During a trivial social media scroll, I came across an article by Tanzila Khan on the popular Soul Sisters Facebook group. Khan had shared photos from his trip to Egypt with his two friends. What was extraordinary about this position was that she and her friends were all in wheelchairs and yet had managed to travel independently.
Their photos made me smile, and it was empowering to read what these women had accomplished, despite the challenges they faced on their travels.
At the same time, it saddened me to realize that such stories are too rare in the mainstream media. It is no exaggeration to say that mainstream Pakistani media leaves a lot to be desired in terms of representation and diversity in storytelling. On the rare occasion that a person with a disability or a child with special needs is seen in a TV show, movie or play, this is often just a one-dimensional, stereotypical portrayal.
Fatima Hasan blogs the reality of life as a young woman with different abilities on Instagram. In a sea of able-bodied beauty and lifestyle influencers, Hasan’s blog is a refreshing space to explore, where she shares her daily life with great charm and grace. Hasan lives with dystonia and dysphonia, which have significantly weakened the muscles in his body, including his vocal cords, affecting his ability to speak.
“When I started my blog, I never thought I would get a good answer, because disability is a huge taboo in Pakistan,” says Hasan. “People don’t easily accept disability. They neglect it and reject it without realizing its emotional and physical impact, ”she says.
Some influencers who use social media to share their challenges as people with disabilities are effectively raising awareness of diversity and inclusiveness
Between articles showing her stylish working lady wardrobe and videos of her fitness regimen, Hasan also shares the challenges of living with a disability. She speaks openly about how negative comments affect her, as well as her mental health issues.
Less inclusiveness in mainstream media not only robs us of witnessing great stories of survival, triumph, grief and resilience, but also isolates an entire community that needs support and connection.
Hassan Ahmad’s journey as Pakistan’s very first deaf vlogger began after realizing how little content there was online accessible to a deaf audience.
“When I would watch [videos of] food reviews on Facebook, ”he says,“ I thought that this was not available to the deaf community because the videos did not have captions. This is how I came up with the idea of creating my own vlogs, so that the deaf community can also learn about restaurants and the conversation around brands and restaurants can be more inclusive, ”says Ahmad.
This is how social media revolutionized and democratized the online landscape. It provides a space for everyone to tell their story, like Hasan, and helps to increase awareness and exposure of diverse voices such as Ahmad’s. The latter has come a long way since his first vlogging review of a pizzeria in Bahria Town, in his hometown of Islamabad. Today, he has an active social media presence and regularly shares videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for his followers.
Its content has grown to include sign language reenactments of popular dramas and videos, educational videos teaching people sign language, as well as glimpses into his everyday life. In addition to being invited to several talk shows to share his experience as a deaf vlogger, he has also been invited to give a TED talk at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.
One of the reasons social media has become such an important part of our lives is its power to connect like-minded people across the world. This is something Danish Mumtaz immediately discovered when he created an Instagram account documenting his 13-year-old son Sulayman’s journey with autism.
Mumtaz publishes articles on Sulayman’s workouts, making him his favorite activities and daily milestones. The father also uses this space to talk about autism and share information with other parents who have children with special needs.
Based in Malaysia, Mumtaz was trained in the Son-Rise program, a home-based program for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders. After his training, he decided to share on Instagram the strategies that helped Sulayman. He received an immediate response, and many messages of gratitude from parents of children with special needs who sought the comfort of a community.
“Half the time the parents who call me don’t want a diagnosis,” says Mumtaz, “they don’t want my help, they just want to talk. They just want to hear from another parent say it’s a tough situation and like any other support system it helps.
Having a presence on Instagram also positively affected Sulayman. “He knows he has an Instagram account now,” says Mumtaz. “I had a huge problem trying to make him smile. Now he knows Baba is taking a picture and it is going to be posted somewhere. So now when I take the camera out, he instantly smiles at him, ”says the proud dad.
While Mumtaz has founded a large community of fathers with autistic children on Instagram, the majority of users who have connected with him are Pakistani women, who either have a child with autism or suspect their child has the autism spectrum.
These women are also asking for advice on how to get their partners more involved in the life of their child with autism.
“These women found it difficult to involve their husbands in treatment,” says Mumtaz, “or even participate in the conversation, because they were either in denial or had given up. Many mothers have said that they show my messages to their husbands so that they can see that it is not that bad. And that’s what I’ve been preaching from the start. Your child has autism, but it’s not the end of the world. If you have a living, healthy child, this is all you could possibly want.
Through her blog, Hasan also made connections with women in Pakistan living with dystonia and dysphonia. “The best answer is when people with the same disease contact me,” she says. “There is a perception that dystonia is not common in Pakistan, but now I think it has never been researched here, so we lack statistics.”
Hasan’s blog drew media attention to the issues of living with dystonia and dysphonia. A constant message in many of his interviews and social media posts is that people need to empathize, foster an understanding of people with disabilities and recognize them as equal members of society.
She wants to encourage women with different abilities to kiss and express themselves with confidence: “Loag kya kahengey? [What will people say?] will never end, but your life will end, so live it with pride, ”she says. “Be confident with who you are.”
With digital technology shaping our way of life, Ahmad believes the deaf community can use social media to improve their lives. “Social media has given the deaf community a platform to express their opinions in their own language. These digital platforms also help them access earning opportunities just like the rest of society. ”
He says his videos have helped educate deaf and hearing communities. “My videos are appreciated not only by the deaf community, but also by the hearing community at large, as it gives them exposure to Deaf culture and the chance to learn sign language.”
For me personally, following the stories mentioned above adds immense value to my life. These people inspire and educate me. When it comes to my offline interactions, I tend to stay in my comfort zone, spending time with a small group of family and friends. It is social media that has given me the privilege of looking at the world from the perspective of people who live different lives than mine.
However, as I gain insight into their daily lives and their unique challenges, I also realize how far we still have to go to understand disability and special needs. The hope is that we will continue these conversations offline and ensure that inclusiveness is not something that we have limited to the virtual world.
The writer is in charge of communication at LUMS. she tweets @sameenmohsin
Posted in Dawn, EOS, November 28, 2021