Mostafa Kamal Majumder
A smart girl in her late twenties, Mazeda works as the receptionist-cum-telephone operator at the Bangladesh Protibnadhi Kallyan Somity complex at Dakkhin Khan Area, on the northeastern fringe of Dhaka City. A newcomer will find it hard to believe the morale her work demonstrates, despite her being a physically disabled person. Nine fingers of her two hands were blown away in an explosion as she in her childhood unknowingly was playing with a crude bomb that was left unexploded way back in 2001 at her remote village home in Noakhali. She works like any other person with dignity.
Mazeda is motivated to work not only for her own sustained growth and achievement in her life, but also inspire others to overcome disability and be mingled with and help the development of the mainstream society to establish their own rights. The BPKS staff, headed by its founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Abdus Sattar Dulal – himself a physically disabled person – not only efficiently run their multi-storied office complex, but also inspire the operation of 21 centers in as many districts and 2000 grass-roots organizations of disabled persons by the disabled themselves in 41 districts.
The work they do has not been as simple and easy as one would find at the first sight at the BPKS. The disabled people who are now established in life had to free themselves from the family and social stigma of once being referred to as divine curses of sins committed by their parents or grandparents. They also had to labor hard to conquer their disabilities of different types and work for income rather than relying on help from their families or other rich people. UN’s disability rights champion Abdus Sattar Dulal says, due to ignorance disabled people in many families in Bangladesh are still viewed as divine curses and considered as burdens on them. Despite considerable level of awareness created over the last several decades the society is yet to open up fully to accommodate the requirement of the people with impaired limbs or vision, intellectually impaired or the autistic ones.
The houses we live in, the toilets and bathrooms, we use, roads, rail lines, bus and launch terminals, airports are constructed without taking into consideration the requirements of disabled people who total about 24 million out of Bangladesh’s 160 million population. And not only the disabled persons, but also old people, patients and children – all together 50 percent of the population have no free access to the services that are being created, and suffer as a result. They remain derived.
Abdus Sattar Dulal said, through years of efforts they have succeeded to incorporate in the Bangladesh building code provisions for construction of structures with universal access for all. In reality however, the building code itself remains ignored in most cased of building construction, not to talk of ensuring universal access to such services. Thus despite significant progresses that have been made for self-initiated development, the disabled people are unable to freely move and contribute to the development of the society. They remain deprived of equality, a basic right enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh.
At the BPKS, the 21 district-based centers and 2000 grass-roots organizations, disabled people plan and executive their own activities. They spot disabled people and offer services to them – as they are neglected by their own families and the society – support their education, skills development to stand on their own feet. As a result of their self-motivated work hundreds of disabled people have started getting jobs in educational institutions, business enterprises and even in government services.
The pioneering work of BPKS has drawn attention of international organizations. It made significant contribution to the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The UN-adopted SDGs are different from the Millennium Development Goals in that the former contains provisions on disability and development that the MDGs did not have. Last year’s SDG slogan of ‘Leave no one behind’ was taken from their call for equality and universal access to facilities, Abdus Sattar Dulal says with pride.
Apart from development the huge network of organizations which are by and large self-sustained and are marginally supported from the center, BPKS has organized two large national congregations of disabled people in 1996 and 2016 – each attended by one lakh disabled people from across Bangladesh – and successfully drew the attention of the society to their rights and requirements. He says, when the first national congregation was organized, one government minister did want to be a guest and speaker at the meet. ‘I told him, today we will speak and all others will listen’.
The devoted work of the last three decades has earned BPKS the reputation as a centre of excellence, and it’s CEO Abdus Sattar Dulal the honor of being made UNESCAP Disability Rights Champion. During all these years BPKS trained teachers of schools and college, journalists of different newspapers and news agencies and orientation programs for civil servants of the rank of Joint Secretary and above on disability and development.
Yet extending the benefits of the sustainable self-initiated development works inspired by the BPKS to all disabled people of Bangladesh remains a Herculean task. The BPKS has so far covered 4100 disabled people as against a total of 24 million in the country. Universal access to services, equal rights and opportunities still remain a distant cry. Despite amendment of the Bangladesh building code even new government offices and residential buildings are being constructed by ignoring the need for universal access of all.
Himself a victim of road accident, Abdus Sattar Dulal says, As Bangladesh has graduated from a least developed country to a developing one and is on the road to becoming a mid-level developed country in the near future, sources of foreign fund to run BPKS operations are drying up fast. He says, the 24 million disabled people pay a significant amount of indirect taxes to the national exchequer and merit attention of the government for representation and inclusion at all levels, and for allocations to improve the lot of the disabled and help create a society based on equality and free from all forms of exploitation.
(First Published in The Asian Age Dhaka, 17 January issue. The Writer is the Consultant Editor of The Asian Age and the Editor, GreenWatch Dhaka)