by Asmatullah Niazi
Asmatullah Niazi is a senior broadcast journalist

In the late 1950s, polio was widespread across Pakistan, in both the rural areas and the cities. It was pretty much a catastrophe, to say the least, and I, being one of those who had contracted the deadly and lifelong disease, can share firsthand how this crippling disease affected my life.

I was born in the rural village of Khaglanwala, which is located in the Tehsil Easkhel district of Mianwali. As there were no hospital facilities that were equipped to deal with my polio at birth, I was lucky enough to be taken to a nearby military hospital in the town of Bannu, which eventually led to me being a polio survivor.

Since my father was in the navy, I was blessed with the opportunity to have treatments such as physiotherapy, muscle heating and rehabilitation processes. However, many polio victims were not given such treatments back then, as they could not afford it.

Even till today, despite the progress Pakistan has made over the years, there are still a significant number of polio victims who are still suffering, especially since their villages do not have the facilities to cater to this disease and they cannot afford to travel to other cities and pay for the medical costs.

Having suffered from polio, I can easily tell you that this lifelong disease affects a person on so many levels - physically, socially, financially, and more. In school, many polio victims are taunted and traumatised by their peers, as they are openly labeled derogatory terms such as ‘langra’, ‘lulah’ and ‘tunda’, amongst many others, to address their physical disabilities. Our names cease to exist, as all we are known by are our disabilities, which is a painful pill to swallow and usually ends up traumatising victims as they progress in life.

I personally feel that my country and its society have failed to develop any form of sensitivity to physically challenged individuals, despite its attempts. In the late 1980s, the then military ruler, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, whose own daughter had a disability, had introduced an ordinance for reserved job quotas for disabled individuals. However, while this ordinance looked progressive on paper, the ground reality was that neither the public nor private sector were interested in putting this motion in effect.

I clearly recalled after my graduation from the University of Karachi, I had applied for several jobs with the public sector institutions based on the reserved quota for disabled people.

Despite the fact that there were several vacancies, and that I was qualified for the jobs, I never received a single response from these institutions.

Instead, it was quite a common practice for these disabled person quota jobs to be filled by individuals who become disabled in the course of their service or through internal postings. The chances for physically challenged common folks like me were almost slim to none. It appears that this trend has carried on till today, which in turn affects many polio victim survivors financially as they are not able to earn a proper income to support themselves and their families.

This leads me to another agonising point in the lives of polio victims, which is their liability and reliability on their parents. Due to the mindset that disabled individuals like us will not be able to get ‘proper’ jobs, polio victims have been known to be pulled out of school by their parents in favour of getting them vocationally trained as tailors, mechanics and so on.

Despite it being the 21st century, Pakistan is still nowhere near to providing basic healthcare and educational facilities to all its citizens. Imagine, if this lack of provision is detrimental to healthy and fit individuals, what about physically challenged people? We are, to say the least, the biggest losers in this country and we are pretty much disregarded by society at large.

Polio victims require constant rehabilitation processes, especially as they age and the nerves and muscles start to weaken, and this costs money. Without the proper income, or the support of the government, consultations and rehabilitation can be almost impossible for many who cannot afford it, resulting in a life of many agonies incomprehensible to the physically fit.  

I am personally of the opinion that the state should get their act together and aim to come up with a proper solution to assist their physically challenged citizens. We may not be able to do certain things that physically fit individuals can do, but do not disregard us by rendering us useless and condemning us to a life of painful agony. We are able to contribute to the nation in so many ways, intellectually and more, if only we are given a chance. Look past our disability and remember us by our given names, because that is who we are.