Allegorical references to Independence or “Khudhmukhtari”, as it is called in colloquial Urdu, vary from individual to individual. To some, independence represents a steep mountain, where education is the proverbial crampon and economic empowerment the pick-axe to ascend to the top. To those that consider independence, a quarry to hunt, the bow becomes education and the arrow becomes economic empowerment, to conquer the target. To others still, independence is a façade, with education being a Guy Fawkes mask and economic empowerment a cape, to fool the world.

Poetic and relevant as the allegories may make independence sound, few truly grasp the concept in its entirety over the course of their lives.  Amongst those few that do appreciate what independence entails, persons with disabilities loom large – having been deprived of this elusive muse.

The dependency that debilitates persons with disabilities, is a result of; societal perceptions that tend to handicap the most progressive; institutional predation, which inevitably impair the most ambitious; and individual obstacles that repeatedly handicap the most willing. The proverbial bow and arrow, often become moot points when the institutions that are tasked with providing these facilities to all, are inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

Countless symposiums, seminars, policy papers and consultative meetings have been conducted for inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workplace and in schools, colleges, universities – with little tangible progress made beyond the confines of an air-conditioned space and signatories vowing action. The progress that has happened is limited to institutional employment, which does not even meet the bare minimum provincial quota; educational enrolment that is far below the very low national average; vocational training for skills that are stereotyped, sequestered, and easy to meet prescribed donor targets, without concern for their market relevance or necessity. The apathetic situation governing conventional economic empowerment and educational opportunities for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), begs a rethink of pathways towards independence for them.

Just as today, the energy needs of the world have forced a rethink from fossil fuels to alternative means; the need to integrate and include 25 million plus Pakistanis with disabilities as independent society participants demands corrective and innovative methods. If economic empowerment is not forthcoming through institutional employment due to a lack of education for persons with disabilities, an alternative, yet seldom discussed, path that can be evaluated is that of self-employment. Self-employment can be achieved through microfinancing, pivoting on effective vocational training and has been an oft-ignored path.

Around the world there are between 785 million and 985 million persons with disabilities of working age, and very few employers are willing to hire them, which again emphasises the great need for microfinance institutions (MFIs) to support these individuals. However, persons with disabilities account for no more than one half of one percent of total MFI clients worldwide, hence in addition to a lack of employment opportunities, persons with disabilities also have lack of access to finance. That being said, some pilot projects conducted show that persons with disabilities continue to be economically active and excellent clients, both self-employed and confident and can constitute a good market segment for MFIs. Although, this approach comes with its own challenges, they are relatively surmountable compared to the rampant and systemic issues that plague institutional employment and conventional education in Pakistan.

While self-employment is a deliciously utopian concept to envision for those seeking independence, it is not possible without effective and efficient vocational training that balances practicality of need with the idealism of interest.

Vocational training which marries aptitude, and not disability, to skillset; where a person with and without disability learn side by side, at a mainstream institute; where the barrier in communication between a deaf individual and non-deaf individual is bridged by the commonality of skills; where a ramp is not luxury, but a reasonable accommodation; where braille signage is not for the blind to navigate but for all to achieve independence.

As the world cursorily celebrates another International Day of Disabilities, there is a need for all of us to strive for the creation of society that pivots on holistic inclusion, so that those amongst us for whom “Khudhmukhtari” is not an allegorical reference, but a stark reality, scale their Everest, and capture their quarry. So that those on the “right” amongst us are not just waxing lyrical, about the special powers of persons with disabilities; nor are those on the “left” being melodramatic through our perceived masochism, about how little is being done for persons with disabilities – but stoically identifying the narrative to write a happy ending.