In Pakistan, estimates of the number of persons living with disabilities (PwD) vary between 3.3m and 27m, depending on whether they are based on government statistics or estimated by other agencies or sources. Although the country made early attempts to include persons with disabilities in the 1980s by introducing educational and employment policies, setting up special schools for persons with disabilities, and employing a quota-based system and levies, still these efforts proved to be ineffective, and People with disabilities (PwD) still have difficulty exercising their civil and political rights, attending quality schools and finding gainful employment. This ultimately means that they are being excluded as productive members of society, leading to economic losses of as much as US$11.9bn-15.4bn for Pakistan. Since, most of the current policy and programmed-approaches to disability have largely been focused on rehabilitation, welfare, medical support or charity, the people with disabilities continue to face myriad challenges. Though, the country ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) in 2011, to include right-based approaches towards PwD, the progress around building an “inclusive education” instead of segregated “Special education” for PwD has been slow and ineffective.
When it comes to the educational facilities and policies for children with disabilities in Pakistan, they are at a two-fold disadvantage. The recent estimates by UNESCO suggest that as many as 1.4 million children with disabilities are left without access to either inclusive or special schools. While, the government strategy has been primarily to offer education for children and adults with disabilities in separate “Special schools”, there are several drawbacks, including that these facilities are inadequate and accessible to only a small proportion of children with disabilities. According to the British Council, “there are 330 special education schools in Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Most of these schools are in urban areas, which makes education for persons with disabilities in rural areas a challenge and 50% of children with disabilities have access to such schools. They are costly from a public budget standpoint and keep children excluded from the rest of society. Even if there is an “Access”, these special schools vary in the “quality of education” and often have inadequate support in terms of “pedagogy and lack of proper instructors/teachers”, making “quality a question mark”.
This exclusion has an economic cost too, as estimates from the World Bank, and Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that by 2018 the costs of exclusion of disabled persons from employment towards Pakistan’s could reach US$20bn a year. The current base is US$12bn, and these costs will continue to rise each year—that’s approximately US$5.5m per day, every day. Other socio-economic reasons also come into play. Families may simply be too poor to send their children to either public or private school, or there are limited transport options where schools are far away. Beyond needing the means for schooling, the social stigma also leads many parents to withhold their children from available schooling and there is also a huge drop-out rate for children with disabilities. In the case of girls, families are too protective, as well as worried about safety and sexual harassment or violence (rape), when it comes to handicapped girls. There are also gender-biases, especially where families belong to ultra-conservative or marginalize communities from Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, where even normal girls are withheld from education.
Therefore, considering a high drop-out rate, scarcity of teachers, insufficient resources, poor infrastructure, social and cultural practices, discriminatory stigmas, attitudes of the parents and difficulties in transitioning to higher levels of education, we need following key steps towards “inclusive education” strategies/program for persons with disabilities at Government and community level:
- Develop a comprehensive set of laws to protect the rights and dignity of persons, especially Children and Girls with disabilities in all aspects of living. This includes laws that protect them regardless of their age, gender or caste to discourage discrimination, provide inclusive education, improve educational infrastructure, build teacher’s capacities and transportation, use ICT4 Special Education and upgrade the curricula and quota system.
- Strengthen existing ministerial and government departments on special education, and develop a rigorous monitoring system to not only implement PwD’s laws and policies but use available resources wisely and evaluate their performance through key performance indicators. The existing mechanism has to be revamped both at Federal, provincial and local government levels and more representation should be given to the people with disabilities, so they can help in devising better policies and laws. It is also imperative that donors and other stakeholder resources and funds for education for PwD are maintained through external/internal evaluation and proper and regular monitoring is followed.
- In order to tackle access, and limited governmental resources to build new schools, the Pakistani government can use available resources through upgrading existing “stand-alone special schools” by integrating them into the “regular schooling system”in remotes areas. Since available Special education promotes segregation, but if the inclusive educational system is promoted, persons with disabilities can be taught in the same classroom as mainstream students, making educational services more accessible and affordable. However, the government must ensure that traditional schools are equipped with proper facilities, resources and ensure effective training of instructors to teach PwD.
- The government should invest in school capacity development, and utilizing youth, which can offer summer schools for PwD. Similarly, changes in school infrastructure and investment in better teacher training is equally significant to reduce disparities towards PwD.
- Similarly, Innovative community-based mechanisms can also reduce the burden on the government. There are successful examples in Pakistan, such as the using digital technologies/ICT to educate people with disabilities distance and e-learning programs, as well as the Lady Health Worker Programme and several similar community-based mechanisms, which can help in educating PwD, building awareness, changing attitudes and driving change as well as reaching marginalize communities and to serve/educate PwD in a cost-effective way.
- At the Community level, government and community-based organizations, can work with religious leaders, Maddaris(religious schools), and non-formal educational facilities can be utilize to cater needs of education for PwD. Mosques can be used for “workshop along with worship” as they are frequently available and can be used for “people Welfare. These available resources also need proper mechanisms and facilities through citizen-government initiatives.
- The existing Disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) need to work together with government, private organizations, schools such as Allied/ Bacon House School System and local communities to ensure a united front that communicates change from a rights-based approach. These DPOs largely focused on a charity or medical aid, which are both important services, especially where the government falls short, however, there needs to be better awareness of communities, reducing parental biases, stigmas and fears the need for broader change.
- Last but not least, to improve the economic condition of the families having people with disabilities, government, Non-profit organizations, corporations (as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility CSR) and DPOs should focus on enhancing such families economic resources, provide them social safety nets and other employments, so they can invest in their children and PwD more effectively.
In conclusion, inclusive, adaptive and innovative mechanisms supported at government and community level, will further efforts to achieve the educational outcomes for the people with disabilities and improve their status in contributing towards Pakistan’s economy as a productive member.
 Moving from the margins: Mainstreaming persons with disabilities in Pakistan – produced in 2014 by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the British Council
 Daily times (2014). 1.4m disabled Pakistani children have no access to schools says Dr. Kozue Kay Nagata, Director UNESCO Islamabad. Available on http://unesco.org.pk/education/documents/2014/efa_week/national_forum/pc_DailyTimes.pdf
 See for instance “ICT and AT4DPwDs” at http://ict4dpwd.ning.com and www.telecentre.org/group/telecentrefordisabilities.providing some successful apps and technologies mainstreaming education for PwD.
 Helping the disabled: AIOU opens e-learning centre for visually impaired. Published in Express Tribune, Oct. 26th, 2015. Retrieved at https://tribune.com.pk/story/979070/helping-the-disabled-aiou-opens-e-learning-centre-for-visually-impaired/?amp=1