The state of education in Pakistan is in crisis, with 25 million children not in school and most of those who are in school not learning enough. For young people with disabilities, access to quality education is even more difficult. The Ida Rieu Welfare Association aims to address this problem, providing high-quality education and vocational skills training to blind and deaf students.

The story of this remarkable organisation begins in the early decades of the 20th century, when Lady Ida Augusta Rieu, wife of Sindh Commissioner J.L. Rieu, decided to take up the cause of people with disabilities. Although she died in 1921, her dream was realised a year later when the welfare organisation began functioning and by 1936 funding had been secured to start a school for the blind.

Today the Ida Rieu school is a modern facility boasting amenities at par with those at elite educational institutions of the country. In addition to schools for the deaf and the blind, it operates clinics for the sight- and hearing-impaired, a library, science and computer labs, and a hostel. It also provides vocational training in book binding, cane work, ceramics, embroidery, handicrafts, music, painting, tailoring and woodwork. Close of 80 per cent of pupils study free of cost and the remainder pay a fee of 2,500 rupees annually.

“Our students can become PhDs, doctors and professors,” says Atiya Qayyum, Deputy Principal Academics. “With the right schooling, our students can easily transition to higher education or employment.” One student, Shahid Siddique, who is blind, topped the list in the SSC examinations, surpassing 52,000 sighted candidates, and also secured top position in the Intermediate examinations. Many others have scored top marks in board examinations and gone on to secure good jobs, competing with young people from the best educational institutions in the country.

“A school for people with disabilities needs to be more creative in how they teach,” explains Qayyum. Although the school follows the curriculum of the Sindh education board, pedagogical techniques are completely different. “You can’t just teach the regular way. You have to involve all the senses. We use taste, touch, sound, visuals and other methods to teach different students different things. Our teachers also have to be trained to use these tools.” Currently the school employs close to 80 teachers. Students are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities, including martial arts, music, quiz competitions and sports, as well as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.

The school has been in the forefront of innovation in education for people with disabilities. “We are responsible for creating the first Sindhi Braille Code,” says Qayyum, and Ida Rieu’s Braille library was the first such library in the subcontinent. “We were also the first to start mobilisation and orientation programmes for the deaf and blind.” Ida Rieu retains its focus on innovation and technology, running an audiology clinic and making multimedia materials accessible to those with learning disabilities through the international DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) project.

According to projections using 1998 census data, there are roughly 5 million people with disabilities in Pakistan, of which 43 per cent are children between the ages of 1 and 15. The census defines a disabled person as one who “on account of injury, disease or deformity is handicapped for undertaking any gainful profession or employment.” The tragedy is that in many cases this holds true only because there are not enough educational institutions catering to the needs of young people with disabilities.

The Ida Rieu Welfare Association is supported by philanthropic institutions and individuals in Pakistan and abroad. Its motto, ‘Turning Disability Into Ability’, holds true today as it did when in first opened its doors almost 100 years ago. For nearly a century, this unique institution has provided quality education to children and young adults who go on to live productive lives and become proud members of society. Ida Rieu has shown that illness, disease or an accident of birth need not hold back a child from achieving his or her full potential.