Illustrations by Aniqa Haider
Society’s failure to account for the needs and capabilities of all of its citizens in its design and construction has erected barriers to equal participation in multiple areas of life for people with disabilities (PWDs). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PWDs make up around 15 percent of Pakistan’s population. Severely underreported in the official census (0.48 percent) because of the discrepancy in the 2017 Census questionnaire, this community is one of Pakistan’s most marginalised, underserved, and misunderstood groups.
A truly accessible society is one which tailors its physical infrastructure, laws and policies, social spaces, and institutions to include the needs of people with disabilities. Although PWDs continue to face numerous obstacles since such a society does not yet exist, access to the internet and digital spaces is strengthening the virtual presence of the community. This has impacted how PWDs are perceived by society, and expanded their ability to participate in it.
Online spaces are particularly beneficial for people with disabilities as they can provide them with increased independence. For instance, the inaccessibility of most infrastructure in Pakistan poses a major obstacle for those with disabilities. Hence, being able to access services online widens their capacity to complete tasks on their own without having to navigate their way around several infrastructural barriers. The ability to manage one’s finances through online banking, make purchases through online shopping, and form social connections through social media reduces the barriers that people with disabilities face in terms of becoming fully autonomous due to the lack of accessibility-focused accommodations available in society.
In spite of the potential for increased accessibility that technology provides, there are still aspects of digital spaces that are not designed with the needs of PWDs in mind.
There are two important factors at play when it comes to access to the internet for PWDs: the affordability of access to the internet in terms of its financial cost, and the digital accessibility of the internet.
Affordability of Access to the Internet
The affordability of a reliable Internet connection and digital devices is an obstacle for PWDs from low-income backgrounds. There is potential for wheelchair-users who are denied employment due to the inaccessibility of workplaces to work remotely if given the opportunity, but unreliability of WiFi access has been a significant barrier to this. Babar, a 32-year-old man who is a wheelchair-user, said, “I have been looking for a job for a very long time, but most employers say they are unable to hire wheelchair-users. I would be very enthusiastic about being able to work from home if it meant I could finally use my skills and provide for my family, but our Internet connection is very weak and that would make this difficult as well.”
Additionally, assistive technology that can facilitate PWDs’ access to online spaces does exist, but this can be very costly to acquire. Screen readers are a form of assistive technology that reads text aloud and facilitates computer usage for people with visual disabilities, and, due to their high price, tend to be difficult for PWDs themselves to purchase. Alongside this, educational institutions and workplaces are often reluctant to invest in them as well, perpetuating the inaccessibility of these spaces.
Digital Accessibility of the Internet
Digital accessibility is determined by the inclusiveness of the design and structure of the internet and online spaces for as many people as possible. The ability to live one’s life and complete all tasks independently is made more difficult for PWDs as a result of digital inaccessibility. In an age where most services can be availed online, the Internet could be an excellent tool to empower PWDs if designed in an accessible manner. While assistive features and devices are already available, the design of certain online spaces may impact their effectiveness as well.
User interface design in devices and applications does not always account for accessibility and the requirements of assistive devices – this negatively impacts PWDs’ experience of online spaces. According to 53-year-old Saleem, who has a partial visual disability, “The ability to enlarge text and use a magnifier has enabled me to continue working and using the internet for multiple purposes for decades. However, I do encounter difficulties when websites do not have high-contrast backgrounds. This is because colours really affect how well I can read text.”
Screen readers as tool for better online experience
The addition of Urdu in Google’s Voice Recognition feature, and increased advocacy by representatives of the community following Pakistan’s signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) have resulted in Urdu screen readers becoming easier to access. However, there is still little awareness about Urdu screen reading software, and they are not always able to properly process Roman Urdu due to the lack of standardised spellings. This barrier in the readability of Urdu leads to the ostracisation of those with visual disabilities who are from low-income backgrounds, as they tend not to have been able to learn English.
According to Fatima*, a 30-year-old woman with a visual disability, who uses a screen reader in order to navigate computers, “Because I do not speak English very well, I face difficulties due to the incompatibility of most screen readers with Urdu text. If I could improve any aspect of the internet and digital spaces, it would be this.”
Alternative text to assist
The usefulness of screen readers can be hindered when online spaces fail to provide image descriptions – also known as alternative text. “When alternative text is not provided alongside images and graphics, our screen readers cannot tell us what is on the screen and, as a result, we can miss out on important information that people without disabilities have no issues accessing,” shared 35-year-old Yousuf, who has a visual disability.
Image 1: An Instagram post including an image description to facilitate users with visual disabilities
“The statistics displayed through graphs are often uploaded to news sites without any text description. That’s one reason why I have found it extremely difficult to stay up to date with the COVID-19 trends in Pakistan,” said Ali, 29, who is working in Islamabad as a Research and Communication Executive at a private organisation. He adds, “The inaccessibility of the graphs has meant that people with visual disabilities have been unable to comprehend the intensity and magnitude of the prevalence of the Covid-19 in their cities and localities. It has hindered their ability to make informed decisions.”
Zahid Abdullah, who is the Information Commissioner at Pakistan Information Commission and has a visual disability, tweeted about a similar issue in June 2020, when COVID-19 was at its peak in Pakistan. He wrote, “As things stand at the moment, the new website of Dawn.com is not entirely accessible for the blind.”
He added that the buttons on the new website of Dawn.com are not labelled, and hence, are unreadable by screen-reading software. His proposed solution is that, “The images and graphs used on the new Dawn.com site should be accompanied with meaningful description,” and their website, “should provide the facility to change the font size of the text and options to change background colour…. according to the needs of low vision people.”
Image 2: Tweets by Zahid Abdullah about the inaccessibility of the Dawn News website for those with visual disabilities
Additionally, many PWDs use ride-hailing apps such as Careem, Uber, and Bykea for transportation, but their graphic-heavy design updates pose challenges for screen-reading technology.
“Although Careem used to be far more accessible,” shared Yousuf, “more and more graphics are added with every update, and this makes using the app far more difficult for people with visual disabilities. What I do appreciate is that if you complain about this to the company, they take steps to address it. Yet this is still something that needs to be taken into consideration as part of standard practice.”
Hence, being able to access the news and modes of transport that could increase their mobility is made more difficult, forcing PWDs to depend on those without disabilities to assist them with these tasks.
Sign language interpretation for assistance
Unlike people with visual disabilities, for whom YouTube and video formats can be very useful, people with hearing disabilities find the videos incomprehensible if they are uploaded without closed captioning and sign language interpretation – unfortunately, this is the case most of the time. This has prevented the deaf community from being able to watch the news and remain fully informed.
According to 28-year-old Waqas, a Program Assistant at a vocational training centre, he and other deaf individuals would never know when strikes were taking place in Karachi due to technological inaccessibility. However, with the internet becoming relatively more accessible and affordable, the gap is being filled by small organisations, such as Bridging Signs, which are providing interpretive services to the deaf community. In doing so, they are opening access to an entire world of knowledge and information which was previously only consumable by those who did not have hearing disabilities.
Muhammad Osama, Director of Bridging Signs, has provided sign language interpretations of important messages such as Government of Sindh’s Decision to Remove Lockdown and Lockdown Restrictions, among others. Osama believes that his channel is providing information and entertainment to the deaf community of Pakistan. According to him, “COVID-19 is the latest example of how the inaccessibility of the news available on the internet was inaccessible to the deaf community. People did not know the situation on-the-ground and had to rely on others to update them.” He adds, “Our channel, Bridging Signs, provides them the latest information and news.” However, recognising the limitations of online services, Osama hopes that the internet will become more affordable for the deaf community living in rural areas, so that they can access Bridging Signs’ content as well.
The Internet as a Tool to Access Education and Training
People with disabilities hailing from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds are often unable to access quality education because of financial barriers, as well as the infrastructural inaccessibility of most educational institutions. As per the findings of the British Council’s report titled, Moving From The Margins – Mainstreaming Young Persons with Disabilities in Pakistan, “72 percent of young persons with disabilities reported inaccessibility as a major barrier to access education, training and employment.”
- Online education for children with disabilities
The British Council’s report identifies limited proximity of special schools, an insufficient and unstandardised curriculum, untrained teachers, limited affordability, and physical inaccessibility as major barriers which keep students with disabilities from acquiring an education. The option to attend educational institutions remotely could be one step towards increasing PWDs’ access to quality education. This would be particularly beneficial for students like 8-year-old Mashal*, whose father is a daily wage labourer and has to take the day off if he wishes to bring his child to school.
Being able to learn online could help children with disabilities, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, achieve an education with minimal interruptions. However, there is a caveat – for PWDs to reap the benefits of online learning, access to the Internet and the required technology as well as digital accessibility, must be guaranteed for all. Accessible online teaching must include subtitles or sign language interpretation for those with hearing disabilities, and alternative text to accommodate those with visual disabilities.
The lockdowns necessitated by the advent of Covid-19 have been immensely disruptive for the learning and development of children with disabilities, such as those studying at The Inclusion Academy (TIA). TIA is a small school for children with and without disabilities from working-class backgrounds, and was set up by NOWPDP – a non-profit organisation working for the empowerment of PWDs, right before the pandemic. According to Usman Raza, who manages TIA, “While children without disabilities from more affluent backgrounds were able to continue their schooling online, most of my students come from homes where there is no WiFi, no computer, often only one mobile phone, and sometimes no smartphone available at all.”
The lack of digital literacy, inability to afford devices with which to access the Internet, and digital inaccessibility, coupled with the lack of value placed on the education of children with disabilities has meant that it was very difficult for these students to continue their education during the lockdown. Usman further shared, “The school does plan to teach students about technology and the internet once they are older, but even when these lessons do occur, the lack of access to the Internet and computers at home will continue to pose barriers to their learning and growth.”
Continued access to remote learning in the long run, even post-pandemic, could be extremely beneficial. This would prevent issues such as the ones faced by 30-year-old Azra, who experienced delays in her education because her school building was not wheelchair-accessible. According to her, “I had to be carried up the stairs every time I went to school, which meant I could only attend classes once or twice a week. Being able to access online classes back then would have meant that I could finish my education at the same pace as my peers.”
- Continued learning and skill development online
Many people with disabilities already use YouTube videos to learn languages, improve their computer skills, and learn about entrepreneurship and multiple other topics that aid them in securing employment. Vocational training can serve as a helpful stepping stone towards career progression for PWDs.
Dania Anwar, who manages such training courses for PWDs at NOWPDP, feels that online learning could be a useful addition to the regular schedule post-pandemic. “Once the Covid-19 lockdown began,” she shared, “classes were shifted entirely online. The trainees were particularly enthusiastic about the provision of recordings of their online classes as it meant that they could revisit what they had learned in order to increase their retention and continue practicing what they had learned on their own.” Dania added that online classes were particularly successful and suitable for trainees with visual disabilities. “At the same time, issues related to Internet connectivity caused small disruptions during classes, and many trainees lacked adequate resources for the class at home – these issues need to be addressed in order to ensure that we can reap the full benefits of online learning going forward.”
Yousuf, who has a visual disability, teaches call-centre and computer-operator training courses for other people with visual disabilities at NOWPDP. He conducted his classes over Zoom and WhatsApp throughout the lockdown, and teaches an average of 30 students in every course. As per Yousuf, his students report that their ability to learn was not negatively impacted by this shift online, especially since the aforementioned mediums are fully accessible for people with visual disabilities. Fatima* – who faces intersecting barriers to her mobility since public transport is made unsafe for women and people with visual disabilities – is a student in one of Yousuf’s classes. She shared that, “Being able to attend classes from home meant that my father did not have to worry about escorting me to and from my class without being late for his job.”
Fatima* is not the only one who benefited due to the availability of online classes. According to Dania, “Multiple trainees who are wheelchair-users, women with disabilities, and those from low-income backgrounds found the absence of the logistical and financial stress of managing transportation to and from the training centre to be a relief.” Hence, she advocates for mixed methods of teaching in the future, with a few days of in-person learning and the rest online. “Money used for transport stipends could instead be redirected towards the provision of Internet devices and laptops so that trainees could learn from home with ease,” Dania concluded.
Impact on Employment Opportunities
According to the British Council’s report, ‘Moving from The Margins – Mainstreaming Young Persons with Disabilities in Pakistan’, “71% of people with disabilities living in Pakistan are unemployed.” This statistic is unlikely to improve significantly unless employers prioritise accessibility and redesign their policies and workplaces accordingly. “Many companies are not even interested in working towards inclusion, while the ones who do try and make sincere efforts lack the knowhow and expertise,” said Zawwar Taufique, the Program Manager of Yaqeeen – an economic empowerment initiative that assists PWDs in securing employment
The lack of awareness about assistive technologies and accessible features, which can enable PWDs to work from home, results in the failure to accommodate them, and makes securing and maintaining employment very difficult. Saleem, who has a visual disability, for instance, worked devotedly at a renowned company for 30 years. He says, “I would come into the office early and leave hours after everyone else in an attempt to prove that my work was no less than that of my colleagues without disabilities.” In spite of his commitment and the high quality of his work, Saleem was pressured to resign when the company switched to a new software, and was unwilling to do the work of making it accessible for him.
“It was an extremely demotivating and depressing experience for me,” shared Saleem. “I gave so much of myself to this organisation and yet I was discriminated against due to my disability. They were unwilling to accommodate me even though I was, and still am, so passionate about work.” Although he has been taking multiple courses to increase his skill set while applying for a plethora of jobs, Saleem has struggled to find a new way to provide for his family because most workplaces do not wish to take up the cost of becoming more accessible, leading them to turn away PWDs who wish to work for them.
The shift to remote work and learning that Covid-19 prompted has been instructive in ways that employment can be made more accessible for PWDs. For Saleem, the opportunity to be able to attend job interviews online has been extremely beneficial, as navigating inaccessible infrastructure is difficult enough for a person with a visual disability under normal circumstances, but having to do so whilst taking precautions to avoid catching Covid-19 is far more challenging.
Furthermore, those who use wheelchairs for their mobility face rejections for most jobs because organisations fail to account for accessibility in their office design. Were remote work to be made permanently available as an option, wheelchair-users and other people with disabilities could easily secure employment and earn a living.
Community and Connection
‘Ok, hotel 66. 5 pm’
“This is how we communicated back when I was in school,” shared Waqas, who has a hearing and speech disability, while communicating with the authors in the presence of a sign-language interpreter. “We had assigned codewords to hotels, playgrounds, and dhabas in our locality in Karachi. There was a hotel 44, a playground 62 and the dhaba 63 next to it,” he added.
For deaf individuals, sign language is the predominant means of communication and conversation. As Waqas pointed out, before smartphones, video-calling, and affordable internet packages became common, the deaf community was restricted in terms of their connectivity with those who were not in close physical proximity to them, leading to a sense of disconnect and isolation.
Additionally, the weak educational system in Pakistan barely prepares deaf individuals to communicate in English or Urdu, making communication solely through text messages very inconvenient. Waqas shared, “We had to keep our text messages concise. We did not have a huge vocabulary when it came to the spoken languages. However, all of this changed when smartphones became affordable and video calling features were introduced by applications like WhatsApp. Now, I can even talk to deaf people living in a small village or another country.”
According to Waqas, access to the internet has allowed the deaf community to not only interact with each other, but has also made them visible to the hearing community and people without disabilities. “We have representation now. People see us talking [via sign language]. They listen to us.”
While Waqas and others with similar disabilities found efficient ways of communication through technology, for wheelchair-users, the advent of easy, accessible video-calling has also been a means to remain connected with their friends, relatives, and communities. Babar, a 32-year-old man who is a wheelchair-user, says, “I had to decline most social invitations in the past because all my relatives and friends lived in houses with staircases that are inaccessible for me.” Now, however, he is ecstatic that he can contact and chat with anyone at any time, reducing the isolation that he previously used to feel.
Babar feels that PWDs should be provided with free or discounted WiFi and 3G services because it would increase their already-limited access to information, educational resources, employment opportunities, and entertainment. He believes that public spaces should also have WiFi available for those who cannot afford it. “The Internet is now an integral part of everyone’s lives,” said Babar. “It should be equally accessible to all.”
Policy Regarding Disability
Even a cursory glance at the existing legislation for disability inclusion in Pakistan gives the impression that Pakistan is on its way to becoming a wholly inclusive country for citizens with disabilities. In the last 15 years alone, several Acts, such as, National Plan of Action (2006), Accessibility Code of Pakistan (2006), Special Citizens’ Act (2008), and provincial acts in Balochistan (2017), Sindh (2018), and Islamabad Capital Territory (2020) have been passed by the respective governments. However, the implementation of this legislature is nowhere to be seen.
In 2019, Justice Shaikh Azmat Saeed, a Supreme Court judge, echoed these sentiments during a case relating to the rights of persons with disabilities. He said, “There are a number of laws in the country meant for protecting the rights of the people with disabilities, but none of them are being implemented.” Similarly, Omair Ahmed, the Executive Director of NOWPDP, stated, “The implementation and a framework for the rollout of these laws remain elusive.” However, despite the lack of implementation, the existence of this legislation allows disability rights advocates to continue to push for reforms.
- Local and International commitments of ICT access for PWDs
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), of which Pakistan is a signatory, mentions in Article 9: Accessibility, that countries must take “appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies (ICTs) and systems…,” and “These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia: Information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services.”
Moreover, clause 2g of the same Article (9) mentions that signatories of the UNCRPD must take appropriate measures to “promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet.”
In terms of local legislation on disability, the Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2018, and the ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2020, both lay emphasis on the access to information and communication technology, including web-based services.
Alongside this, a recently-issued letter by the Federal Ministry of Human Rights, copy of which is available with the authors, has assigned the task of conducting accessibility audits of government websites and public documents to the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication (MoITT). This action emphasises the legal urgency of making the internet an inclusive space for people with disabilities.
However, much remains to be done, as is evident by an audit of the front page of the Government of Pakistan’s official website, conducted for this story via WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool. It was found that the main page of the website http://www.pakistan.gov.pk/ has 17 errors, including missing alternative texts and missing document language.
Image 3: Results of Accessibility Test showing 17 errors on Pakistani government’s official website
Image 4: Explanation of Errors on Pakistani govt’s website and the description of the error
This brief evaluation of the Government of Pakistan’s website substantiates the conclusion reached by researchers Muhammad Bakhsh and Amjad Mahmood in their 2012 study, titled “Web Accessibility for Disabled: A Case Study of Government Websites in Pakistan”. They wrote, “In Pakistan, it is very difficult for a person with visual disability to access the electronic information available on the government website because the websites are not developed according to the accessibility standards.”
The Internet as a Buffer to an Accessible World for PWDs
According to the Vision Council of America, more than 4 billion adults in the world wear glasses. This is so normalised in society that most people do not even consciously consider the fact that the majority of the global population has some form of visual impairment. Why do we not consider this group to have a disability? It is because we have accepted and taken seriously the need for the accommodative device – glasses – that these individuals use in order to continue playing a full and equal role in society. It is imperative that we work towards the same for all people with disabilities.
A just and equitable society is one that is accessible, one that recognises that PWDs face barriers, not because of their disability, but because society at large has failed to build itself in a manner that accommodates all. People with disabilities have been campaigning for years for the availability of remote work and education, and yet it was not until the spread of Covid-19 that the world actually took these options seriously, and that too out of necessity. This demonstrates that societies are fully capable of providing PWDs the required accommodations; what is necessary is that the need for these accommodations to be taken seriously and considered important.
Image 5 Screenshot of @Imani_Barbarani’s tweet about the role of PWDs in ensuring that the ability to work from home is considered a reasonable accommodation.
In the digital age, it is necessary that PWDs are also able to reap all the benefits that online spaces have to offer. It is absolutely imperative to continue working on making our physical environments more accessible for all – but until we get there, the internet can act as a buffer, making more and more arenas of life accessible for people with disabilities.