There was a time when it was common to see family members being excluded from social gatherings for being 'different'. Most of us can attest to the fact that we were so desensitised and ignorant of the concept of disability, we took it as common knowledge that they needed to be kept out of sight. Somewhere along the lines of perpetuating this longstanding custom, we forgot to notice that these were people whose only difference from us is that they were disabled, or differently abled. It definitely makes life difficult for them, but their disability is no reason to exclude them from any society.
Disability has many definitions, and just as many forms. Disabilities can manifest in physical and mental ways; they can be a birth defect or the result of trauma or disease. Studies have shown that people with disabilities make up a higher portion of the population in developing countries, especially among those living under the poverty line. It can be inferred that lack of access to safe and sanitary housing, clean water and food and quality healthcare are causes for children living under these conditions to be born with disabilities. Bangladesh alone has 3.4 million children and 10.2 million adults living with some form of disability. The challenge now is to encourage the idea of focusing on the 'abilities' of a person rather than their disabilities, and spread this awareness to the grassroots levels of society.
Those of us born in complete health are considered to be in the top tier of society's propellers. We are the agents of progress, and our voices are heard the loudest. That gives us the responsibility to remember that those of us with disabilities can also be contributing members of society and help them be included.
BRAC has been working to achieve inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream society for more than a decade. The approach adopted by BRAC in 2003 was to include children with disabilities into the mainstream education system. Adapting the curriculum material to suit the needs of each child, BRAC began its children with special needs programme (CSN) within their existing education programmes. Since its inception, the programme has made great progress in tailoring their curriculum to fit the needs of different disabilities. From 2012 to 2015, the programme has also begun working with blind children and children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. This initiative is a huge step in building the potential of children with severe disabilities and giving hope to their families.
The benefits of this inclusive education programme are seen through the eyes of the parents of these children. Taking on the responsibility of providing inclusive education for children with disabilities is a challenging task with no guarantee of success for all the unique cases that come forward. But the smallest victories are sometimes worth it.
I recently had the chance to see a young mother come forward and say that after enrolling her son at BRAC's centre for neurodevelopmental disability in the Korail slum, she heard him call her 'mother' for the first time in the eight years of his life. That is the epitome of hope and a true symbol of progress.
On a policy level, Bangladesh is quite ahead in the movement towards inclusive education for children with disabilities and initiating adults with disabilities into mainstream society. There are laws enacted to ensure the protection and safe treatment of all disabled people. But the problem here comes with the fact that most of the people who can benefit from these laws are unaware that these provisions for them exist. In a lot of cases, even families who are aware often do not come forward to avoid dealing with the 'stigma' of having a disabled member in their family.
This is not to say that we have not seen progress. Initiatives by BRAC, SWID and other organisations on the rural spectrum, global integration and discourse in urban areas over time have given us progress. Parents and people in society in general have begun to accept children and adults with disabilities and acknowledging their abilities to work in society.
To observe this year's International Day of Persons with Disabilities, BRAC has started a campaign to promote awareness and support for disabled children and youth. On 25 November, BRAC hosted a roundtable discussion of the current situation in the treatment of disabled people in Bangladesh from the policy and grassroots level. Mr Stewart Harris, an educator specialising in teaching children with disabilities, spoke at the event and shared his ideas about bringing new innovative ideas of inclusive education to Bangladesh. BRAC's aim, in collaboration with disability institutions like Apasen and others, is to spread awareness in grass roots level communities and disperse misconceptions about people with disabilities.
There's a saying that great people can come from anywhere, you just have to see them for their potential. Only through sharing knowledge, spreading awareness and removing the stigma attached to being disabled can we stand beside those with disabilities.We can empower them to become active members of society, give them the opportunity to reach their full potential and change the perception towards disability.
(Today, 3 December, is being observed as International Day of Persons with Disabilities)
Tanzia Amreen Haq is currently working as Senior Communications Officer at BRAC