Challenges and Hopes for Deaf People in Pakistan

Pakistan may be known to the world deaf community for a few achievements as employing deaf staff to run fast food outlets – an outstanding example for a country where disability services are scarce.

To look into realities of life for deaf and hard of hearing people in Pakistan, I talked to the founder chairman of “Danishkadah” organisation, Akram Muhammad. Akram was a first ever Pakistani participant (and a leader!) in the IFHOHYP leadership session where I met him. His impressive self-assertiveness, and realistic and thoughtful insights won respect from all participants. A fighter by nature, Akram says: “Hope is the door of struggle that eventually brings success.”

Karina: What are the biggest challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing communities in Pakistan now?

Akram: The biggest problem is the low quality of education. Most deaf people can not read or write well even after obtaining bachelor’s degree. And those who live in rural areas usually have no access to education at all, so they live dependent lives. There is also a general lack of knowledge about the needs of Deaf people and few resources, such as hearing aids and speech therapists. Hard of hearing people get little benefit from their residual hearing, so they use sign language.

Guess what? In Pakistan Deaf people are not allowed to drive! Today, the Pakistani deaf community is fighting for their right to drive, but so far, this receives only lip service from the government.

Karina: What is society’s attitude toward deaf/ HoH and disabled people in general?

Akram: If you ask about me, I will say “mostly wonderful” (smiles). My family spoiled me because am deaf, so they care a lot. In society, I personally did not face much trouble, and many people appreciate what I do for others despite my deafness. The only sector where I faced a problem was education: but the reason is not that people are bad there, but that there are no proper facilities available.

In general, the attitude is not bad in cities where more people are educated. But in less developed areas, social attitudes are negative. Some, for example, families do not send their deaf daughters to school. They may feel ashamed if they have a deaf or a disabled child in the family. Deaf girls and women are doubly discriminated: they seldom have an opportunity to develop their abilities. Usually, they have no choice in who their life partner will be, no one listens to their opinions, and they can’t express themselves.

I personally observed the case of two deaf girls whose mother kept them at home until they were 20 and 25 years old. Then, they came to our organization looking for support and help in getting married…But how could we help them when they knew nothing? No one would accept them as they were illiterate. And the old mother was worrying about her daughters’ future, crying: “What will happen with my girls? Who will take care of them when I die?”

So they joined the adult literacy course, and now, after a few years, they feel much more confident and even look happy.

Another similar case – but worse – was when a woman around 30 or 40 years old came to us, without any education or knowledge of sign language. Like the girls, we suggested that she take literacy classes. She enrolled, but suddenly stopped, and we don’t what happen to her.

I feel that society and families are ignorant. They don’t have needed information and knowledge, and it seems that they don’t want to struggle with their deaf children to help them develop their abilities.

Karina: What education opportunities are there for deaf and hard of hearing people in your country?

Akram: There are schools for the deaf in the cities, but honestly speaking, they not deliver quality education. Because of lack of access to education in rural areas, parents sometimes choose to send their deaf or HoH children to mainstream schools, but these schools offer nothing for such children. When it comes to higher education, many hearing students go on to pursue degrees abroad, but deaf and HoH people don’t have this opportunity because they simply can’t pass the English language tests. In Pakistan itself, only a handful of deaf and HoH people can pursue higher education. There is little opportunity or accessibility here!

Karina: How do deaf people enter the job market?

Akram: As you may imagine, with little education, deaf and HoH people usually can’t compete well with hearing people, and they usually get low-paid, low-level jobs.

The government provides a 2% employment quota for people with disabilities, and this benefits deaf and HoH persons. However, the corporate sector also helps deaf and HOH people in job training or hires them. As you probably know, in Pakistan there are three or four KFC outlets that are run by deaf staff.

Recently, the School of Leadership in Pakistan launched a project to train deaf and HoH youth in the bakery business and opened a bakery for this purpose.

These are just few good examples. Overall, the employment situation for deaf and HoH people leaves much to be desired.

Karina: Then what would be the most common jobs that HoH and deaf people have in Pakistan?

Akram: We don’t have any stats on that, but as far as I see, data entry and computer operator jobs are most common for deaf people. Some are good at graphic design too.

Karina: What are the state benefits for deaf people in Pakistan?

Akram: There is no support from the government, or it’s very rare, and usually provided in the form of grants for deaf and HoH schools. The government also owns and manages some vocational training centers for deaf people and people with other disabilities. But here again, the education quality at these facilities is questionable.

Non-profit organizations receive support mostly from the private/corporate sector, for some non-formal educational courses, for poverty welfare funds and so on.

Karina: How is the situation in Pakistan regarding technical support for the deaf and HOH?

Akram: Hearing aids are expensive, and the hourly cost for a speech therapist is high, so only those who have money can benefit. Others don’t have access to technical support because the government does not provide much. I know of few cases of Cochlear Implant surgeries, but again, doing a CI is so expensive that only children from rich families can benefit from it. I am a good candidate for CI myself but I can’t afford it, so I depend on written communication or sign language – and I cannot fully benefit from my residual hearing.

Karina: Do you have access to Sign language interpreters in Pakistan?

We don’t have enough interpreters, but there are some. As far as I know there are’t any professional courses providing degrees or diplomas in Sign Language Interpretation, so the quality of SL interpreters is questionable.

There are no professional interpreting services; mostly, interpreters are teachers in deaf schools or relatives of deaf persons, and interpreters usually don’t know or abide by a code of ethics. This is a big issue for deaf people here: interpreters sometimes try to impose their will on deaf people, simply because deaf people are less educated compared to the interpreters.

Deaf people have to arrange for their own sign language interpreters and they have to pay for them themselves. The government does not provide this. If someone has to go to court, a hospital, or any public service, NO sign language interpreter service is available at all. Even in colleges and universities, there is no support for deaf and HoH.

Next week, the interview continues with a deeper look into the world of the deaf in Pakistan, Islamic values, and their relation to deafness!

Some Facts About Pakistan

Location: Southern Asia, bordering the Arabian Sea, between India on the east and Iran and Afghanistan on the west and China in the north
Area – comparative: slightly less than twice the size of California
Population: 164,741,924
Religions: Muslim 97% (Sunni 77%, Shi’a 20%), other (includes Christian and Hindu) 3%
Government type: Federal republic
Current international disputes: Various talks and confidence-building measures cautiously have begun to defuse tensions over Kashmir, particularly since the October 2005 earthquake in the region; Kashmir nevertheless remains the site of the world’s largest and most militarized territorial dispute with portions under the de facto administration of China (Aksai Chin), India (Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas).

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