MSc Social Policy & Development Alum, Maryam Naqvi argues that the Government of Pakistan should prioritise the mobility needs of disabled people and re-design the urban transport system to make it convenient and inclusive for everyone which is beneficial for the economy and development of Pakistan.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), almost one billion or 15 percent of the world’s population comprises of persons with disabilities, making them one of the largest global minority. Among them, 80 percent live in low-income countries, where the existing cultural and physical barriers contribute towards different challenges they face, condemning them to live in poverty and marginalization. In developing countries like Pakistan, the lack of an inclusive environment keeps the persons with disabilities deprive of many opportunities like education, skill-training, employment, entrepreneurship as well as access to health care, leisure and importantly transport facilities. As a result, these people are restricted to their homes and are unable to live independent and fulfilling lives.

Pakistan ratified United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2011 and is one of the foremost countries to have adopted United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Under both of the international frameworks, exclusive targets (such as SDG 11.2) about setting public transport in accordance to the needs of people with disabilities have been included. Transport should be made inclusive in Pakistan, because it plays a crucial role in empowering the disabled by enabling them to access basic life amenities and expanding their social and economic networks. Disability can render a profound impact on the poor segment of the society, contributing further to their misery.

All types of impairment can hamper their mobility, ranging from slight difficulty to total inability to walk, dependence on a wheelchair, mental illness, intellectual impairments and other hidden disabilities. For instance, anxiety in a noisy environment may be a major deterrent to mobility for people suffering from autism. Similarly, children with disabilities may find it difficult to commute to school which can lead to their low educational attainments. Lack of an inclusive transport infrastructure in Pakistan can possess several economic and social consequences. In terms of economic impact, a large number of disabled people are forced to remain excluded from the country’s workforce and are unable to contribute to the national economy. Likewise, the social impact can result in forming a fundamental link between disability and poverty which further makes the healthcare unaffordable for disabled people.

Population explosion and rapid urbanization in Pakistan have severed the mobility issue in the country in the form of poor transport infrastructure, disregard of traffic management laws and increasing number of personal automobiles. In such a scenario, government should prioritize an inclusive transport system for all at a local and national planning process. The transport system should be designed and upgraded in a way which enables the disabled people to avail financially affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable medium of commute. At present, the public and private transport system have failed to provide the minimum acceptable level of mobility to the persons with disabilities.

The transport operators prefer low cost vehicles in order to maximise their profits, without caring about the quality and efficiency of services they are providing. This can again be due to the lack of institutional capacity to monitor and regulate these individual transport operators. Government can provide safer transport to disabled people by engaging with them and the civil society organisations working for their welfare, in order to understand their needs and priorities from their perspective. All of this can start with spreading awareness through ‘Comprehensive Disability Awareness Programmes’ about respecting the needs of the disabled among everyone involved in the transport system from policymakers, urban planners, transport operators, drivers to fellow travellers.

Training of employees on disability issues should also be made a part of employment in transport sector. These trainings should be aimed at making employees understand the travel needs as per different types of disability including hidden disabilities such as autism, mental health issues as well as the mobility or sensory impairments. Pakistan should adopt a new transport infrastructure and system which can be designed and implemented in light of the principles of Universal Design as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD). Most of these principles are cost-friendly and have been well established in low-income countries like Zimbabwe from which Pakistan can learn too. A transport system should be designed in a way where there is a minimum physical effort required to be used by everyone including children, elderly and people with disabilities. Similarly, removing obstructions on footpaths, providing clear and easy to follow route signs as well as designing the steps-free bus stops, creating sufficient space for wheelchair users on buses and trains are all disability-inclusive ways of improving mobility.

Laws and regulations should also be enforced to make mobility accessible for disabled through setting standards for operating accessible vehicles. These should be monitored with appropriate penalties and remedial steps to ensure their effectiveness. In Pakistan, there have been some commendable initiatives for disability-inclusive transport like ‘The Rickshaw Project’ and ‘Accessible Cycle Project’ in Karachi which have been taken by NOWPDP, an NGO in Pakistan. The Rickshaw project has developed an autorickshaw with hand controls to facilitate a disabled driver and space to carry disabled passengers and the Accessible Cycle project has redesigned the tricycle for making it accessible for disabled.

A transport system which is well designed for people with disabilities will also be suitable for all the users. For instance, it could be easier for everyone to benefit from clear road signs, railway station announcements and interacting with courteous drivers who are considerate of the needs of all passengers. People with disabilities all around the world often face discrimination and abuse while using public transport. Such discrimination is often rooted in ignorance among the communities who give little thought and attention to the mobility needs of the disabled. For an ambitious pursuit of development and SDGs, Pakistan’s government can no longer remain oblivious of the needs of the disabled and should take prompt actions to make the country’s transport system disability-inclusive.

Maryam Naqvi is an MSc Social Policy & Development Alumnus LSE (2017/18) and a Development Practitioner.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.