Pakistan: Salma Maqbool

Salma Maqbool's life is an example of "the blind leading the blind", with dignity, courage, commitment, and a brave disregard for her own affliction.

— Salma Maqbool

For most people, a physical affliction is a devastating setback, but for Salma Maqbool (born 1945) it served as an inspiration. After being diagnosed with a serious eye disease in her late 20s, she decided to devote her life to the cause of the disabled multitude in Pakistan and beyond. Her efforts over nearly three decades have inspired the disabled in her country to combat prejudice and fight for their rights, and have helped sensitize society to their situation and special needs.

In 1974, Salma Maqbool was working at a military hospital when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease. Giving up her job, she traveled to Boston, London, Moscow, and India in search of a cure for an affliction that would lead to blindness, but doctors told her that the cure was several decades away. Salma used her visits to contact other people with retinitis pigmentosa as well as government and nongovernment institutions caring for the blind. In 1977, a meeting with Fatima Shah, also blind, proved to be a turning point. Fatima encouraged Salma to start a local branch of the Pakistan Association for the Blind in Rawalpindi. It was here that Salma married Maqbool Ahmed, a blind army retiree, in 1978. Salma, based in Islamabad, has built up self-help organizations for the disabled at provincial, national, and international levels. She is associated with the Pakistan Blind Association, the World Blind Union, and Disabled Peoples International. Women with disabilities in Pakistan are multiply handicapped, facing also gender discrimination and, often, poverty. Salma established a rehabilitation program for disabled women and girls. A center that she helped set up in Rawalpindi, which offers free pick-ups and drop-offs, instruction, Braille education, and audiocassettes, has educated more than 300 girls since 1990. One of its graduates, Rabia Kalsoom, has attained a masters in education, the first women to do so, from Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. Apart from leveraging the media to raise awareness of the disabled, Salma has helped educational institutions develop suitable curricula and provide facilities for disabled students. An institution she has worked for now offers four options to disabled students sitting for exams: a scribe, recordings on cassettes, computers, and verbal responses.

Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness