Liberty and freedom have a very close meaning yet different implications. Since 16 December 1971, Bangladesh is a liberated country. The sanguinary liberation war gives us a sovereign land to live but leaves millions of lives sacrificed. The significance of this masse sacrifice is tremendous. Visionary countrymen of the then East Pakistan participated in the bloody war against the West Pakistan with a view to build a progressive and just Bangladesh that will not tolerate any discrimination and inequality. Equity and inclusiveness that results in social justice to be established was the cause functional behind this war.
The great liberation gives us freedom to walk, laugh, make friends, hang out in-group, pursue high professional degrees and careers, have a happy family and so on except some, who have certain incapability to lead their normal life. They are the persons with disabilities (PWDs). In Bangladesh, a significant number of people are fully or partially disabled and have common barriers to live normal life alongside with the peers in the society. Most of the cases of disability are caused by birth or by accident. There may have many other reasons. Academically, disability means any impairment which creates barriers for any person to participate in his/her social life. Disability has two aspects of medical and social approaches. Medical science considers disability as health-related problems while social approach considers it as impairment of social participation. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) by UN states that disability is an evolving concept and results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. There exist various types of disability and the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act (2013) in Bangladesh distinguishes them among twelve types including cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, visual disability, hearing disability and so on.
Accessibility is a major element of freedom. PWDs have limited accessibility to everywhere of the country, whether in work environment, and offices, or in the family and societal affairs. Education is the pivotal actor to make a society empowered and inclusive. Almost all of the educational institutions disregard this issue of disability. Although they are the pivotal catalysts to mainstream the PWDs, they are generally unwilling to allow their admission in the campuses. They may dread that they have to pay extra attention to these special students although law suggests that every institutions and organizations have to treat them according to their needs. They are frequently discriminated here not because of they are less intelligent but they are the persons who have disability. In many of the cases, it is seen that they are more advanced and knowledgeable in comparison with their peers who do not have any kind of disability.
Infrastructural accessibility is another pivotal issue to make the PWDs accessible to everywhere. The scenario of Bangladesh is mostly disappointing as offices, educational institutions, libraries, classes and so on are mostly inconvenient to the PWDs. Thus, a gigantic number of workforces like them become frustrated on their careers and they are being crippled. Because of that, they feel extremely discriminated in the society; they feel unwanted to participate in the societal affairs and in the productive sectors and thus, their productivity is being decayed.
Attitudes to and perception of disability in Bangladesh are vastly negative and poor to carry on with the issue. PWDs primarily face this type of problem and are being neglected even from their very childhood when every normal child gets prioritized treatments from the family, and from the society. It is a social stigma that a child is being maltreated because of their disability. The society, not as a whole, considers his or her disability by birth as the result of the curse of god due to his/her ancestors’ or their parents’ sin. Apathetic attitudes towards persons with disability make them like an endangered species in the society. Combating continuously with social stigma implicates the situation where they are walking through. Societal eccentric attitudes sometimes create greater barriers for these special human kinds. Sometimes it is seen that the society is much more sympathizer to them rather than being cooperative.
Unavailability of assistive devices is one of the basic problems as Bangladesh has a large number people who live under poverty line and even cannot afford their daily sustenance. Most of the PWDs are from poor family or they have become poor because of their disability. Wheelchairs, Braille system, hearing aids and so on are mostly unavailable in the markets. For example, a wheelchair user must stay on it almost all the times when he/she is functional. So, this chair needs to be comfortable and equipped with high facilities. But you cannot buy a comfortable wheelchair from markets by choice even if you want to pay a high price. Accessibility and safety in transportation causes a tremendous social cost. Public transports like bus, rickshaw, train, and so on are not accessible and convenient for the PWDs to travel at any time without any help of others. They always must take other ways like CNG, private cars, and so on which costs additionally. For their incapability to move promptly and which costs high, the family and the society as well deem them as huge encumbrance.
Disability rights movement in Bangladesh did not get momentum yet. Catalysts of the movement are not so influential and impactful in the society. Most actors of the movement are the NGOs, albeit there is always speculation of them not being accountable and transparent to their target people and to the society. The Government of Bangladesh has recently taken many initiatives for the betterment of the PWDs and prompt activities are being taken place even from the Prime Minister’s family. A policy has been formulated and is underway to be implemented to address this issue. Although we have been able to manage a significant number of ploys in pursue of their betterment, they are rarely sufficient in comparison with the existing challenges of the PWDs. A coordinated drive badly should take place to mitigate this tremendous challenge and to make these workforces productive. Without merging their ability with the national production arena, ultimate development with sustainability cannot be achieved in the long run.
Ikhtiarul Arefeen was the Director of Research and Development at Physically-Challenged Development Foundation (PDF), a Bangladesh based youth-led national organization. He can be reached at email@example.com.