forum ... as well as studying for her Masters in International Development and Gender.
Through her work she saw the stark contrast between her home life where her parents were encouraging and supportive, to those of other women with disabilities who are forced to stay in the home without social interaction.
“In the first place a woman in a developing country will already face a lot of challenges because of her gender. For women with disabilities they can face double, even triple the discrimination than men with disabilities are confronted with. For some there are no employment opportunities, they are not allowed to go out and contribute to society, to marry, to have families.
“They are hidden away and some families even spend huge amounts of money trying to 'cure' the disability.
“From my own experience I faced discrimination when I went to speak to people about persons with disabilities, because I am a woman, and because they did not see that the rights of women with disabilities were as important as the rights of men with disabilities.”
Abia has been working to help women with disabilities to raise their voices by inviting them to peer-counselling - meetings where they can share their own experiences with others - to empower them, to consolidate and expand peer support groups, and to sensitise people to the positive aspects of integrating women with disabilities into society. In some cases the meetings were also the first opportunity that women with disabilities had to leave their homes.
|Out of the 51 countries analysed in the World Health Survey, 41.7 per cent of girls with disabilities completed primary school compared to 50.6 per cent of boys with disabilities, while 52.9 per cent of girls without disabilities and 61.3 per cent of boys without disabilities finished their primary education.|
She has also been campaigning among international organisations and the private sector for persons with disabilities to be included as staff members, and for their perspectives, and especially that of women with disabilities, to be part of their agendas, policies and budgets.
“Persons with disabilities need to be included in the decision-making process of these organisations and at the local decision-making level, so they can give their input as equals and as events unfold, rather than at the final stages,” she said.
“Conferences and international events take an important role. If you include the perspectives of women with disabilities in these agendas, then other international organisations and governments will take note.
“After the earthquake in Pakistan in 2011 Handicap International, who I was working for at the time, reviewed all the proposals for funding coming in from organisations seeking to help. Persons with disabilities were not included in any of the proposals and we went back to the organisations to ask them to review their programmes from a disability perspective.”
Abia said they are now working with organisations to produce guidelines to train their staff on how to include a persons with disabilities perspective into their agendas and proposals - from the planning stages to local implementation.
But the difficulty of including these perspectives in the agendas of governments and global organisations is exacerbated by the lack of data and information on persons with disabilities living around the world, she added.
That is where meetings, such as those organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat this week in London, bringing together 42 participants including young persons with disabilities from across the Commonwealth, can fill the information gaps, she said.
“This kind of conference is really very important because some countries are still struggling at the grass roots level to plan and implement the changes that will make a difference to the lives of persons with disabilities. Through these conferences we can share the experiences of those working at the grass roots level and decision-making bodies and can also work closely with young and dynamic persons with disabilities.”