On 23rd November 2020, Special Talent Exchange Programme (STEP) – a cross disability and development organisation based in Islamabad, in collaboration with the British Council and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) launched the “Equal Access” mobile application. Equal Access is an informative software regarding disability services, stakeholders, and laws in Pakistan with features including Sign Language Interpretation, Sound Description, Dark Mode, and resizable text formats for persons with disabilities.
National Assembly Speaker, Asad Qaiser, was present at the launch and emphasised on the need to make society as inclusive for differently-abled people as possible. He appreciated the initiative and expressed hope in its potential to bridge the gap.
According to Executive Director STEP, Ali Sheikh, the software has been developed with the aid of differently-abled individuals since their personal and professional experience was invaluable. Abia Akram, STEP Project Director, who herself is a differently-abled person, expressed gratitude for the support of the British Council and PTA in the process.
British Council Deputy Director, Mark Crossey said that the initiative follows the ethic of “Build Back Better” in an attempt to realise sustainable development goals.
However, despite the earnest initiative, it appears that there is a communication gap between the developers of the application and the audience for it. When DRM reached out to notable members of the differently-abled community for this story, it appeared that they were entirely unaware of the presence of the application.
Zulqurnain Asghar, President of the Potohar Mental Health Association (PMHA), a psychologist by profession and himself a differently-abled individual working with the community informed DRM that he does not know about the launch or existence of such an application.
Young activist Ashir Wilson, working on issues of inclusivity, was similarly unaware. He offered to look up the app, download it, and provide a review but the effort seemed futile if that had not already been ensured by STEP outreach. And that is where Ashir expressed his concern. He informed DRM that during his current internship at the Sindh Assembly he raised the same issue with Special Assistant to CM for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Mr. Qasim Naveed. “The problem is not a lack of such projects or initiatives, we have had several over the years,” Ashir says, adding, “the problem is they become obsolete because on one knows about them because not enough awareness is raised.”
Ashir’s sister is currently working at STEP, he told us, and even she did not know anything about this application. There is a disconnect between those involved in developing these projects, and their target audience, according to him, who even proposed methods to improve outreach. “There are three ways to improve communication: firstly, locate your audience. If there is a youth bulge in your population, it only stands to reason that there will be a youth bulge in the differently-abled community as well. Target colleges and universities,” he advised. “Physically disseminate your message, visit these institutions, visit skill development centers, talk to the people present there, inform them about the avenues available to them.”
He went on to emphasise the importance of social media and government collaboration in marketing campaigns such as these, “They can use Facebook groups for people with disabilities to spread their message,” he offered, “and there should be greater cooperation between not-for-profit organisations involved in these activities as well as the government so that government channels of communication such as the SMS service is available to them.”
“It requires effort. And while there is always money in the development sector to hold conferences at Pearl Continental, these resources are never spent where they are actually needed,” he remarked candidly.
Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “Ashir’s remarks cannot be ignored. What is, after all, the point of all this effort if the main beneficiaries remain unaware of the digital spaces available to them. It appears that there is a need for an attitude shift, members of differently-abled communities should be met as equal stakeholders in society, instead of individuals who need to be “integrated into society” by those in power.” She adds, “Campaigns and services for the community should be normalised, and only they need to be approached like other government services, the marketing of which sees an immense amount of resources allocated to.”
“Our country still functions of the charity model,” Ashir said, “and as long as that is the case, you cannot expect much improvement.”