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Pakistani Teenager Overcomes Disability with His Feet

  • Ayesha Tanzeem

He could have gone through life feeling sorry for himself. He had the perfect excuse, after all — he was born without hands. But his father would have none of it.

Umer Javaid's father taught him to use his feet for everything usually done with hands: eating with a fork, drinking out of a glass, typing, painting, throwing a ball and playing video games.

Today, he is so used to it, he hardly thinks about his missing limbs.

And even though he is only in the ninth grade, he is already on the road to financial independence.

"I once made a painting that was sold for 5,000 rupees ($50)," he said. "I have already sold 155 of my paintings."

Javaid's story, however, is hardly representative of life for the disabled in Pakistan.

Activists lament that the country lacks the most basic understanding of disabilities, or how best to use resources to deal with them.

Asim Zafar, president of a local NGO for the disabled called Saaya, recalls that his parents and grandparents spent all their savings trying to cure his polio before finding out that the disease had no cure.

On a larger scale, a lack of reliable data reflects the society's lack of interest in its disabled population.

No recent numbers

The last census in Pakistan was done in 1998. Since then, no new data has been collected on the number of disabled. People rely on a World Health Organization report from 2010 that says that about 15 percent of the world population is somewhat disabled, and 2 to 4 percent severely disabled.

FILE - A patient in a wheelchair waits at a medical center in Karachi, Pakistan, Sept. 17, 2015. No data has been collected on the number of disabled in Pakistan since 1998.

FILE - A patient in a wheelchair waits at a medical center in Karachi, Pakistan, Sept. 17, 2015. No data has been collected on the number of disabled in Pakistan since 1998.

It does point out that the numbers are not evenly distributed around the world, and that vulnerable populations are more at risk.

Given the number of suicide attacks in Pakistan during the last decade, in which more than 50,000 people have died; a devastating earthquake in 2005 that injured more than 100,000; the presence of chronic diseases; and a lackluster health care system to deal with them, many activists fear the disability rate in Pakistan may be much higher than the WHO figures.

No accommodations

Facilities to accommodate all those people, however, remain a dream.

Public spaces, transport and toilets are often not handicapped accessible. Regular schools are not designed to accommodate disabled children.

The government provides special schools for the disabled, but they are limited to relatively bigger cities and have limited capacity. Even that facility ends at 10th grade.

"When they go to a regular institution after 10th grade, they encounter a completely different environment," Zafar explained.

Getting to the institution alone was a challenge for those who could not afford a private car or a cab every day. Once there, they had to contend with a lack of toilets for the handicapped, or classes that were up a flight of stairs with no elevator access.

The odds were stacked so high against them, he said, that those who started college were more likely than not to drop out after a few days.

The problems continued into the workplace, where a similar lack of facilities and transportation options kept most disabled people out.

Wheelchairs that could provide freedom and mobility to a person with disabilities were a rarity in Pakistan, according to Zafar. His NGO imported used wheelchairs from Japan and repaired them to hand them out for free to those in need.

Javaid said he is a good example of how the disabled can become productive members of society. All they need is a training in how to take things into their own hands — or in his case, feet.