‘No one was willing to give a blind person a chance to host a radio show’
KARACHI: Attitudes towards the visually impaired in Pakistan are of a curious nature, oscillating between extreme indifference and ill-advised sympathy. Both are detrimental as they undermine the positive role such an individual can play in society. This is why many strive to generate discourse about the nuance of integrating people with disabilities into society in a positive manner.
For Ali Khan Tareen, this struggle never ends. One of the most recurrent issues he has had to face is the lack of awareness among people about the needs of the visually impaired. “Most people I meet do not know how to act around me. I feel the journey to prove my worth has become tougher as a result.”
Ali is indebted to his family, who have never discouraged him from following his passions. “I was very young when I fell in love with radio. I always wanted to host shows on air and as I grew older, I applied to many radio stations. However, no one was willing to give a blind person a chance to host a radio show as they were afraid I would not be able to manage a live show.”
Eventually in 2010 he was introduced to a group of visually impaired boys who had started an online radio channel, Sab ka sath. Ali jumped at the opportunity and is now in-charge of its operations. The online radio channel provides a platform to the visually impaired by including programmes with the aim to teach them technology and impart education, and thus challenge stereotypes in society.
Ali’s ambition to carve a place for himself in the world of media led him to opt for a degree in mass communication at Karachi University but once again he met with a lot of resistance from the faculty and management of the department. “They called me in for a meeting and told me they were transferring me to another department as they believed I would not be able to manage the pressures of the department.”
It took Ali quite some time to convince them of his suitability, especially after he insisted that the widespread availability of e-books and online resources would help him greatly. The first year was tough but eventually the department recognised his capabilities, and now Ali is in his final semester. Many visually impaired followed his suit and the department has seen an increase in registrations by blind students.
A similar story is of Haleema Sarwar, who was a student at the Ida Rieu School for the deaf and blind. Though she credits the school for providing a platform for her progress, the journey was not always easy. “The medium of instruction at school was Urdu, and if a student wished to change the medium to English, they would have to do it on their own. Secondly, reading material is most times not available in Braille or in a recording.”
Her worries did not end when she started her masters in English literature at Karachi University. Reading and research material was not readily available and although the English department has a dedicated audio library for visually impaired students, it has not been maintained for a few years. But through the support of her family, friends and professors, she has overcome these difficulties.
Haleema is now on the lookout for a job but must face dire misconceptions head-on. “I feel that visually impaired individuals living in Pakistan face problems due to lack of awareness, opportunities and facilities. It is a general perception that a blind person is incapable of managing things like others. Therefore, people hesitate to give them an opportunity to prove themselves.”
Fortunately, there are exceptions that have moved on to sustain fulfilling careers despite their disability. Shahnaz Deedar is one such example. Currently doing her PhD in Education, she has been working in the telemarketing department of a leading international bank for almost eight years.
“There was a career drive in school where a team from the bank came and decided to give a few of the visually impaired students a chance in their telemarketing department. Initially it was a bit daunting to become familiar with the software we had to use, but after the encouragement and training we received from the company, the path forward became easy.”
The venture was so successful that several visually impaired individuals were hired, and now there are more than a dozen working alongside Shahnaz.
However, there are only a handful of NGOs working for the cause in Pakistan, and the national narrative about the disabled is overtly absent. Though many countries have national programmes actively fighting for the cause and helping the visually impaired integrate into society, Pakistan lags far behind.