Caitlin Burnett

Caitlin Burnett (Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization – BERDO): Caitlin is a native of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She received her BA in psychology and politics from Ithaca university in 2005. At the time of her fellowship, Caitlin was studying for a Master’s degree in ethics, peace and global affairs at the School of International Service at American University.

disability discrimination

28 Jul

Monju is several years my senior. At 28 years old, she has already completed a Master’s degree in history and has been married for some 12 years. Born in Barisal, she attended Dhaka University and has lived in Dhaka for the past decade. By all accounts she is a success, but her story illuminates some important points about life in Bangladesh.

Like some two million Bangladeshis, Monju is blind. At the age of two and a half she contracted typhoid fever and survived, but the disease claimed her eyesight. As a child she attended a blind school in Barisal, then went on to a women’s college, and with the help of BERDO she went on to complete her schooling at Dhaka University. Through scholarships and a “talking” library of books on audio cassette, Monju has benefited from BERDO’s work along with hundreds of students.

But despite her success, she still faces a frustrating prospect; Monju simply cannot find a job.

In a small country with a population of some 140 million people, unemployment is high among Bangladeshis. For job seekers with disabilities, the situation is daunting. Not only is unemployment among the general workforce a huge problem, there are few safeguards to protect disabled persons in Bangladesh from discrimination. “When I go with my application,” Monju states, “they just tell me, ‘there is no job for you.’” Unfortunately, Monju’s experience is a common one, particularly for women with disabilities who face not only Bangladesh’s patriarchal society, but also public opinion that people with disabilities are a burden on their communities and an embarrassment to their families.

In the face of discouraging problems, there are also reasons for optimism. The Bangladeshi Parliament did adopt its first comprehensive disability legislation in 2001, the Bangladesh Persons with Disability Welfare Act, and has signed on to the recent UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, by many accounts these efforts have not been made to serve the disabled community. According to Mr. Huq, Executive Director of BERDO, “some changes are coming. The government has passed the law and signed on to the UN convention- these are symptoms of change.”

Mr. Huq goes on to note however, that “while we have already seen some changes, we have not seen those promised opportunities.” Moreover, in the absence of a parliament little progress promises to be made in the realm of law. Elections for a new democratic government to replace the military caretaker government are not scheduled until the end of 2008.

In the midst of these problems, I have found myself wondering how the international community can help while the local government is nonexistent and all politics are banned. To me, it seems as though the most promising way forward lies in increasing awareness of disability among citizens as well as legislators-to-be while empowering people with disabilities with the skills and resources they need to improve their lives.

From this vantage point, there is a long, long road ahead, but it is one that other countries have traversed successfully before. For the meantime I will take heart in the successes of others across the globe and keep my hope in the generosity and kindness that so often characterize Bangladesh.

Posted By Caitlin Burnett

Posted Jul 28th, 2007


  • caitlin

    July 1, 2007


    I agree that people with disabilities often get overlooked in the political process.

    In Bangladesh, my fear is 1) that the lip service paid to disability rights in the 2001 law and the recent convention will remain only lip service, not concrete changes, and 2) that in the absence of democratic government the disabled communities will be neglected further.

    After a field visit to rural Bangladesh, it also appears to me that appropriate and prompt medical treatment are also of utmost priority. The causes of disability (typhoid, malnutrition, polio, inadequate prenatal care) can be easily avoided- the resources just need to be mobilized!

  • Thanks for writing this resource on your website.

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