"Men are generally not considered as adept caregivers as women. The level of patience required to deal with individuals with special needs, the commitment, and unwavering faith are often perceived as challenging. We've also had reports of sexual abuse by male physiotherapists involving some of our special needs individuals, who had previously been taken to different clinics," responded Ms Gulnar Sultana when I asked her why I seldom saw men among the UEN staff, apart from the security personnel, the lone office staff member, and perhaps an usher I hadn't yet met.
My jaw dropped as tears welled up, pondering what else could go wrong in society. The Quran states that "Man is the noblest of all creations" (Quran; 95:4). Yet, this does not imply that man is inherently the best creature.
I first met Ms Gulnar at an intimate party hosted by the Hashwanis. Upon our introduction, she graciously invited me to visit Umeed e Noor. Always on the lookout for social causes to highlight, I was both intrigued and moved by their philanthropic efforts. I arranged a visit with Ms Sumaira Hashwani, who is now overseeing Umeed e Noor since the patron-in-chief, Ms Noori Sultan Hashwani, has moved to a different home, albeit still deeply attached to these projects.
The Conception and Inception of Umeed e Noor
The role of a civilised society is to nurture the minds, bodies, and souls of its young. In Pakistan, there is a 10% disabled population, with 6.33 million children between the ages of 5 and 19 living with disabilities. Shockingly, 52% of these children are abandoned by their families, and 99% have never been to school. These statistics, along with a visit to the facility, drew Ms Noori's attention before the Hashwanis took it under their wing. The school was previously managed by a group of lawyers who, for various reasons, failed to address the needs of these special children. The innocence of these children was violated in multiple ways, with issues such as hygiene, malnutrition, and uncooperative staff. Their philanthropic hearts were touched, and Ms Noori Sultan decided to step in. In 1996, Umeed e Noor was founded, marking a significant milestone for an ever-evolving future. The goal was to work with children with severe and multiple disabilities, aiming to reintegrate them into society. With philanthropic support, UEN has economically and socially benefited approximately 1,800 special children and adults so far. UEN provides an enabling environment where the social and psychological needs of these children are met, maximizing their potential and capabilities, helping them become productive members of society.
It may be hard to believe, but in the vicinity of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, nearly 200,000 people are living with special needs. The question of what the government is doing for these individuals barely qualifies as a question in Pakistan. The lack of empathy, resources, and expertise in the matter, as well as the absence of vigilance in addressing the growing demands for special needs facilities, overshadows the interest of the public sector. UEN emerges as a beacon of hope in this bleak situation.
Ms Gulnar is nothing less than an embodiment of Mother Teresa and Ruth Pfau. When I arrived at UEN, located in central Islamabad, I was struck by the cleanliness and secure but not overly restrictive surroundings. Ms Sumaira Hashwani, with her poise and grace, warmly welcomed me and escorted me to the principal's office, where I was offered delicious onion and potato pakoras (fritters) and French fries served in paper cones. To my surprise, the food and the paper cones were all handmade by special children in a newly constructed kitchen designed to instill life skills in young ladies, overseen by an Aya (maid). It takes a heart as vast as the universe, like Ms Gulnar's, to conceive the idea of teaching and learning normality. She is brimming with compassion, creativity, and practicality for special needs. Ms Gulnar was already a physiotherapist, hailing from Gilgit Baltistan and working in Rawalpindi before joining UEN. She was personally selected by Ms Noori and trained by British speech pathologist Ms Margaret K. Taslimullah. With 28 years of experience in clinical therapy, Ms Gulnar resides on the campus, providing round-the-clock accessibility to those with special needs.
Provisions at UEN include:
- Identifying children with special needs
- Providing residence for economically disadvantaged individuals with special needs
- Offering vocational and life skills
- Developing linguistic, cognitive, motor, and self-help skills
- Providing counseling to parents and families of special needs individuals
- Creating a platform for the capacity building of professionals, volunteers, families, and civil organisations dedicated to special needs
- Raising awareness in the wider community about special needs and promoting equity for disadvantaged individuals in society
Special needs at UEN encompass:
- Mentally challenged individuals
- Down Syndrome
- Impaired hearing
- Learning disabilities
Ms Gulnar, constantly evolving and updating her experience and knowledge, focuses on the individual needs of children, harnessing their potential. She believes that there is no 'standard subject or program.' She designs specific plans for each individual based on their unique needs. UEN accommodates 65 day scholars, along with approximately 14 boarders dealing with cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, microcephaly, developmental delay, and slow learning. Around 50 day scholars follow individualised educational programs tailored to their specific strengths and weaknesses.
UEN boasts a team of qualified and trained teachers who continuously update their skills through extensive training, adopting the best available learning methods and strategies. Ms Gulnar organises small groups of children, led by senior and assistant teachers who employ motivational techniques specifically designed for special needs individuals. The program primarily revolves around arts and crafts, fostering concentration and enhancing hand-eye coordination, allowing these children to explore their creativity at their own pace, both within and outside the facility's boundaries.
UEN conducts specialised classes for girls with special needs, focusing on essential daily living skills such as dressing, cooking, socialisation, and self-help.
Extracurricular activities hold a vital place within UEN's curriculum. These encompass music, art, sports, and computer learning, all taught in state-of-the-art facilities on a regular basis. A daily sports class is also part of the routine, and UEN's consistent participation in 'Special Olympics' events stands as a testament to their commitment.
Ms Gulnar took me to visit the school. It was nothing less than any regular well furnished, well maintained, well equipped, clean and vibrant space. One could feel the positive vibes, loving chemistry and motivating environment all around. The music room, arts and crafts gallery, computer lab, physiotherapy department and the kitchen were all in excellent condition.
Physiotherapy at UEN plays a pivotal role in optimizing physical development. The spacious and well-equipped physiotherapy department is tailored to meet the unique requirements of children with special needs. Highly specialised physiotherapists are on hand to address congenital developmental disorders. The facilities offer both long and short-term, indoor and outdoor pediatric therapeutic programs, providing a comprehensive assessment covering posture, balance, muscle tone and strength, gross and fine motor skills, manipulative and constructive play, eye-hand coordination, gait training, as well as speech and communicative skills.
After meeting the staff and touring various state-of-the-art rooms dedicated to speech therapy, sports, and recreational activities, the staircase led us down to the well-lit and airy ground floor. It was a tranquil and well-maintained area where residents were neatly attired and housed in hygienic conditions. Once more, a compassionate lady caregiver was present, diligently attending to the needs of individuals who faced chronic disadvantages in terms of both economics and social support. It was at that moment that my emotions overwhelmed me, and tears flowed as I thanked Allah for bestowing us with complete lives.
"We had a terminally ill cerebral palsy patient at the hospice not long ago. The patient's parents came here once to admit their child. Over the years, we provided care, but this patient never had any visitors. When the patient passed away to the eternal abode, we tried to contact the parents, but there was no response. UEN even went to the address they had provided, but the family was no longer residing there. UEN had to arrange the burial for the lone star," Ms Gulnar shared.
I lacked the courage to prolong my stay in the hospice and was escorted back to the office by Ms Sumaira Hashwani and Ms Gulnar.
My visit to Umeed e Noor was an eye-opening experience. Throughout this emotional journey, pragmatism remained a constant presence in my thoughts. I couldn't help but wonder about the future of the hospice without Ms Gulnar.
"If I were to ask you, will there be another Madiha after you? Of course not. Similarly, I can't promise that there will be another Gulnar to care for these children. However, I've diligently trained teachers to the best of my ability, instilling in them love and care for these special children. I've strived to bring sincerity to our efforts. I've given my all, and I will continue to do so to the best of my ability...the world will go on! My hopes are unshakable. I look forward to patrons in various capacities playing their part, contributing to the well-being of those less fortunate, helping them become self-reliant citizens," Ms Gulnar responded with unwavering conviction and tears of hope in her eyes.
How can we assist UEN and similar initiatives: As responsible citizens of the world, we must first acknowledge and pledge to uphold equity. We must work to eradicate the taboos associated with disabilities and raise awareness about the various types of special needs. We should volunteer our time, resources, energy, and expertise to reintegrate those who are excluded into society. Assist in constructing facilities, provide equipment, labs, and share knowledge. Visit and connect with these innocent lives, making them feel at home. Pass on information, knowledge, and wisdom—it's an ongoing act of charity!