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Rights of the Differently Abled

Mosharraf Hossain*

This chapter argues that a weak legislative framework and lack of implementation are major barriers to recognizing and protecting the rights of the differently challenged.

There is considerable divergence in assessments of the number of differently challenged persons in Bangladesh. Estimates for the rate of disability in Bangladesh range from a low of 0.47 per cent in the Bangladesh Census 2001 to ten per cent according to WHO. [1] The prevalence of disability is worsened by poor nutrition, disease, disaster and accidents. In recent years, disability has gained recognition as a social and human rights issue rather than as a medical concern. Social perceptions of disability promote the rights of differently challenged persons as equal members of society and view disability as a social consequence or an impairment. This perspective demands that the entire society needs to work towards the inclusion of people with disabilities.

Legal Framework

Article 28(4) of the Constitution of Bangladesh provides for the State to take affirmative action for ‘backward sections’ which could arguably include the differently challenged. Government initiatives to promote and protect the rights of differently challenged persons are reflected in legislation such as the Disability Welfare Act, 2001.

This Act was enacted to protect and safeguard the rights and dignity of the differently challenged, to ensure their participation in national and social development and their general welfare. Although it is the first legislation to address disability in Bangladesh, the Act suffers from major structural deficiencies. Legal experts have critiqued many of its provisions as being declaratory rather than mandatory. They have identified its major deficiencies as preventing accountability or enforcement of its provisions by providing legal immunity to duty holders. Its structure allows authorities to exercise arbitrary power, and maintain weak and non-representative committees. [2]

In 2006, the Government took the initiative to amend the Disability Welfare Act, 2001. A committee was formed by the Government consisting of three organizations including the National Disability Development Foundation (NDDF), a quasi-government institution, the National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD), an umbrella of NGOs and Action on Disability and Development (ADD), a disability rights’ organization, to suggest amendments to the Act. The proposed amendments included a new title, incorporating the schedule into the main body, granting more powers to the committees, providing comprehensive representation, co-opting members and temporary associations, providing for district representation in the executive committee, formulating a comprehensive policy on education, employment and health services, undertaking mechanisms to prevent the abuse of power and ensuring accountability of committees.

The Ministry of Social Welfare is in charge of this portfolio. In order to mainstream concerns of the differently challenged, the Disability Act Amendment Committee proposed a change in the Government’s Rules of Business to incorporate these concerns into every ministry’s agenda as a cross cutting issue. The drafting of the amendments which is ongoing, needs to include legal protection of the rights of the differently challenged persons.

The Policy Framework

In response to a concerted demand by organisations of differently challenged persons, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) has emphasized the need for data collection, policy formulation and a disability action plan which will provide early detection and rehabilitation of disability, access of differently challenged children to primary education, income generation, access to transport, infrastructure for water and sanitation, participation in decision making and exercise of voting rights.

Based on the National Disability Policy of 1995, a National Action Plan on Disability was developed by the Ministry of Social Welfare. Its provisions are not appropriately implemented and the rights of the differently challenged tend to be ignored in practice.

Budgetary Allocations

There was considerable concern that a llocations in 2006-2007 for differently challenged persons may be inadequate to implement the PRSP agenda. The table below shows that percentage of allocations for them has increased only slightly.

Table XVI.1: Budgetary Allocations for Differently Challenged Persons [3]

Financial Year

Total Budget
(in million Taka)

Allocation for Challenged Persons

% of total budget

2001-2002

39,495

6.11

0.015

2002-2003

43,904

27.49

0.063

2003-2004

49,367

27.35

0.055

2004-2005

55,632

26.31

0.047

2005-2006

61,058

51.50

0.084

2006-2007

69,740

67.82

0.097


Constraints in Accessing Opportunities for Development

Education

Although Article 17 of the Constitution articulates as a fundamental principle the State’s responsibility for adopting “effective measures for the purpose of a uniform, mass-oriented and universal system of education”; and “extending free and compulsory education to all children to such stage as may be determined by law”, the primary education policy is not disability inclusive. According to the ESTEEM II project study of the Primary and Mass Education Department of the Ministry of Education, 96 per cent of differently challenged children have no access to mainstream primary schools. [4]

The Department of Social Services runs some special schools but these are few in number, do not maintain standards and are not regulated by the Ministry of Education. There is an unmet need for special schools for 3.4 million differently challenged children. The teachers in most mainstream schools are not trained to address the needs of the differently challenged, teaching materials are inappropriate, and the school buildings do not provide easy access.

The Education Sector Programme, PEDP II (2003-2009), aimed to make primary education accessible for all children in Bangladesh, to increase enrolment, attendance and the rate of completion of the primary education cycle. Bangladesh has indeed made outstanding progress in primary education, and the PEDP II included concerns of the differently challenged, but it failed to reach out to all the differently challenged children.

Employment and Work

A quota of 10 per cent has been reserved for recruitment of the differently challenged in all Third and Fourth class Government jobs, but not all Government departments mention the quota in their advertisements, so that many differently challenged persons do not even apply.

The Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) has discouraged such applications in several cases. A public interest litigation was filed by BLAST in 1997 challenging the constitutionality of rules prohibiting physically and visually challenged persons from appearing in civil service exams. The High Court issued a Rule Nisi directing the respondents to show cause as to why such rules should not be declared without lawful authority. [5] Subsequently a law was passed regarding the employment of the disabled. In 1997 in another Writ Petition [6] filed by BELA a similar Rule was obtained. In 1998 BLAST filed another petition challenging the inadequacy of the quotas for academically qualified differently abled persons in the Civil Service. The High Court issued a Rule Nisi directing the respondents to show cause as to why such a discriminatory policy should not be declared without lawful authority . [7]

On the other hand, some international organizations and NGOs have begun taking affirmative action in appointment of differently challenged persons.

Disability and Poverty

Exclusion from opportunities often results in poverty for differently challenged persons. Conversely there is a high rate of impairment amongst people living in poverty. As a consequence, disabilities are found in a disproportionate percentage of the poorest members of society. The World Bank records suggest that 15-20 per cent of the poorest members of society have some form of disability.

The differently challenged have been mentioned as recipients of several Government programmes, but it is not clear if they were actually included in the phase of implementation. For example, the Department of Social Services, in the last five years, has allocated Taka 100 million for micro-credit programmes for the differently challenged. In 2006-2007, Taka 10 million was allocated for the project ‘Microcredit for the Acid Survivors and Physically Challenged Persons’. In the same year, Taka 1,000 million was to be distributed by PKSF for self-employment of the hard core poor, including differently challenged persons. There is, however, no data to suggest the numbers of challenged persons actually included in these programmes. Funds allocated to the Ministries of Rural Development and Cooperatives, Fisheries and Livestock Development, Youth and Sports, Women and Child Affairs for employment generation of people in poverty were rarely used for income generation programmes for the differently challenged. They were, by and large, excluded from mainstream development. [8]

Right to Health

The crude mortality rate amongst the differently challenged children was 5.6 per cent in 2001 which was twice that of the general population. It was about 14 per cent in rural areas in 2001.

Right to Social Security

The Government, in 2006-2007, allocated Taka 250.0 million as a disability allowance for differently challenged persons at the rate of Taka 200.0 per person. [9] This allowance was to be used as a means of livelihood, for children’s education or treatment of the mentally challenged.

Access to Buildings and Public Places

The Building Construction Rules were approved by Parliament in 2006. Standards were prescribed for easy access into buildings in Dhaka city, with special provision for universal accessibility including the differently challenged. A minimum standard for easy access included provision of a ramp or hand rail, lift, parking spaces, wash room and toilets, etc.

Occupancy certificates for buildings were to be issued only on implementation of these rules. In practice, however, even some Government buildings, including the Ministry of Social Welfare and Department of Social Services, have token ramps which are below the required measurement and cannot be used by differently challenged persons. Recently constructed hospitals have provided ramps, but this is not the case in the majority of corporate or residential buildings.

The Shahid Minar [10] in Dhaka is visited by thousands every year. A large number of injured freedom fighters and the elderly are amongst those who pay homage at this site. Until ramps were built this year, access had been very difficult. There is no separate parking facility for the differently challenged either in residential buildings or public places.

Transport

The Bangladesh Road and Transport Corporation, in 2006, reserved two seats for the differently challenged and agreed to charge half fares on public transport. Private bus owners’ associations in some districts such as Bogra, Magura, Rangpur have also followed this initiative. A physically challenged person was able to obtain a driving license from the Bangladesh Road and Transport Authority after amendments to the license policy.

Currencies

The visually challenged find it impossible to identify the various currencies when they are of uniform size. Social Assistance for the Rehabilitation of Physically Vulnerable (SARPV), a non-government organization, approached the Bangladesh Bank to print dots in the Taka 20, 50, 100, and 500 notes for identification by the visually challenged. This was done, but it was found that the dots were not sharp enough for the visually impaired to differentiate between the notes.

Right to Vote and Political Participation

In Bangladesh, differently challenged voters number about 750,000. Article 31(7) of the Representation of People’s Order 1972 acknowledged and made provision for persons with disabilities to vote, insofar as it states that,

"Where an elector is blind or is otherwise so incapacitated that s/he cannot vote without the assistance of a companion, the Presiding Officer shall allow her/him such assistance and thereupon such elector may do with such assistance anything which an elector is required or permitted to do under this order.”

In practice, however, differently challenged persons are often unable to exercise their right to franchise as the polling stations are not physically accessible, and the voting papers are not in braille.

The Disability Movement had demanded easy access to voting centres and booths for the Ninth Parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2007. Along with the Election Working Group (EWG), a network of 35 NGOs, advocacy organizations of the differently challenged raised the following demands for consideration by the Election Commission:

  • Separate queues for differently challenged persons, the elderly and pregnant women at every polling centre and polling booths to be on the ground floor.
  • Provision for permanent or temporary ramps in polling centres.
  • Tactile ballots for the visually challenged.
  • Assistance in casting votes.

Political parties have been urged to include disability issues into their election manifestos and nominate at least two differently challenged persons from each division as candidates in the election. Six thousand observers with disabilities were identified and trained by ADD to monitor the Parliamentary election due in 2007.

Violence against Differently Challenged Women

Many women and girls who are differently challenged experience intersecting forms of discrimination on grounds of both disability and gender. In 2006, newspapers reported on 69 cases of differently challenged persons, mostly women, who were victims of murder, rape, sexual harassment, dowry, torture, cheating, kidnapping, extortion, eviction and property grabbing which were reported in the newspapers. Under its programme “Legal Empowerment of Disabled People for Social Justice and Inclusion”, ADD, in cooperation with the Government’s District Legal Aid Committees, BLAST and ASK, has provided legal aid to 63 differently challenged women survivors of violence during the year.

At the National Convention of Disabled Women, held on 9 June 2006, in Dhaka, which was attended by 2,800 women from 27 districts, a National Council of Disabled Women was formed. The women’s organizations decided to take legal and social actions to prevent violence against women and to resist dowry demands and early marriage. They joined the Shamajik Protirodh Committee, a coalition of 40 mainstream women’s groups campaigning for women’s rights and to prevent violence against women. They were thus able to include the concerns of the differently challenged women in discussions on the National Policy for Women’s Advancement.

Social Mobilization by Differently Challenged Persons

Differently challenged persons have started organizing themselves from the grassroots into national federations. Action on Disability and Development (ADD) organized 20,000 challenged persons to form self-help organizations in 27 districts and to campaign for their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The National Grassroots Disability Organization (NGDO) is an umbrella organization of 100 union level federations of self-help groups and district federations of grassroots disability organizations. The National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD) is another umbrella organization with a membership of 250 NGOs. The main functions of these organizations and networks are to raise awareness, promote campaigns, and lobby with the Government for appropriate policies and programmes.

Prevailing social attitudes are the major reason for discrimination against differently challenged persons. Barriers have been created to prevent them from making their own decisions or to make a positive and meaningful contribution to the society and the economy. The media has worked in support of the disability movement by reporting on their activities, meetings and advocacy. The print media has created awareness by publishing case studies and features on the lives of the differently challenged. The latter have used traditional modes such as drama and folk songs to sensitize the community. Their participation in the community has increased in the last few years and their celebrations of the International Disability Day on 3 December and the International Human Rights Day on 10 December has increased awareness of their rights.

The Department of Social Welfare, in the past few years, appears to have stopped registration of several organizations of the differently challenged. According to the Disability Welfare Act 2001, the Government is to develop and grant financial support to Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs). The National Disability Development Foundation, a Government organization, under the Department of Social Welfare, as the focal point has provided grants to small NGOs. But the DPOs in partnership with ADD have reported that they faced severe bureaucratic problems in accessing funds from the Foundation.

Recommendations

To ensure that the rights of differently challenged persons are implemented, social attitudes need to be changed, and their diversity acknowledged:

  • Differently challenged persons need to organize themselves, to become aware of and claim their rights.
  • The Disability Welfare Act 2001 needs to be amended and rules formulated for its effective implementation.
  • Organizations of the differently challenged need to work closely with the Government for appropriate reforms and significant allocations for their education, health and employment.
  • The proposed National Human Rights Commission should include a commissioner with personal experience of disability.
  • The UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRDP) needs to be ratified by the Government and its provisions incorporated into domestic laws.
  • The media should play a more dynamic role to change public perceptions of disability and to transform social values, for example by identifying the differently challenged by their names not by their disabilities and projecting their differences as another way of life.

Notes

* Mosharraf Hossain, Country Representative, Action on Disability and Development (ADD), Bangladesh. .

[1] The Prevalence Survey by Handicap International and the National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD) recorded the differently challenged as constituting about 5.6 per cent of the population.

[2] Conclusions at seminars and consultations organized by Action on Disability and Development (ADD), May 2007.

[3] A. Rahman, “Budget 2007-08: Protibandhider Chaowa-Paowa”, paper presented in the Pre-Budget National Seminar organized by ADD, 16 May, 2007, p 8.

[4] Primary and Mass Education Department, Esteem II Project Study 2002.

[5] BLAST and others v Bangladesh and other s. Writ Petition 3437 of 1997.

[6] Writ Petition No. 2541 of 1997.

[7] BLAST and others v Bangladesh and Others , Writ Petition No. 1783/1998.

[8] Findings from ADD’s field report.

[9] National budget speech by Saifur Rahman, then Finance Minister, 2006/7.

[10] The Language Martyrs’ Memorial in Dhaka.