A teacher by profession and an advocate for disabled persons’ rights by passion, Saira Ayub is currently studying for a Masters of Education degree at Flinders University in Adelaide. She says Australia's inclusive policies regarding disability have deeply inspired her and she plans to create the same awareness in her home country when she returns after completion of her studies to Pakistan.
Living with muscular dystrophy in a wheelchair since childhood, Saira Ayub's dream was to see a country where disabled people “actually” have rights.
“Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the overall structure is not friendly towards a disabled person,” she told SBS Urdu.
“I never thought of using public transport in my life; in Australia, it is a reality and I have used it frequently.”
- Several public areas and amenities are closed in Australia due to COVID-19
- The universities are offering courses online
- Saira plans to create awareness about 'inclusivity' when she returns to Pakistan after studies
Saira's journey took a unique turn when she arrived down under in January earlier this year. Within a few weeks, the pandemic occurred.
“I never thought that I will come here and a global virus crisis will start,” she said.
Who can think of having a dream come true and then have a pandemic in it.
COVID-19 and the Australian dream
Saira is pursuing her studies in Australia through an Australia Awards scholarship and is not letting the COVID-19 outbreak disrupt her experience.
“Yes, one has to maintain social distancing and continue the steps for isolation but that does not stop me from getting an education," she said.
"I take my classes online so there is no issue of going to a classroom or a session in a university. Also, there are ramps, elevators and paths that offer accessibility to a disabled person."
Saira says she also visit shops and grocery stores to buy food and other items.
"There are restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but I still am able to visit the places I want with easy mobility and access."
The whole lifestyle in Australia is inclusive, including education, public transport, or even a shop.
Saira has taught economics for the past 17 years and currently works as an Assistant Professor at the Government College for Women Baghbanpura in Pakistan.
She says in her home country, there is always an issue when she meets someone for the first time.
"There is a clear element of 'pity' [after looking at me]; the focus is immediately on the appearance."
However, at college, she gets this ‘awkwardness’ out of the way on the very first class of the course she teaches.
"I tell my students about the illness that I have and once they understand it, the issue simply goes away."
Saira says this also gives her an opportunity to motivate the students on how to face challenges in their lives.
“As a teacher, I must also prepare my students for the issues they will face in the real world. I tell them about determination, hard work and empowerment and how they can utilise them to overcome hurdles.
"I teach them to focus on what they have and not what they don’t and tell them to use those abilities to overcome challenges.
"...and of course I teach them economics," she says with a smile.
In a developed country
“So far, I had only compared developed countries theoretically with developing ones on how they offer rights for people with disabilities," Saira told SBS Urdu.
"Now I am in Australia and can easily see a major difference in perceptions and rights for the people. In Australia, I can easily make my decisions independently without the need for a relative or friend to help me do a task or assist with mobility,
"I don't see people looking at me with pity. They talk to me normally as they might with any other person," she said.
Challenges for people with disabilities in Pakistan
According to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, there are around 3.3 million people with disabilities in the country with over 2 million living in rural areas.
The World Health Organisation ‘World’s report on disability’ highlights that rehabilitation services for people with disabilities remain a major challenge in developing countries, Pakistan being one of them.
“Descriptive data suggest that persons with disabilities are at a disadvantage in educational attainment and labour market outcomes,” the report states.
The founder of NationalForum of Women with Disabilities in Pakistan, Abia Akram, says that the people with disabilities in Pakistan are more likely to live in poverty, and they experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse.
"The pandemic is intensifying these inequalities and producing new threats. We must guarantee the equal rights of people with disabilities to access healthcare and lifesaving procedures during the pandemic.
"Persons with disabilities who faced exclusion in employment before this crisis, are now more likely to lose their job and will experience greater difficulties in returning to work.
Abia says that disabled people especially women and girls face a greater risk of domestic violence, which has surged during the pandemic.
"Persons with disabilities have valuable experience to offer to thrive in situations of isolation and alternate working arrangements."
Saira says that it is an “enormous struggle” to try and get the basic rights for people with disabilities where equal opportunities are almost non-existent.
“A person with a disability is not perceived as a productive person, there is only sympathy for them in Pakistan.”After finishing her studies in Australia, Saira plans to go back to Pakistan and create awareness for inclusive rights for the disabled people.
She says that she wants to develop an understanding of inclusivity in Pakistani society and will be taking courses to learn how to implement the same at the national level.
“My aim is to be a part of policymaking and develop legislation that provides basic rights to people with disabilities.”
"Since I am a writer too, I plan to share my amazing Australian experiences in the form of a book."
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