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FOCUS March 2009 Volume 55

Bangladesh and Persons with Disabilities

Khandaker Jahurul Alam

Bangladesh is not only one of the most densely populated countries in the world (with 926 persons per square kilometer) but also located in the world's largest delta, facing the Himalayas in the North, bordering India in the West, North and East, Myanmar in the Southeast, and the Bay of Bengal in the South. Its geographical position makes the country highly prone to natural disasters. Crisscrossed by two hundred thirty recognized rivers, each year about 30 per cent of the net cultivable land is flooded, while during severe floods, which occur every four to seven years, as much as 60 per cent of the country's net cultivable land is affected. Moreover, since the Bay of Bengal records the world's most pronounced storm surge disasters, the densely populated coastal regions of Bangladesh are subject to damaging cyclones almost every year. These are further compounded by tornadoes that affect the plains almost every year leaving a trail of death and disability. Economically, Bangladesh has one of the lowest annual per capita incomes in the world (under 450 US dollars). Even though agriculture is the premium bread earner of the common person and the nation, it also has the highest percentage of people living in poverty where the poorest 10 per cent and the middle 75 per cent of the population are acutely and chronically malnourished respectively. The majority of the population is Muslim and almost all citizens speak one language, Bangla. A country with a population close to 150 million people, it has a large human resource base. This is compounded with some natural resources, and a potential field for tourism that can raise the profile of the country many folds.

Disability scenario in Bangladesh

No comprehensive empirical study has been conducted at present to determine the incidence and prevalence of disabilities in Bangladesh. The few studies that have been conducted reflect a medical rather than a social model of disability, and they are also limited in geographical coverage. While no reliable national data exist, anecdotal information and a number of micro studies generally suggest a disability prevalence rate of between 5 to 12 per cent. This is close to the WHO estimate, which states that 10 per cent of any given population can be considered to have some or other form of disability.

Ignorance and wrong beliefs surrounding disability, compounded with a negative and derogatory attitude of the community (including family members) have contributed to the marginal development in the disability sector in Bangladesh.

Disability-related legislations and policy framework

The National Constitution[1] of Bangladesh has numerous provisions that obligate the government to protect the rights and dignity of all citizens of the country equally and without any bias whatsoever. It also allows room for additional and/or supplementary provisions that will ensure that citizens who do not have access to all the public amenities are able to obtain such services. This has given the government ample opportunities to adopt legislative and policy frameworks for the development of the full potentials of persons with disabilities in the country.

In accordance with all national and international commitments/obligations, and under the purview of the National Constitution, the Bangladeshi government developed a National Policy on Disability in 1995. This policy embodies the first official recognition by the government of the issue of disability as part of development agenda. This policy was given legislative support when the National Parliament enacted the Disability Welfare Act on 4 April 2001. This law provides the first ever national definition and classification of disability.

To implement the National Policy on Disability and the Disability Welfare Act, the government formulated a National Action Plan on 24 September 2006. The Action Plan is very comprehensive, involving forty-six Ministries and divisions of the government to undertake specific activities for persons with disabilities. The government has also appointed a focal person in every division of the Ministries (forty-six focal persons) who can provide the persons with disabilities the opportunity to get services from the government easily. Bangladesh signed and ratified in 2007 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In May 2008 the government signed the CRPD's Optional Protocol.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, the Department of Social Services and the National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons are the three government bodies that cater to the needs of persons with disabilities.

Prevention

As Bangladesh makes progress in implementing its health policies on infant mortality rate, immunization coverage, and general health care, there is likely a lowering of incidence of disabilities. However, the gains due to improved health care can be outweighed by the triple effects of increased number of surviving children with disabilities, increased number of people incurring disabilities due to old age (e.g., cataracts and arthritis), and widespread malnutrition. Disabilities due to natural calamities and road traffic accidents imply that the prevalence of people having disabilities in Bangladesh is likely to continually rise over-time, although the nature and distribution of disabilities are also likely to change considerably.

Education

Access to education of children with disabilities is extremely limited. An un-equal educational system, a rigid and unfriendly school curriculum, ignorance and lack of awareness of parents, compounded with the inadequate knowledge of teachers and the unfriendly school environment are obstacles to promoting the education of children with disabilities in Bangladesh. Under the government system of Bangladesh, the education of persons with disabilities is under the Ministry of Social Welfare not under the Ministry of Education. This has created a big barrier to persons with disabilities to be included into mainstream education. It is estimated that only about 5 per cent of children with disabilities are enrolled in existing educational institutions.

Recently, the government has been promoting inclusive education for children with mild disabilities. This may create a space for the enrollment of more children with disabilities in the mainstream educational institutions. Another positive step is the program of providing stipend to students with disabilities. But this stipend is not for all students with disabilities. Only 12,000 students with disabilities are getting the stipend while 1.6 million children with disabilities are waiting at home to be enrolled in educational institutions.

Employment

The government had declared about two decades back a 10 per cent employment quota for persons with disabilities and orphans. But this quota has never been properly implemented due to the lack of sensitivity of employers about the potentialities of persons with disabilities, contradictory employment policies, loopholes in the system, and a lack of proper monitoring system. A few years back, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh declared a 1 per cent employment quota for persons with disabilities in all cadre service (government) jobs.

The Centre for Services and Information on Disability, a non-governmental organization (NGO), study found that only 5 per cent of the respondents were in government jobs, 17 per cent in NGOs and 66 per cent were self-employed. Only 22 per cent had been able to find a source of financial credit (or micro-credit) support.

Bangladesh has a thriving corporate sector, which is the principal job provider after the government. It is also the largest backbone of the national economy, after agriculture. Jute and tea used to be the prime export items, however, readymade garments (RMG), handicrafts and leather export has gradually taken over as the larger export-oriented industries. Cosmetics and medicines produced in this country are also gradually gaining popularity in the export market. But in this large corporate structure, employment or job creation opportunities for the people with disabilities had never really taken off.

Communications and accessibility

Bangladesh has a building code that clearly demarcates accessibility options for all people including persons with disabilities. Yet again loopholes in the system, the lack of proper monitoring, and a lack of system to penalize violators prevent accessibility for persons with disabilities. Public and private offices, educational institutions, public transportation, utility infrastructures, recreation and tourist spots, market places ? almost all are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The government has decided to require the establishment of separate ticket counters and reserved seats for persons with disabilities in public transports. But this decision has not been implemented since the public transports themselves lack general accessibility facilities.

Isolated NGO development program

Bangladesh has a plethora of NGOs (around 40,000) sharing the development work in the country alongside the government. In a background of such a large number of NGOs, who are mostly dependent on external funding, international NGOs, finance institutions and donors play a major role in the development scenario in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, among the existing NGOs only four hundred are working for persons with disabilities. This has greatly isolated the work for the persons with disabilities from the mainstream NGO development work. Some of the active NGOs are presented below.

The National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD) is the apex federating body of NGOs working in the field of Disability in Bangladesh with a vision of an inclusive society where all persons with disabilities are visible and contribute equitably in the nation-building process. NFOWD works in three areas: (a) coordination among its members, (b) raising national level awareness and sensitization on disability issues, and (c) policy advocacy and lobbying work, and its principal working relationship is with the government of Bangladesh. As such, over the years it has gained the reputation and recognition within the country as an example of a perfect interface between the government and the NGOs in this field. Government committee, taskforce, working group, etc. on disability issues includes NFOWD as a member by default. This is upheld either by law, policy or an administrative decision. At the Asian regional level, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP) has recognized this linkage as one of the 'best practices' in the area of 'GO-NGO Collaboration' in the region.

Following the internationally acclaimed spirit of "Nothing About Us Without Us" and a more recent target set in the Biwako Millennium Framework (BMF) on self-help initiatives, a large number of Disabled People's Organizations (DPOs) are coming up all over Bangladesh, mostly being supported by two large NGOs ? Action on Disability and Development (ADD) and the Bangladesh Protibondhi Kallyan Shomity (BPKS).

Bangladesh has a very active and well-informed civil society, which also plays a major role in the national development. A few civil society organizations are also gradually addressing disability issues. The Rotary Clubs, the Lions Clubs and their affiliates have long been involved in health camps and eye camps for decades in this country, contributing much in the area of control and prevention of blindness. The Rotary Clubs have, during the last three years, donated over eight hundred wheelchairs to poor persons with disabilities.

Conclusion

Disability will always remain in Bangladeshi society, with the entire social stigma attached to it. But in the backdrop of all the problems involved, the silver lining is that the government is showing an increasing interest on persons with disabilities, and a keen interest to work hand-in-hand with the non- governmental sector. But to make real progress in this field in a developing country like Bangladesh, an all-out effort from all quarters is mandatory. The persons with disabilities themselves, their organizations, other organizations working in this field, and all the advocacy platforms need to increase their awareness campaigns for the prevention of disability and for the recognition of the rights and privileges of persons with disabilities as equalcitizens of this country.

Khandaker Jahurul Alam is the Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Disability Forum (APDF), President of the National Disability Forum (NFOWD) and Executive Director of the Centre for Services and Information on Disability (CSID), Bangladesh.

For further information, please contact: Centre for Services and Information on Disability (CSID), House# 715, Road # 10, Baitul Aman Housing Society, Adabor, Dhaka-12107, Bangladesh; ph (880-2) 8125669, 9129727, 8143882, e-mail: csid@bdmail.net; www.csidnetwork.org.

Endnote

1. These provisions are contained in Articles 10, 11, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 36 of the Constitution.


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