Stephen Hawking, Frida Kahlo and John Nash all had some kind of disability yet they did such wonderful things that the world knows their names. Disability is not a barrier if the society and the state can ensure proper support and nourishment.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2011, 15% of the total world population had some form of disability. As of 2020, the global disability prevalence is much higher due to population ageing, the rapid spread of chronic disease and improvements in the methodologies used to measure disability.
The empirical evidence indicates that persons with disabilities (PWDs) are uniformly deprived of their fundamental human rights in all regions of the world. PWDs are more likely to be subjected to discrimination, negative attitudes and stereotyping.
They experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes including: inadequate education, fewer employment opportunities, a lack of proper healthcare, and higher rates of poverty. To promote and protect the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of PWDs in all spheres of life as well as to increase awareness of their situation, every year, on 3 December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is observed.
In Bangladesh, the agonising condition of a high number of PWDs merits special attention. Regrettably, there are no reliable or updated statistics on disability prevalence in our country.
The WHO suggests that approximately 17 million citizens in Bangladesh are disabled. In 2010, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in its Household Income & Expenditure Survey (HIES) found a disability prevalence rate of 9.07%. The National Census in 2011 found only 1.7%.
In the same year, a World Bank case study on PWDs revealed that almost 16.2% of people of working age, more than 24 million individuals, had some sort of disability. The sheer confusion in fathoming the actual statistics points to the fact that the country is yet to effectuate robust and efficacious actions in favor of the PWDs.
Article 15(d) of the Constitution of Bangladesh secures the right to social security for persons with disabilities. Article 27 guarantees equal protection before law; Article 28(1) prohibits discrimination and article 28(4) allows reasonable classification for the advancement of backward section of citizens. In line with its constitutional commitments, Bangladesh has adopted a number of legislative and policy frameworks to advance the rights of PWDs.
In 1995, Bangladesh adopted the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities which gave guidelines for managing national programmes for the welfare and equality of PWDs.
Then in 2001, the Disability Welfare Act was enacted to ensure the welfare of PWDs. However, the Act had some major lapses in terms of: accountability, representation in committees, a lack of permanent institutional mechanism, scope for arbitrary exercise of power by the authorities, and so on.
The biggest problem of all was that the Act was based on the welfare approach – also known as the medical model of disability. The mental model looks at disability as a medical condition. It invokes that rather than making mainstream institutions accessible to PWDs, their needs are better served in separate medical facilities. Hence, their exclusion is not perceived as discriminatory, but rather an outcome of their personal tragedy.
Fortunately, a major paradigm shift took place when Bangladesh ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the most comprehensive human rights treaty advocating the rights of the PWDs, as well as its optional protocol.
Fulfilling the legal obligation under the UNCRPD, the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013 was enacted, marking a shift from welfare-based approach to rights-based approach. This Act not only advocates for fundamental human rights (section 16), it also ensures full participation of PWDs in social and political affairs of the state.
The most noteworthy feature of the Act is that it defines different kinds of disabilities in a broad scope under section 3 and ensures access to justice of persons with all kinds of disabilities. The Act promises to fill the backlogs created by the 2001 Act. Theoretically, the 2013 Act sets a milestone to effective realisation of disability rights. In practice, however, there are concerns to be addressed.
The Act is more focused on bureaucracy and fails to ensure full participation of PWDs in different committees. It is silent about the mechanism as to how the community will communicate with the committees. Moreover, the ambit of the Act is ambiguous; it is unsure whether the provisions of the Act can have an overriding effect on other laws.
For example, the Labour Act 2006 states if a disability occurs due to workplace injury, that workers employment shall be terminated with compensation. The 2013 Act on the other hand states that an employer shall accommodate persons with disabilities.
Despite the mention of ensuring several human rights in the Act, in reality PWDs struggle to meet their basic needs. Poverty, unemployment and illiteracy push them off the edge. Around 80% of PWDs live in developing countries and 20% of the poorest people of the world have some sort of disability.
It is apparent from the data that disability and poverty are two inextricably linked issues. Disability can be both the cause and effect of poverty. Poverty affects literacy and a low rate of literacy leads to deprivation of employment opportunities. Thus the vicious cycle of poverty takes over.
Globally, the literacy rate among PWDs is only 3% and 35% PWDs are involved in some sort of income generating activities. The scenario is worse in the developing countries where 90% of children with disabilities do not attend school.
In Bangladesh, there is a disturbing gender imbalance among PWDs. Women and children with disabilities suffer the worst. Additionally, widespread discrimination prevailing against them creates new challenges in respect of their civic rights. Their reserved 10% quota for government jobs often goes unfulfilled due to the negative attitude of the authorities.
Other than the UNCRPD and the 2013 Act, Bangladesh signed the Proclamation on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asia Pacific Region as well as the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier Free and Rights-Based Society for Persons with Disability. It also ratified the Dhaka Declaration on Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
Moreover, our country has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – both of which make reference to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.
The national and international legal obligations to protect the rights of PWDs are manifold yet very little has been achieved with regard to employment, vocational training and income generating activities for persons with disabilities so far. Actions are needed to include PWDs in all sectors of private, public and national life. They suffer the most in conflict zones and disaster inflicted areas.
Now, more than ever they need the support to survive as the Covid-19 pandemic has hit them the hardest. The Sustainable Development Goal to leave no one behind by 2030 cannot be achieved unless every PWD has the chance to make the most of their lives. Inclusiveness, change in attitudes and accessibility can help create a disability inclusive Bangladesh and altogether a sustainable post-Covid-19 world.