Former Press Secretary to the President
Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France
Former MD, SRBC
It is indeed disheartening to observe that International White Cane Safety Day went largely unnoticed in Pakistan except for the issuance of messages by the President and Federal Minister for Human Right and organizing a few low key events here and there.
Pakistan’s observance of White Cane Safety Day takes on particular significance as 0.78% of Pakistan’s population is blind, compared to 0.19% in the United States. Additionally, 3.76% of the population suffers from moderate to severe vision impairment, compared to 2.02% in the United States. These figures contribute significantly to the country’s 4.08% share of global blindness and 2.88% of global moderate to severe vision impairment. Moreover, Pakistan’s Cataract Surgical Rate (CSR), stands at 2,819 surgeries per million as of 2014, significantly lower than the US CSR of 11,000. With just 14.8 ophthalmologists per million people in 2015, there is an urgent need to expand the eye care workforce.
In this context, the observance of White Cane Safety Day serves as a reminder of the challenges faced by individuals with visual impairments in Pakistan and the importance of raising awareness about their rights, needs, accessibility and quality eye care services. But perhaps we have many other pressing issues to discuss therefore the day was considered too trivial to give it due focus.
I found it surprising to receive an invitation, not from a ministry, government institutions, educational organization, NGO, or advocacy group, but from a place far away from Islamabad, Kharian. The invitation came from Syed Almudassar Shah, the chairman of a trust, as they celebrated World White Cane Safety Day in conjunction with their Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years of dedicated service to students with various types of different abilities.
My entire family was enthusiastic about attending, particularly as it coincided with a holiday, and the children were eager for a long drive. Our expectations were a mix of the mundane and the uninspiring, anticipating lengthy and idealistic speeches.
As we relished the picturesque journey along the GT Road, we eventually veered off onto Barawal Road from the GT Road. After just a five-minute drive, a towering structure came into view, adorned with lofty towers, magnificent arches, grand doors, and a majestic façade. Drawing on our experiences from our four-year residence in France, where I served as the Press Minister at the Embassy of Pakistan, we couldn’t help but draw parallels between this building and a French fortress or palace. However, the mystery of its owner remained until our GPS signaled that we had reached our destination, right in front of this very building.
The grandeur of the building extended beyond its exterior, as the interior held its own wonders. A visit to the facility revealed a charming zoo with beautiful birds residing in comfortable cages, and small animals frolicking happily within well-maintained enclosures filled with essential food and water. The vast lawns, adorned with a variety of exotic trees, led to a stunning artificial lake complete with dancing fountains.
Our reception by the trust’s chairman, accompanied by his warm smile, was followed by an impromptu tour of this magnificent palace. However, unlike typical grand edifices built for love or family, this palace was a labor of love for the Differently-Abled Children (DAC) of the Gujarat District.
Syed Mudassar Shah, affectionately known as Shahjee, led us through the beautifully decorated corridors and classrooms of the institution, sharing a remarkable story. He hails from a family with four differently-abled siblings who, due to the absence of any nearby school catering to differently-abled children, remained uneducated.
He vividly recalled the challenges his mother faced in caring for them. It was during one of these challenging moments that he fervently prayed for the strength and resources to build a state-of-the-art palace for differently-abled children, a place where they could conquer their challenges, relish the joy of learning, and emerge as confident, skilled, independent, and financially empowered individuals upon graduation.
Fate then led him to France, where his exceptional merit brought him status, French friends, wealth, and resources. Eventually, the time arrived to transform his dream into reality. His French architect friends journeyed all the way from France to design and lay the foundation for this monumental structure, encompassing an impressive 93,000 square feet of covered space spread over several hectares. However, his struggles had only just begun.
Al-Mudassar Trust is equipped with modern facilities including classrooms, labs, a mosque, and hostels. With a 100% pass rate in national exams, their graduates have pursued higher education and careers in various fields. They offer an array of services, from specialized education to vocational training, instilling practical skills for self-sufficiency such as carpentry, metalwork, dress designing, gardening, culinary arts, and teacher training. Al-Mudassar Trust envisions ongoing expansion, including a 100-bed hospital, a specialized university for higher education in fields related to differently-abled individuals, and a facility to provide dignified living for abandoned mothers.
We were so captivated by his enthralling narrative that we lost track of time, and by the time we made it to the event venue, the proceedings had already begun. As we entered the ceremony, we were astounded by the caliber of the attendees. It was a distinguished gathering, graced by the presence of numerous high-ranking current and retired government officials, including many like me who had journeyed from Islamabad. It included a member of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), a retired Inspector General of Police, an additional secretary from the Ministry of Information, many retired high-ranking army officers, the Chief Executive Officers of SIAL Airport and Muslim Hands, an Advocate for the High Court and Supreme Court, an Assistant Commissioner, Superintendent of Police (SSP), and Deputy Commissioner.
In addition to these notable figures, the event saw the participation of numerous esteemed members of civil society, as well as a significant turnout of parents and relatives of the Differently Abled Children (DAC).
The event commenced with the recitation of verses from the Quran and Naat Sharif by blind students, delivered in their melodious voices. This heartfelt performance signaled that the event was bound to be far from the dull affair we had initially expected.
The deaf students, dressed in long white shirts and turbans, delivered an impeccable tableau performance in perfect synchronization with the beat of the spiritual music. Despite being unable to hear the music, these students followed their teacher at the front of the group ceaselessly and effortlessly. The performance was so meticulously choreographed that it brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the audience.
Following this, the mentally challenged individuals presented a tableau performance that was equally exciting, joyful, and executed with masterful precision. It was almost unbelievable that these children, some of whom had previously been restrained due to violent behavior, were now so happy, engrossed, and proud to perform in front of an audience of around 1,000 people.
The students from the Sufi academy mesmerized the audience with their spiritual renditions, leaving everyone speechless and spellbound. A young blind girl added to the enchantment by skillfully rendering a difficult yet popular Ghazal in her melodious voice.
During his speech, the SSP described the school, its teachers, and the students as grander, more skillful, disciplined, and well-behaved than many others schools both in private and public sector including the Beacon House where he was invited to officiate a ceremony a few days ago. He saluted the participating students and teachers for the amazing performance.
The deputy commissioner, with tears in his eyes and a heavy voice, expressed that the performance he witnessed was one of the best experiences of his over 17 years of professional life. He also praised the building, its layout, and the facilities within, stating that they exceeded those of LUMS.
Another story shared was about a female member of the French architect team who knelt down on this very land, picked up soil, put it in her mouth, and declared that it was the most suitable place to construct such a blessed structure.
The event also shed light on the difficulties the school faced in convincing parents to send their differently-abled children to school.
A speaker, recognizing the futility of his own dreams centered around personal wealth and material possessions, marveled at the fact that Shahjee, the founder, dreamt of building a palace – not for his own children, as he is issueless – but for the differently-abled children of the country.
The event concluded with the national anthem, sung in sign language by the deaf children. Tears welled up in everyone’s eyes, but so did a commitment to extend whatever was possible to ensure that Shahje’s dreams come true and that they each had a small contribution to make.
The family left the event not only happy but also more educated about the sensitivities associated with differently-abled individuals. They were also more motivated to play their role in creating an inclusive environment for all, treating everyone, regardless of their abilities, as fully-abled, independent, and respectable citizens without any stigma, derogation, or insult.
The event also motivated the participants to question why, despite the constitutional mandate for the government to provide free and quality education to all school-going children, more than 25 million children in the country remain out of school. It left everyone contemplating what they could do to address this issue.