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Imagine having to walk every day to the bus stop and getting rejected by the conductor after he looks at your crutches. Bachhal Shah, a man in his 40s, said he struggles to commute to work every day and faces discrimination because of his physical disability.

“We are judged by people as they think we only beg and ask for charity, but what we need is empathy,” he said at the Breathing Books event organised by NOWPDP at Karachi’s TDF Ghar on Friday.

The ‘books’ were people with disabilities willing to share their unique experiences with people. The ‘readers’ or event participants could talk to their chosen ‘book’ for 15 minutes and learn about them.

Photo: Sabrina Rose Bhatti

“I felt
happy and warm when I listened to the stories,” said Dr Ali, an assistant
manager at Siemens Pakistan, who attended the event for the first time. “These
people moved me in ways traditional books possibly can’t.”

The idea is
to provide a safe space where people can know more about people rather than
judging them by their ‘cover’. “I think such events are important because there
is a dire need of changing our mindsets. There is an attitudinal barrier which
will only get better if we get to interact with people with disabilities,” said
Amna Imam, a senior associate at NOWPDP.

Anila, a
member of the Upcycle project, shared how people outright ignore her because of
her hearing disabilities. “People don’t even make an effort to understand what
I’m saying and sometimes act like they don’t see me,’ she said.

Imran Ghanchi,
a member of The Rickshaw Project, says people usually want to hear about his
experiences with discrimination, and he doesn’t hesitate to share. “Most
college and university students ask me questions with an inherent fear of
hurting my sentiments, but I tell them I’m an open book, and they can feel free
to ask me anything,” he added.

Imran is optimistic that people’s attitudes will change and said his experience talking to people has given him hope. “I know that these conversations won’t change people entirely, but I believe that some of them will be moved by the experiences, and when the same people become decision-makers at institutions, they will be more inclusive.”

Photo: Sabrina Rose BhattiHuman library

A human
library concept was intriguing to many people who didn’t know what to expect
from the event. “My first impression of the event is that it’s unique- in the
sense that we haven’t really seen a human library before,” said Ilsa, a

“When I go
out on the streets, to bazaars, schools, malls, or banks, I see that they are
built for able-bodied people. And we don’t think of accessibility in terms of
embedding it in the infrastructure at the time of building our city. So, it’s
important to hear the stories and how our cities are inaccessible for people
with disabilities. Because as able-bodied people, it doesn’t occur to us every
day; we don’t wake up and think about how we’re going to get to the bus stop
because our experiences are entirely different,” she added.

Some people, however, had a concern over the event’s terminology. “Calling people with disabilities books is objectifying them because these are people with stories, lives, and experiences, and calling them a book feels a little one-dimensional,” said Fizza, a journalist. However, she did think that such awareness-raising programmes are essential, and the stories of the people she listened to were inspiring.

The writer is a former member of SAMAA Digital. She tweets at @SabrinaRBhatti.

Abdul Gh Lone