Freeing the Path of Obstacles
AHM Noman Khan
For the 10th time, a Bangladeshi has won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.
This year's winner, AHM Noman Khan, Executive Director, Centre for Disability in Development (CDD), has been recognised for his role in “pioneering leadership in mainstreaming persons with disabilities in the development process of Bangladesh, and in working vigorously with all sectors to build a society that is truly inclusive and barrier-free”.
Khan speaks to The Star's KAJALIE SHEHREEN ISLAM about how far Bangladesh has come in ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities and the challenges that remain.
How did you become interested in caring for the disabled?
I didn't used to be very conscious about the issue of disability. Neither did I know the numbers involved, nor did I think it was a significant issue. The few disabled persons I knew were quite established in their respective fields, making me think that disability wasn't a very big limitation.
I started my career in the development sector. In the late 70s I left my government job and got the opportunity to be involved in development research. In 1994, I was involved with a Canadian couple who had come to work on a project on disability and later I attended a workshop in Indonesia and it was only then that I began to understand the issue. When I came back and visited the villages I thought I knew so well, I was taken aback at the number of persons with disabilities.
According to World Bank statistics, 10 percent of the population of developing nations is disabled; we don't even have exact statistics for Bangladesh. Yet, at the time that I got involved, there were only a handful of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) working in the area. I realised there was room for entry and that if we initiated work in the field, others would follow. But we didn't have resources -- no personnel, no knowledge or awareness, we didn't even have people who knew about all the forms of disability. It took around six months for us to orient ourselves. This was the beginning of the establishment of the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD).
|Mainstreaming education allows children with disabilities to attend regular schools.
How did you initiate the process of mainstreaming disability in Bangladesh?
The disabled were a part of a whole different world. There were NGOs which provided health services, education, microcredit, but the disabled were excluded from all these programmes. Our task was three-fold. First was the issue of attitude change. In our country, mothers of disabled children would sometimes be seen as cursed, as if they had done something to deserve a disabled child. We trained field workers and had them go out and talk to people to raise awareness about the issue as a first step towards preventing it, protecting those who were disabled and recovering those who could be helped. We also used the national media for advocacy.
The second issue was to provide services for the disabled. We held a 100-day residential course with expert trainers from abroad. Over 800 field workers were trained to provide services and deliver them to the homes of the disabled because they wouldn't know to come get the service. We have focal points around the country as well as mobile units that go to the remotest villages to provide service. We also have a few ships which travel and provide treatment as it is possible to have the equipment on board.
The third issue was that of inclusion, basically, mainstreaming disability in development. The disabled were isolated, we stressed on not providing them with extra services but bringing them into the mainstream. For example, it is possible to provide education or microcredit within the existing system and not with separate schools or programmes for the disabled. Among other initiatives, CDD has worked for disability-inclusive education by providing training to teachers, books, and learning materials to government and privately-run schools. It has developed Braille software in Bangla and a Bangla sign language as communication tools, produced Braille slates, distributes low-cost Braille books for the visually impaired, and campaigns for persons with disabilities' access to information communication technology. Having the disabled as a part of the mainstream is important for their social development.
|Mobile services for persons with disabilities.
What is the process of providing service to people with disabilities?
First, the type of disability needs to be identified, whether it is physical, intellectual, mental, etc., and then within these there are many categories. Field workers are trained to identify the type of disability, provide initial services without the use of instruments, then refer them to the centres for further treatment where equipment and surgical procedures are available. Every disabled person is different with different needs. For example, I know of a child who has no legs and whose one arm is longer than the other. A regular wheelchair would not suit him, so a special wheelchair with one wheel larger than the other had to be designed for him to be able to navigate it. For some people with short arms or legs, we design higher tables for them to be able to work on them.
What are the challenges that remain in the field in Bangladesh?
We have many plans but their implementation remains. A draft proposal has been drawn up to replace the Bangladesh Disability Welfare Act of 2001 but it is yet to be finalised and may even require revisions. Now all ministries have a focal point for dealing with the issue of disability; they may not be very effective yet, but they're there. The government is considering mainstreaming of education. We are even having talks with Bangladesh Railway to make the system accessible to persons with disabilities. These are good ideas and intentions but they need to be implemented.
What is the major difference between the existing act and the proposed draft of the revised disability act?
The past act was a totally welfare-oriented one. There was a moral responsibility to help the disabled but nothing binding. Now, Bangladesh is a signatory to the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The act must now be formulated in accordance with the Convention which stipulates the rights of disabled persons, recognising that it is a right and not charity.
What are your feelings on receiving this prestigious award?
Despite the fact that the Ramon Magsaysay Award recognises, among other fields, that of community leadership, this is the first time that it has been given in the sub-category of the field of disability. The award comes not as personal recognition but as recognition of the field and its development in Bangladesh.
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