Rights and Disabilities in Educational Provisions in Pakistan and Bangladesh: Roots, Rhetoric, Reality

Educational opportunities for children with disabilities in Pakistan and Bangladesh are seen in the context of the countries' religious, cultural and economic development. The relevance of Western concepts such as "human rights", "inclusion" and "empowerment" is critically examined. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs5/mmiles3.html

by M. Miles & Farhad Hossain, 1999

Other documents by M. Miles.


This chapter was first published in: F. Armstrong & L. Barton (eds) Disability, Human Rights and Education: cross-cultural perspectives, pp. 67-86. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, isbn 0-335-20457-0, 1999. It is reprinted here by permission of the Open University Press, with slight revision.



This chapter reviews historical developments, notions of rights, and attitudes toward disabled children, which underpin educational provisions in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Earlier schooling focused on rote learning by boys of wealthier families; yet some evidence exists of alternative pedagogy, girls' education, and casual integration of disabled children. Knowledge of special educational methods accumulated slowly from the 1840s in private schools, but Government support has always been weak. The number of disabled children casually integrated always greatly exceeded the number of children receiving separate special education. Most children have had no formal education at all, but benefited from a strong and continuing right to socialisation within their extended family, rather than rights understood as an individual's claims on the State. Most children still are born into a familial and local network of mutual obligations with a strong Islamic underpinning, different from but not necessarily inferior to current western middle-class notions of individual rights and entitlements. Secular western evangelists and Asian urban elites still offer or impose their own cultures and concepts for the 'improvement' of the masses; but seldom assess the collateral damage caused by their attempted ideological hegemony.


This chapter reviews historical developments, notions of rights, and official attitudes towards disabled children, underlying current educational provisions in Pakistan and Bangladesh. It also enquires whether European 'human rights' and 'inclusive' approaches to disability, difference and education have had, or should have, relevance to educational planning and the social ethos in which planning takes place.

Pakistan's East and West wings opened in 1947 with a combined population of 70 million, when India was partitioned. East Pakistan comprised largely the area formerly known as East Bengal. Its geographical separation from West Pakistan by 1,000 miles of Indian territory was reinforced by linguistic, cultural and political differences, which led to a successful struggle to become the independent nation of Bangladesh at the end of 1971. Despite their differences, the two countries have many comparable features. In 1999 their largely Muslim populations are both in the 130-150 million range and each growing by some four million per year, having quadrupled since 1947. Through more than two millennia, both have participated in northern Indian history, languages and cultures. Both have economies dominated by agriculture and globally ranking in the poorest quartile, and an unsettled recent political history in which military men have been prominent. Pakistan's Gross National Product in recent years, around US $ 460 per capita, has been roughly double that of Bangladesh, and a much smaller proportion of its population falls below the poverty line (30% as against 80%). Pakistan and Bangladesh are not remarkably like one another; but they are probably more like one another than like any other country.

Cultural Heritage

Both countries have a rich cultural heritage. Among wealthy and poor, more and less educated people, there remains some folk memory that ancestors once built, crafted or wrote great works of architecture, art and literature; they commanded respect and lived decent lives under just laws, they had enough food and could enjoy some leisure, at least in some periods of history. This memory or belief serves to keep alive the idea that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis may yet construct societies in which the present admittedly gross inequalities, injustices and indignities suffered by substantial parts of their populations would be much mitigated. The hope remains among some that this could be achieved without their cultural distinctness being lost; that they can become 'modern' without becoming disastrously 'western'. Against this hope, the covert but powerful messages beamed by western global media to both countries tend to be: 'You are poor, you are backward, your culture is useless, your religion is ridiculous. If you want to become modern you must learn western ways; then, slowly, you can grow up. Your grandchildren may be like little Europeans and Americans.' The present study of rights, disabilities and schooling must therefore begin with the historical-cultural roots from which South Asians might shape a future where their grandchildren of whatever ability or disability can enjoy human rights as Asians understand them, and continue to be proudly and recognisably Asian.

Traditional schooling. Innovations with infants and girls

Traditional schools in Bengal are described in literature dating back to 1600 or earlier. Pedagogy centred on the teacher, rote memorisation, and painful punishments. Das Gupta (1935) found such descriptions, from centuries earlier, similar to the picture in the 1930s. Sixty years on, Hossain (1994) found little change in rural schools - a situation unfavourable to the revolution of school ethos required for 'Inclusion' of disabled children. Yet there were occasional innovations. Adam (1835) remarked on a Calcutta private school with neither rote learning nor beatings. The benefits were recognised of allowing children to "acquire a considerable knowledge of Bengalee before they began to learn English" (Ibid., p. 13). British officers found some female education "in all parts of the Punjab" among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs: "the existence of such an education, almost unknown in other parts of India, is an encouraging circumstance". (General Report, 1853, p. 67) The Bengal government adopted parts of the kindergarten approach in 1901, in an optimistic and ultimately unsuccessful effort to modernise and revitalise existing indigenous schools (patshalas) (Shahidullah, 1984) Similar efforts in the Punjab also fell into the gulf between planners' ideals and rural school realities. (Sanderson & Parkinson 1931, p. 9)

Diversification of public interest in disability

Formal special educational efforts in Bengal were recorded as early as 1840 at Calcutta, where blind orphans used Lucas's embossed script to read in an ordinary school. In fact, fifty years of work with disabled children took place in ordinary settings before special schools started (Miles, 1997). A school for deaf pupils began in 1893 (Calcutta school, 1895), and by 1904 there were two for blind children (Progress of Education, 1904). At Kurseong, just outside East Bengal, 1918 saw the opening of The Children's House, following Montessori's famous Casa Dei Bambini, training "those children who through physical and mental defects are unable to profit by the instruction given in an ordinary school" (Annual Report, 1919, p. 5). Psychology teaching began at Calcutta University in 1916, then at Dacca (Dhaka) in the early 1920s. Dacca Training School staff were pioneers of intelligence testing in the 1930s (Malin, 1968). A case study of special education concerned a Bengali boy at Calcutta whose individual programme was "in the form of play-work": detailed records were kept, and the psychologist commented that "where ordinary system of schooling is of no avail, training by modern psychological methods proves efficacious" (Sinha, 1936).

In East Bengal a school for deaf children opened at Barisal in 1911; then between 1916 and 1939 similar schools began at Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere (Banerji, 1949-1950). A detailed study of language, speech and thought forms in Bengali children focused on sign languages used unofficially by deaf pupils (Banerjee, 1928). Case studies on speech disorders appeared later at Lahore (Latif, 1938). In what is now Pakistan, the earliest formal disability rehabilitation centres were a government "blind school" at Lahore, opened in 1906 (Makhdum, 1961, p. 19), and in 1923 the Ida Rieu School for 'blind, deaf, dumb and other defective children' at Karachi. Pressure from parents of deaf children in the 1940s resulted in the formation of a "Deaf and Dumb Welfare Society" at Lahore in 1949, and a special school opened soon afterwards (Ibid., pp. 6-7).

Eugenics fallout

While European missionaries and their Indian colleagues developed formal disability services, a more malign western influence arose from Eugenics literature. Pillay (1931, p. 110), discussing rural welfare problems, believed "insanity, feeble-mindedness and idiocy" to be hereditary, and "the only way to eradicate them is by preventing those now affected from parenthood". He linked the threat of venereal diseases with "moral imbeciles, idiots and similar other diseased or tainted persons" (Ibid., p. 163). Bhattacharyya (1939, p. 13), surveying Indian special education, feared an "abnormal growth" in the number of "imbeciles", and found the "education and segregation of this class" a matter of national importance. The Ranchi Mental Hospital superintendent called mental deficiency "a social evil of tremendous proportions", and advised provincial governments to "sort out all grades of defective children from existing schools by the help of the School Medical Officers and establish special schools for them" (Annual Report on the Working, 1939, p. 8). Fifty years later, a prolific Pakistani social commentator still bases his views of "feeble-mindedness" on Goddard's eugenic literature of 1914, suggesting that the question still arises "Would it not be better quietly to put them out of their misery?" (Quddus,1990, 265-270).

Exclusion or Casual Integration?

Bengalis attending Persian schools, and millions of Sindhi and Punjabi children in the period before Independence, memorised parts of Sadi's Gulistan, including a tale of vain efforts to educate a slow learner (Gladwin, 1988, p. 225). In another tale, a teacher's own sons outshine the king's son. To the king's complaint, the teacher responds, "the education was the same, but the capacities are different" (Ibid., p. 233). In real-life schools, slow-learning boys were often integrated with their peers, only to be ejected when the teacher lost patience. Generations of South Asian students were thus assured of the futility of trying to 'educate the ineducable'. Yet members of India's Central Advisory Board of Education had a different vision (Post-War, 1944, pp. 76-82). Whatever its drawbacks, IQ testing had shown them that imperceptible gradations of mental ability existed across the spectrum. They saw that many pupils would need "special education only for a limited period", after which they should rejoin the mainstream. Less intelligent children might have "other attributes which will enable them to play their part as independent and useful citizens". Even if they might do some work separately, it was "essential that throughout the school life they should have opportunities of mingling freely with their brighter fellows and of sharing with them such work and pleasures as all children enjoy" (Ibid., p. 77). The Board foresaw that an early investment would save later remedial costs.

There is evidence that thousands of children with mild to moderate disabilities had long been casually integrated in ordinary schools with no special attention or resources. Leitner (1882, Part I, p. 19), surveying indigenous schools in Punjab, was pleased to find no whole-class teaching "retarding the industrious for the sake of the dullard." Each boy went at his own pace, though the "dullard" was at greater risk of being caned. Integration of blind students was reported also from the Deoband training institute for Mullahs in the 1870s (Ibid., p. 79). Leitner named various blind men as notable schoolteachers, among scores of other teachers with disabilities. An energetic English headmistress at Lahore c. 1872 undertook the integrated education of a young blind girl, Asho, who later became a capable teacher of blind adults (Hewlett, 1898, p. 50) Soon after Pakistan's Independence in 1947, a more extensive integration of children with visual impairments began in a Middle School at Pasrur (Grant, 1963). Children with various impairments and disabilities continued to be part of the normal enrolment throughout the primary cycle, and the introduction of compulsory education would later reinforce this. Rauf (1975), who studied schooling at Lahore from the 1950s to 1970s, realised that even secondary school classes contained both prizewinners and "the repeaters, the dullards, the laggards and the backward" (p. 202). Later studies and reports confirm that children with appreciable levels of learning difficulty continue to sit in ordinary classrooms without any special attention being paid (Miles, 1985, Zaman, 1990; Begum, 1991).

Government Policies

In the early 1950s, when East Pakistan had minimal special services, only 40% of all school-age children received any education, and the best of school buildings were "tin sheds with bamboo walls and earth floors" (Huq, 1954, pp. 49, 57). Ordinary primary schools experienced drop-out rates of up to 90%, a colossal wastage which persisted into the 1960s. Attention to disabled children was therefore an extremely low priority. By 1957, planners could manage merely a nod towards special needs:

"However desirable these services or activities may be, none of them is immediately essential to the basic programme of education. To attempt them nationally at the present time would require great expenditure, and diversion of trained personnel which would inevitably slow down and weaken the more urgent process of establishing the basic school system" (Pakistan, 1957, p. 587).

The Commission on National Education (Pakistan, 1960) found that government should be responsible for "training of teachers who will serve in institutions for the handicapped" run by private philanthropists (p. 251). It was not until the 1980s that the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh would begin more seriously even to contemplate equalising the educational opportunities of disabled children. Actual progress remains minimal for disabled children in ordinary families. Some resources have been allocated to a modest number from the urban middle classes.

Equalities of value? Basic rights?

Tradition depicts South Asian schools as being reserved for fit and capable boys of ruling or middle class families, who rote learned textbooks under threat of painful punishment, before becoming the ruling or middle classes of the next generation. Yet as noted above, pedagogical approaches with some child-centred, play-valuing, discovery-learning basis flourished in odd niches, disappeared and resurfaced elsewhere, at least as early as the 1830s. Some teachers here and there imparted knowledge to children's minds without resort to beating their bodies. In some places, boys with disabilities were in school, either in a group or along with capable and well-to-do boys. Some poor boys were in school, with average and well-to-do boys. Far less often girls were in school, including some with disabilities. These exceptions to the traditional picture, and their increasing frequency during the past 150 years, suggest that counterparts of recent ideas of justice, fairness and opportunity have long been present to challenge privilege and exclusion.

To what extent, then, do such ideas have indigenous roots? Historically, South Asian visions of 'peace and plenty' have required a strong and righteous ruler administering just laws given by god or gods and thus keeping a balance between rich and poor, strong and weak. In Islamic Asia, the nostalgia persists for "a perfect leader (a perfect representation of the laws of God) and a perfect constitution (the Medina constitution)", believed to have existed in "the utopia of original Islam" (Inayatullah, 1996, p. 122). Yet the idea of equalising, abolishing the distinctions between caste or class, removing privilege and raising the humble, hardly entered the picture. Even less has the idea been expressed of upgrading the valuation of disabled people. Certainly, a few disabled people had good status because of their family, or their particular talent (temporal or spiritual); but the disability 'itself' was perceived negatively - it is hard to find exceptions to this rule. The only positive aspect was that it challenged other people to act in a righteous way - and sometimes they rose to the challenge. The vision of a rightly-functioning Muslim community does include such a challenge. Thus Wadud could point out that beyond Adl (justice) in the Islamic social order, there was Ehsan:

"a condition wherein an individual lagging behind in spite of his best efforts gets his deficiency made good by others to restore the disturbed balance of society. This is not by way of charity but as a matter of right." (Wadud, 1986)

Wadud was writing neither about disabilities, nor to impress westerners - he was lamenting the lack of a truly Islamic social order in Pakistan. His statement suggests some convergence between 'a matter of right', i.e. a Muslim community acting rightly, and the 'rights, not charity' demand of western disabled activists. Yet Wadud's perception is perhaps more holistic. Charity (zakat) is still enjoined upon individual Muslims as a basic pillar of Islam. Traditional community arrangements for administering zakat were designed to minimise the stigma of need, for the community acts both to benefit the individual and to put right a flaw within itself. By comparison, the slogans 'Rights, not Charity' and more aggressive versions appear to wash away the personal element of concern, and to overlook the economic fact that States raise funds by taxation, and minority rights are funded by majority tax hikes.

Recent decades have seen some international resurgence of confidence in Islamic history and religious values, among different Muslim groups. Traditionalist and radical fundamentalist groups have attracted most publicity, often engendering fear and ridicule. Less obvious, but perhaps with better long-term prospects, have been various modernising movements based on the belief that there can be no ultimate contradictions between the essential messages of Islam and the development of knowledge - provided that care is taken in communications from each 'side'. Such movements are also keen that Islamic insights should be seen to contribute to modern knowledge; and that the 'moral high ground', e.g. of international discourse on rights, bio-ethics and social issues (including disability), should not remain the exclusive property of post-Judaeo-Christian philosophers. A major difficulty in doing so, as noted by Zaki Hasan (1995), Pakistan's senior disability thinker, is that ethical and social issues are "not a discourse that forms part of the mainstream thought process in those [Muslim] societies or even within the medical profession" (p. 25). The dominant voices have been those of reactionary clerics, whose instinct is to damn rather than discuss. Noting that historically Islam has had far more freedom for individual thought and autonomy of decision than is now generally credited, Hasan believes that the freethinking movement will grow.

Ideological imperialism. A graver difficulty in providing viable Islamic inputs to international debate lies in the western domination of language (i.e. English) and media (i.e. press, satellite TV, internet and educational publishing) and the ideological imperialism that uses the media to obliterate or marginalise cultural and conceptual notions differing from the latest European mezzo-brow trends. (That most other religious and philosophical viewpoints also fail to make much impact in mass media and dumbed-down pseudo-academic media can be little comfort to serious Muslim thinkers). In the western world of education and disability, new terms are rapidly manufactured, consumed, discarded, and dumped in used condition on third world countries. Asian educational policy makers still trying to discover whether 'normalisation' and 'special needs' have any meaning for children in their cities and rural schools now meet western advisors nudging them onwards to 'differentiation' and 'inclusion' (see e.g. the confusions apparent in Khan, 1998). The advisors seldom admit that the terms and the debate are opaque to many of the western school-teachers supposedly implementing the 'latest western' policies, or that these policies are both experimental and in some quarters hotly contested. These games should, and do, generate some scepticism about western educational exporting; yet few policy-makers are willing to repudiate both the games and the aid packages bound up with them.


As a large country with a vast cultural history, Pakistan has many conflicting images. It is an Islamic republic; but Muslim modernisers, traditionalists and radicals differ sharply over how such a state should function. It is 'Third World' in terms of economy, health, education, life expectancy, women's rights and opportunities. Yet several million Pakistanis live 'modern' lives full of electronic gadgets and amusements; while the various forms of rural society are highly evolved and densely layered with relationships and nuances. Rural-urban polarisation is severe, and there are gross variations between different regions of the country. Pakistan is 'ex-colonial' and still seeking, after more than 50 years, an independent national culture and stable polity; yet there is much that is distinctively Pakistani in styles and customs of everyday life.

Theoretically, all Pakistani children have a right to education, whether able-bodied and able-minded or not. In practice, half of Pakistan's children begin primary education, and half of these children drop out before completing the cycle. Among the non-starters, girls and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented. The educational 'right' to which all Pakistani children, able-bodied or disabled, ordinary or special, girls or boys, are entitled in practice and which almost all do receive, is that of socialisation and activity within their extended family network, their immediate neighbourhood and the religions and cultures of Pakistani society. Expectations, choices and opportunities vary greatly between all these children, sometimes as a result of disability or difference, sometimes through gender, social and economic class, urban or rural situation, regional location, or other factors. Yet these wide variations are a traditional feature of life, and are not necessarily perceived as problematic or 'unfair'.

Human socialisation

The rich and extensive socialisation of young Pakistanis is nowhere written down as their 'right'. The willing hands, voices and domestic activities of mothers, grandmothers, aunts and older sisters are assumed to be there for all the needs of infancy, childhood and (for girls) through young adulthood. The often heavier hands, voices and activities of men are fully present in Pakistani boys' lives from the age of five or six, and continue until they have their own grandchildren. Pakistani children have an uncontested 'right' to be present in family activities, because (other than a tiny urban elite) nobody has invented childhood or adolescence as a separate condition that demands its own space, possessions and timings, or follows separate rules. Thus the right of Pakistani children to form and develop relationships with three or more generations - grandparents, parents, siblings, and the often in-between generations of cousins - is enshrined in practical daily living, though hardly noticed as such. This 'right' carries with it the assumption of obedience by younger to older. It becomes an obligation of obedience, whenever a question of choice arises.

For most Pakistanis, the only time these fundamental child-rights of participation with, socialisation by, and informal education from the persons of extended family relationship might consciously be recognised would be if they were confronted by an alien system of family and child-rearing. To see a child (aged, say, between 5 and 12) who has a single sibling or none, and lives in a house where grandparents, uncles or aunts are seldom or never seen, where the parental timetable seldom coincides with the child's, where few activities are carried out jointly between child and parents, where domestic helpers have been replaced by machines, and where the child has its own jealously guarded room, possessions and program of activities, would seem strange, disturbing and deeply unbalanced. It might perhaps be hard to articulate the idea that such a child had been deprived of some fundamental human right - especially if the child were western, well-fed, well-clothed, and immersed in dialogue with the colourful screen of an expensive electronic apparatus. Yet it would be clear that some deeply engrained family experiences, amounting to mutual rights, would be severely threatened by any social movement towards the alien system just described. 'Virtual socialisation' of their children via the Internet is not yet an appealing prospect for the older generation.

The mutual rights and obligations enshrined in the traditional Pakistani family, having much similarity with traditional family patterns in many countries present and past, constitute a resilient pattern that has reproduced itself over centuries while accommodating substantial external shocks and social changes. There is little or no room in it for the 'right of the individual' to have private space, to choose to believe something different from those around, or to repudiate the network of relationships and obligations acquired at birth. Such 'rights' are perceived as forms of madness; and the Pakistani who learns that such rights are enshrined in 'western society' is hardly surprised when mass media project images of deeply troubled western societies. The 'madness' is acutely felt between the generations living in Pakistani households where grandparents migrated to Europe or America, parents grew up in two socio-cultural worlds, but children are culturally 95% European or American. For 'Pakistani' one might substitute many other nationalities during the past century. Traditionally, for the poorer and rural masses, the lot of each person was, and perhaps still is, thought to come from Allah. Wisdom consists in accepting this lot, and making the best of life within one's modest means. The Prophet Muhammad reportedly said that, "The son of Adam has a right only to the following: a house in which he lives, a garment with which he conceals his private parts, dry bread and water." (Reported by 'Uthman; transmitted by Tirmidhi). While continuing to give lip-service to such ideas, substantial parts of both urban and rural society in recent decades have been confronted with the reality of social mobility. This has arisen through the export of labour to Gulf States and Europe, and the development of an 'artificial middle class' characterised by conspicuous consumption by individual families, but without the civic and institutional investment traditionally associated with the middle classes (Hafeez, 1991; Inayatullah, 1996).

Services in Pakistan

Data from Akbar (1989), Richter (1996) and government sources suggest the following growth of formal educational services for children with disabilities:








Special schools








The number of children benefiting (or at least, attending) in 1988 was thought to be 10,373, and 12,475 in 1996. In Federal Government special schools, some 2,760 are currently enrolled; and the programmes of the Directorate General of Special Education consume a slender 0.3% of the national education budget (Khan, 1998). A school survey (Miles, 1985) found that 825 (1.9%) children with appreciable impairments were pointed out by school staff without any special training or sensitisation, in 103 ordinary primary and secondary schools in the North West Frontier Province having a total enrolment of 43,416 pupils. During the past 15 years, no significant factors are known that would have reduced the proportion of disabled children casually integrated; so taking a more conservative 1% level among some 20 million Pakistani children currently in ordinary schools, there would be 200,000 children with noticeable impairments. Thus the number of disabled children casually integrated in ordinary schools is likely to be at least 16 times (and might be 30 times) greater than the number in special schools, with virtually no extra help or resources made available to them or to their teachers. As against this, there are very roughly 40 million children of school age, among whom there will not be less than a conservative 2.5% having some moderate to serious impairment, i.e. at least one million such children. Thus it appears that the great majority do not attend school of any sort (along with some 19 million non-disabled school-age children who are not in school).

When young disabled people pass the age for schooling, there are even less services or facilities available to them. Against this background of sparse formal services, the secretary of Pakistan's Disabled People's Federation reported that

"The parents and relatives consider the disabled as an economic liability and curse of God. Government functionaries take them to be nincompoop parasites. For the general public they are a nuisance. The disabled themselves are unaccepted by society, lose confidence in their faculties, lose self-respect and consider themselves fit for dependence upon others and beggary" (Malik, 1988).

These are bitter words; but an earlier survey of attitudes towards disabled people (Miles, 1983) supports Malik's experience. Although the spectrum of Pakistani self?reported attitudes was similar to that found among Western populations, the majority were of the 'fear' or 'pity' type. A progressive minority felt that 'something should be done' for disabled people, e.g. 'there should be a place for them' - perhaps a residential colony? However, a majority of respondents reacted favourably when ideas of integration and positive discrimination were suggested. The survey suggests that attitude change and service development are mutually interdependent.

Different directions?

Apart from the substantial difference of economic resources and political priorities, there are significant sociological and philosophical factors that might cause Pakistan to develop its services for disabled children in directions not taken by western nations. Pakistan is still a profoundly religious country - not in the sense of Islamic fundamentalism, which is hardly popular; nor that most Pakistanis are 'good Muslims' - which is debatable; but that ultimately law and right and meaning in life are widely believed to derive from Allah. Children are thought to be born not so much as little individuals with personal rights, but as parts of an extended family network within a wider community of mutual duty and obligation. The duty and entitlement of support and care is traditional and religious, rather than being laid down by the State. There is a theoretical 'equality' of persons before Allah; but that is quite different from the idea of constructing a society where 'individuals are equal before the law'. Of course, the latter idea impinges on urban Pakistan, as it moves further from the idealised gemeinschaft (traditional, communal society) towards the gesellschaft (conglomerated society of rational, chosen association). Yet notions of individual rights and equality that may seem self-evident to westerners often look flimsy and artificial in Pakistan, where mass media naturally highlight the more ludicrous outcomes of these western pursuits.

Of course, this picture is contested by Pakistan's accelerating urban rat-race, endemic corruption within the education system, the parvenu/Dubai syndrome, and the paralysing sense of peripheralisation among those Pakistan 'brains' that have not already drained to the West. Yet while western technology and knowledge is coveted, the family life and social conduct of westerners, as communicated in the media or reported by expatriate Pakistanis, is deeply unattractive. It is by no means obvious that disabled European children and adults have more satisfactory lives, apart from differences attributable to technology and modern medicine, than disabled Pakistanis. When there is serious abuse, the means for detecting it and relieving the victim are certainly better organised in Western Europe than in Pakistan (Miles, 1996a). However, Western groups campaigning for their personal 'rights', in competition with other vociferous groups, appear in the mass media with an image (possibly distorted) of childish rebellion and misery, the opposite of mature Muslim behaviour. The 'liberty' and so-called 'independence' prized by westerners are hardly the goals of Pakistanis who perceive their security and identity to rest in their family and community under Allah.


The youngest of the South Asian independent nations, Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world, apart from a few small island states. Since 1971, the country has undergone political vicissitudes, moving from one-party rule to military regimes, to a democratic transition period. While some advances have been seen in the sectors of education, health, nutrition, demographic balance, child care, gender disparities and income distribution, Bangladesh is still one of the world's economically poorest countries. The highly adverse population-resource ratio (Haq, 1997, 42) suggests that short to medium term prospects of significant economic improvement are weak.

Much of what has been stated above for Pakistan is also valid for Bangladesh. In the collectivist environment of the traditional Bangladeshi rural society and family, the notion of 'responsibility' was readily understood and practised by ordinary people, without reasoning or articulation as such. In such a situation, people with disabilities or their families did not think about 'rights', except for hoping for some nearby medical assistance to cure the disability or relieve suffering. The result in urban areas has been that "an attitude of dependency and humiliation developed among them. Social taboos made them evils in society" (Timm, D'Souza & Siddique, 1993, p. 136). Integration to rural society as a disabled person has so far not been an issue, although society has long had, and still has, many prejudices about disabled people. Among the Garo tribes of northern-eastern Bengal in the 19th century there was reportedly "in most villages, a lame or blind person, incapacitated from other work, who invokes the deities, and offers sacrifices for the recovery of sick persons." (Watson, 1832) This pragmatic, if slightly cynical, matching of capacity with occupation may suggest something of the calculating rustic approach to religion, rather than any special consideration for including disabled people in the life of the community. The deities must be given their due, for what it's worth - but there is no point in wasting an able-bodied man on the job, when a blind or lame one can just as well chant the prayers, sprinkle the blood, or whatever.

Until comparatively recently, people had little to do with the State, beyond paying taxes to the authorities and negotiating official property transfers or land settlement. Responsibilities related to disability were far distant from the State, and were taken care of by the family and local community. The notion of 'right' has a recent origin in modern Bangladeshi civil society. Ordinary public life in Bangladesh is full of its own cultural components, i.e. symbols, heroes, rituals - of which the value system is composed. The culture of its largely (87%) Muslim population has developed with influences also from Hinduism and Buddhism over centuries. 'Disability' is seen as calling for 'care', which belongs in the realm of religious merit - it is a matter of fulfilling personal responsibilities, rather than according people 'rights'.

The rich folk-heritage of Bengali ballads contains numerous references to disability, mainly blindness, from which it is clear that the burden of care and responsibility is assumed to fall very largely upon women relatives. The translated collections by Sen (1926-1932) often depict blindness (in a helpless male) as an opportunity for female devotion, self-sacrifice and nobility of soul. The Ballad of Kanchanmala, for example, opens with an elderly widower carrying his blind baby son, of whom he is keen to disencumber himself. Kanchanmala, aged nine, is promptly married to the blind baby by her father's arrangement, to avert an evil omen. A suitably heart-rending tale ensues (Ibid., II (i) 79-116), in which the blindness is first cured then returns; but either way, it is assumed that a disabled person is helpless and some handy female should provide the necessary lifelong care.

Some modernisation of ideas has taken place at least at a superficial level, i.e. provided that it does not conflict with traditional cultural practices and religious beliefs. Thus the jargon of 'rights' is familiar to intellectuals, it may be used in political oratory, it is part of the package with which people feel that Bangladesh is transiting from the traditional to the modern. Yet a high degree of fatalism still operates in public life, a fatalism that is stronger and more basic than the notion of 'right'. State capacity to provide health care and education services to the ordinary people is weak, so the issue of services to disabled people remains a non-priority. Officially some rhetoric of rights can be wheeled out to accompany a very modest scattering of disability services; but in practice the recipients of such services belong to well-to-do families, which could afford to buy services anyway from private providers.

Government initiatives are distant from ordinary disabled people, and they fail to overcome the deep-seated cynicism and mistrust between the mass of the population and the formal establishments. Popular disbelief tends to be vindicated by studies such as that by Muhammad Hossain (1994), which reveals "an appalling discrepancy between the intended effects and the practical outcomes" (p. 167) of efforts to modernise rural education services and thus to provide children with their 'right to education'. Hossain documents in detail the formalism, "punishment-centred bureaucracy", "dysfunctional supervision", conflict, alienation and red-tapism engendered by the modernisation drive (pp. 172-177). He contrasts these features with the traditional system of trust, mutual assistance and personalisation of all transactions in rural Bangladesh. Perhaps Hossain is a little idealistic about the latter; yet his long, carefully formulated education report certainly suggests that government schemes to 'modernise' services for disabled people in a depersonalised 'rights-based' fashion could create as many problems as they solved. Paper-based 'disability rights', backed (almost inevitably) by a mere fraction of the structural and attitudinal changes and resource provisions needed to give them substance, would increase the gulf between rhetoric and reality while relieving families and communities of even the 'charitable obligation' they at present feel, however half-heartedly, to give disabled children some help. For substantial numbers of have-nots, even what little they have would thus be snatched away and replaced by a fine-sounding slogan.

A recent review of social welfare legislation by Halim (1993) notes existing government legislation concerning leprosy (dating from 1898) and mental retardation (1912). Both Acts are full of measures to regulate and control these disabled persons, but during the past century have provided little or nothing by way of positive rights or entitlements. Halim in fact prepares his reader for this outcome, by first noting that the "informal network of family, relatives and friends is a major provider of social help in Bangladesh". He admits however (p. 112) that under current economic pressures "they are increasingly unable to fulfil their traditional role". (Jain noted this problem as long ago as 1916 - the extended family is taking a long time to die). Basic necessities of life, decent job opportunities and social security in case of illness or disablement all in fact appear as government goals for its citizens in the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, corresponding with articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Yet the government is under the same economic constraints as the ordinary family, when it comes to fulfilling its obligations.

There is a big gap between all these slogans and the practicalities of life in Bangladesh, not only in the case of disabled people but where it concerns the rights of all people - in particular the children of the poor, who suffer a variety of gross, ongoing abuses, described by the social anthropologist Therese Blanchet (1996). The new slogans of bilateral, multi-lateral or NGO aid agencies, e.g. empowerment, policy advocacy, sustainability, conscientisation, parents' mobilisation on behalf of disabled children, community participation etc, tend to widen the gap and simply confuse local people rather than building understanding of disability issues. 'Social model' rhetoric, insisting e.g. that 'the problem is not in the disabled person - it is society that has a problem', is incomprehensible to the vast majority of people who have always thought, still think, and feel they have good reason to think that losing one's eyesight, for example, is an unmitigated personal disaster. There can be no objection to people developing such models and terminology in countries wealthy enough to sustain decades of effort in constructing and adapting public environments user-friendly to all sorts and conditions of humanity. But foisting these advanced notions onto an impoverished country where a majority of children are stunted for lack of adequate nutrition (UNICEF, 1998) displays some arrogance about the practical realities of development.

Services in Bangladesh

Educational provision for disabled children is limited. The Government runs 13 institutions in which 820 students (410 hearing impaired, 360 visually impaired and 50 mentally handicapped) are studying. These are all residential schools, each with a further 20 day students (Haqq, 1994). NGOs are providing 27 institutions, with 1000 children and 720 adults getting education and vocational training. There are government and NGO integrated programmes for visually impaired and for mentally handicapped children, with resource teachers assisting about 80 ordinary schools. Some CBR and outreach projects are also functioning, and there are national and local NGOs representing the major disability categories. The NGOs suffer from the usual problems, e.g. aid dependency, weak planning, weak managerial capacity, lack of quality in services, incapacity for scaling-up to serve larger populations etc (see Aminuzzaman, 1998; Miles, Hossain & Ringstad, 1996). Some of their difficulties arise from trying to follow the changing policies of western disability aid agencies during the past two decades. Since the Year of the Child (1979), some aid organisations have first supported NGOs building special schools; then decided that the emphasis should be on special units attached to ordinary schools; then that NGOs should not provide services at all but should be campaigning for government provision of integrated education - but if NGOs do provide services, that they should be some sort of Community-Based Rehabilitation, and (more recently) that whatever is done must be led by people with disabilities; next, that what is really needed is 'inclusion', involving a total reconceptualisation of what education is about. (It can be anticipated that Deaf organisations will now complete the circle by demanding separate special schools, as some have begun to do in Europe). For there to be any hope of success, the introduction of each of these twists and turns probably required from 20 to 50 years, as well as strong political, parental and professional motivation, none of which has been present.


Comparisons of Pakistan and Bangladesh can only be impressionistic without far more space and detail. However, a single item of data suggests real divergences of national policy and outlook, and ultimately of priorities for the people's welfare. In the early 1990s, Pakistan spent 10 times as much on defence as on health and education combined. Bangladesh spent 1.6 times more on health and education than on defence (UNICEF, 1998). Every country has a right to its national pride and its own particular brand of ideological baloney; but it is clearly preferably that these luxuries be not indulged so far as to obstruct the pragmatic provision of services that can make a difference to the lives of real children and adults.

Western missionaries for Rights, Inclusion, Disabled People's Empowerment etc cannot be stopped from spreading their messages across the globe, along with such other essential western benefits as cola drinks, brunchburgers, pornographic videos and democracy. Indeed, as one South American bishop remarked when Paulo Freire promised to try to stem the southward flood of North American evangelists, "Let them come. They may be the only gringos we get the chance to educate." Certainly, Asian educationists should not be prevented from inspecting whatever is on offer in the global supermarket. However, two modest precautions might reduce the damage of inappropriate importing.

1. Efforts should be made to provide historical perspectives and ideological context, so that prospective clients can more easily see how and where the goodies were cooked up, and get a sense of how they fit, or fail to fit, in the long-term trends of western societies.

2. The development of histories of social responses to disabilities and to people with disabilities in Asian countries should enhance their planners' cultural confidence, providing solid 'home ground' on which to stand and from which they may appraise more realistically the offers of western enthusiasts (Miles, 1996b).

European nations developed formal disability services slowly from the early 19th century onwards, within the means of their economies, without the censorious gaze of wealthy foreign monitors, and with decades of ongoing debate about methods and strategies. Whatever 'mistakes' they now, with the hindsight of history, may appear to have made seldom looked or felt like mistakes but seemed the best compromise at the time between idealism, realism, resources and knowledge. By contrast, economically weaker countries at the dawn of the 21st century have a plethora of modern knowledge, techniques and conflicting advice offered them, but lack the space, time and freedom to experiment and learn for themselves away from the dominating voices and slogans of western mentors and funders, latter-day Ladies Bountiful, very few of whom have any appreciable experience of living and working on local salaries in the countries they are so eager to guide. Some recent Euro-American ideological trends have emphasised equality of personal value and equal educational opportunity with a wide range of professional and community resources available so that appropriate differentiation can be achieved. Where these are politically and economically affordable and where communities can raise their sights to embrace such trends, they are no doubt admirable. They are much less inspirational when forced down the throats of people who are having trouble feeding and clothing their own children, or providing their population with the most basic health and education services. For example, although senior Pakistan psychologist Riaz (1994) finds the Western integration gospel quite appealing as a prospect for Pakistan's future,

"in general it seems irrelevant to the present situation. Whatever may be the strengths or weaknesses of the present educational system, more than half of the pupils drop out after a year or so of schooling."

Ignorance of such basic realities is particularly unpalatable when the countries responsible for propagating the wonderful slogans are (rightly or wrongly) perceived as major contributors to the socio-economic disarray of the countries on the receiving end of all this well-meant advice.

Antonio Cassese (1990), in a chapter "Are Human Rights Truly Universal?", skilfully describes some of the real divergences between alternative world philosophies, ideologies and religions. Nevertheless, some convergence is predictable in public sentiments about 'rights', as global communication, the Internet etc, expose large numbers of English-literate people to international currents. Yet any fruits of such a convergence are unlikely to appear quickly. There are powerful reactionary movements developing everywhere, in which people are desperate to maintain their identity and avoid being swamped by global, usually western, culture. Such movements exist in South Asia, fighting both external influences and modernising elites. Amidst these embattled groups, there are comparatively few peacemakers.

A small signpost towards peace and lateral thinking appears in a cherished story of the Tablighi movement, a mission for spiritual deepening. The story concerns a village simpleton, who joined a band of religious devotees and

"wandered with the group from place to place asking everyone to repeat the kalima to help him since he had never been able to learn it. His merit rested in being a stimulus to the piety of those thus constrained to articulate the attestation and offer him help." (Metcalf, 1996, p. 56) (The kalima is the basic Muslim statement of faith).

It was a Tablighi maxim that all were welcome on their religious missions, the contribution of each one was valued and was never corrected or contradicted. Indeed, Barbara Metcalf admires the Tablighi conviction that "anyone can learn, that one learns by doing, and that the lives of 'ordinary' people can be profoundly transformed" (p. 59). Such tolerant, peripatetic, homespun philosophers and their socially valorised simpletons are as far as they could possibly be from the national defence budget, the Internet, or the western disability activists baying for their rights. If 'modernisation' means wiping out the gentle ones, perhaps the price is too high.

Discussion questions

How should aid programs to Pakistan and Bangladesh take into account the following issues:

[1]. Whatever fine phrases issue from politicians, the Director of Education looks for 'improvement schemes' that can realistically be introduced and practised with reasonably effectiveness by the average and below average teachers constituting 85% of the workforce; costing less, or at least no more, than the present system; producing pupil results measurable by ordinary, objective means (i.e. written tests and exams); that will not inflame parents, religious teachers, or any large or influential constituency; reducing, or at least not encouraging, the corruption, nepotism and canvassing that accompanies all staff postings; and that will deliver, within two or three years, benefits substantially outweighing the disruption involved in implementing the scheme.

[2]. "Equalisation of opportunities for disabled persons" is extremely low on the list of development priorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan. People may agree that it's a nice idea, but it is hardly ever a 'felt need' even among disabled people (the mass of whom are likely to be more interested in security of food and shelter, followed by training and employment).

[3]. For reasons of language and administrative competence, Western aid interventions intended for 'the poorest' almost always have to be mediated by urban, educated, national counterparts - who traditionally have regarded 'the poorest' as being beyond realistic redemption. Evaluators often report that aid programs have benefited mainly the middle classes, who have the capacity to absorb a variety of aid inputs (whether or not the inputs were intended for them).

Cordial acknowledgement is due to Professor Waqar Ahmad for useful comments on a draft of this chapter.


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