Naveed Ejaz has an undergraduate degree from Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan, and a MPhil degree from the University of Cambridge, UK. He started with his Phd in Neuroscience from Imperial College London, UK in October 2007. Naveed has some experience of working with social welfare groups in Pakistan and he is also interested in working towards inclusion education, both secondary and higher, for disabled individuals in Pakistan.

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Too alarming now to talk about,
Take your pictures down and shake it out…
There goes my hero, watch him as he goes,
There goes my hero, he's ordinary.
-- 'My Hero'- Foo Fighters

Imagine the happiest day of your life. For those with an overactive imagination and Freudian tendencies, I urge you to stop here. For many this would bring up images of the day they got married or the birth of a child. Close your eyes and savor and rejoice in the purity of the moment for a while.

Now imagine that your spouse/child is disabled.

The dream ends here; entering unchartered territory that we feel uncomfortable exploring. Herein lies the biggest problem regarding our collective perception of disability. It is a problem that is discussed at an arms length. Much like sexuality, disability is a taboo subject even when considered as part of a serious debate. It is the unnamed pink elephant (for those wondering why pink, kindly refer to a child in the family to tell you the joke) in the living room that no one is comfortable talking about. Being part of the disabled club is then akin to being part of an unwanted minority - a collective being that is considered to be a-religious, a-sexual and non-functional. Discussions regard the role of this minority within society have always been refrained from, primarily for fear of sounding politically incorrect. While the situation is not that pronounced in developed countries - they too have their own problems regarding the subject; however, where the rights of individuals are stressed upon, it is the third world where conditions are most dire. Unless each and every member of our society warms up to this debate, the situation will continue unabated. For too long now, we have looked for the perfect, politically correct word to describe this group, and in doing so failed to address the core issue at hand i.e. its role.

Before presenting my politically incorrect views on the topic, I would like to set the record straight. I am a 25 year old male, born and raised in Pakistan, a developing country by every meaning of the word. Blessed with amazing resources and even greater parents, I have been educated both within Pakistan and abroad. But more importantly for the purposes of this debate, I have cerebral palsy, a physical condition that predominantly affects my mobility, meaning therefore, that I am disabled, handicapped, impaired, disadvantaged, invalid and abnormal. Despite the wealth of adjectives at their disposal, my family and friends still prefer to call me by my first name. Some people however insist on calling me by my full name, but I really do not care for that all that much.

For the purposes of this article and all those that might follow, I will choose to use the nomenclature above interchangeably. I wish no ill and sincerely apologize to those that I do manage to offend. I do hope, however, that the majority realizes the intent to raise questions that have greater significance than merely the vocabulary at hand.

The problem as it exists in the third world today is essentially two-pronged in that
(i) the society expects the disabled to be less contributing members and
(ii) the disabled believe themselves, in some way, to be less contributing members of society.

Simply put, the role of the disabled is no different from the role of those who are healthy. At this point, I must admit to setting up my argument of choice by intentionally using the word healthy as a contrast against disabled, but it is a contrast that is subconsciously accepted by us all. A disability is an aberration, an unwanted trait, a statistical and Darwinian anomaly. Webster dictionary too defines disabled as being 'incapacitated by illness or injury'; the obvious reference to health. Grammatically, however, disabled - and all other synonymous words - seems to indicate the lack of an ability or skill. The obvious contrast then to health is sickness and for disabled is abled. One is a state of well-being, the other a functional attribute, and while the presence of a disability might give rise to risks in health, accepting the two as contrasting opposites gives rise to problems of repression.

There is a reason why physically handicapped beggars earn more than their able-bodied counterparts in a day. I do not wish to dwell on the socio-economic implications of begging, but merely to illustrate the subconscious pity we have for such individuals which drives us towards greater charity. Pity is possibly the strongest of human emotions, and by indulging in it one subconsciously assumes superiority over the other. It is pity that drives us to assume that the individual cannot achieve much within the limitations the disability imposes. It is pity that projects a feeling of repression on the disabled. It really is a pity that the disabled are faced with not only while proving to themselves, but also to society that they are fully functional human beings within their own rights. While collectively, we can do little to alleviate the mental struggles that the disabled are faced with, we can ease the burden by being more accepting and not having them prove their worth time and again. And, in order to move forward, our acceptance of individuals needs to expand beyond our peripheral senses into the functional realm.

Religious and cultural identities are held in special regard, especially, in developing countries where there are scant other identities to cling on to. Controversially enough, it is the invalid customs and faulty interpretations of religious injunctions that have led to the repressed mindset of the disabled today. In a paper on 'Disability rehabilitation in a traditional Indian society', Ajit K. Dalal from the University of Allahbad, India argues:

Within religious groups there is a very strong opinion that
disability is as a result of past mis-deeds of self or parents. In Hindu
scriptures as well, the concept of Karma is propounded to explain all kinds of suffering. This theory implies that if one has committed misdeeds in previous births, one has to inevitably bear the consequences. Disability is held to be a punishment for the sins of previous births and one is called upon to accept it as divine retribution. This notion of a just world is firmly ingrained in the Hindu mind and is frequently invoked to explain whatever happens in one's life. Belief in the theory of Karma has very often led to a ready acceptance of physical disability, with little effort in the direction of improving life conditions. It is presumed to be a deterrent to collective efforts put in by persons with disabilities to assert their right of equal access to social opportunities. ()

Kudos Mr Dalal! There will be many who argue that the concept of rebirth is not central to the other major religions namely Islam and Christianity. However, one will do well to remember that Christianity is based upon the concept of Original Sin, and that our presence in this world is to atone ourselves of that very incident. The repressive effects of
mixing Christianity and disability are possibly best witnessed in post-colonial Africa.

As for Islam, I would like to bore you with a personal anecdote. The maulvi that educated me in the teachings of the Holy Quran was a lively and friendly man who played table tennis with me in his spare time. At my impressionable age, upon inquiry he informed me that my disability was a manifestation of the sins of my parents; a fact vehemently backed up by numerous other 'religious authorities,' if you may. Needless to say, I have since learnt not to trust anyone with a weak backhand.

With such a vast majority of the third world population being uneducated, illiterate and unlettered, the threat of repression at the hands of unsound cultural and religious practices is significant and one that should not be taken lightly. This repression creates social and personal barriers that are nigh impossible to break through. The subjugation is not just a modern cultural/religious concept either, for it was the famous Greek writer Plato who said that "the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away," or the equally famous Greek philosopher Aristotle who pleaded for "a law that no deformed child shall live"

The disabled are here to stay. They have as much right to be part of society as anyone else. The sooner we accept the barriers that impede their path, the sooner efforts can be undertaken to remove them. Changing mindsets is the key, both on the collective as well as the individual level. It is essential that we break our minds of our prejudiced molds. It is imperative that the disabled view themselves as functional beings and it is critical that parents do not shy away from seeking professional help for their child. All this is only possible if we all make the conscious effort to first think about it.

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