Dr. Salma Maqbool, was the voice of the disabled in this country. After she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa — an incurable genetic disorder leading to blindness — she took it upon herself to elevate her individual struggle to a bigger sphere. From there started a journey that left an indelible mark on history of social welfare in Pakistan. A young visually impaired female doctor would go on to single handedly establish ‘Darakhshan’, a Vocational Rehabilitation Centre for Women with Disability, develop the National Policy on Disability for the Ministry of Social Welfare, chair the Committee on the Status of Blind Women of the World Blind Union and manage the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness in the capacity of Chairperson. Her proudest achievement however remained the induction of visually impaired in the Civil Services of Pakistan, a first in the 60-year history of Federal Public Service Commission. This in itself is beyond most will ever aspire to do in their lives, but being her niece I was privy to facets of her personality that were much personal.
Thomas Jefferson once said that the health of a society is measured not at its zenith, but at its base. No one in the recent history of Pakistan has personified this better than the chairperson and trustee of the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness (PFFB) Dr. Salma Maqbool, who died on January 12 last year after undergoing an open-heart surgery. Dr. Salma not only cured countless people through her medical practice but also devoted most of her life for the well-being of those who are at the fringes of our society. She was particularly a beacon of hope, strength and inspiration to millions of disabled people around the globe.
Those who have had the privilege being associated with Dr. Salma often wonder what her strongest personal trait or her biggest asset was. Was it her loving and caring personality; her brilliance; her sense of humour; her positive approach towards life; or her unparalleled commitment to the betterment disabled persons? As one comes to grips with her loss, it is becoming increasingly evident that is not any one particular quality, but all of the above, that constituted her radiant personality.
Dr. Salma was born in 1945. After graduating as a medical doctor in 1974, she was diagnosed as suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetically transmitted disease that leads to loss of vision due to death of rod and cone photoreceptors in the retina. By and by, absolute darkness engulfed the life of a woman who, until her very last breath, ably steered the disability movement in Pakistan, and with her unwavering commitment, made the feeble voice of disabled persons heard at all national and international platforms.
Dr. Salma was a rare breed with no complaints or regrets. In February 1978, she got married to Captain (r) Maqbool Ahmed, who was totally blind at that time but later regained functional sight in one eye. Together, they braved the thick and thin of life for 30 years, with their mutual interest in enabling the disabled further cementing this bond.
Dr. Salma made innumerable contributions to the society through various institutes and organisations. The Darakhshan Resource and Training Centre for Girls and Women with Disabilities, the rehabilitation project of PFFB, was the closest to her heart. She founded Darakhshan in 1990 to impart mobility training, personal grooming, and vocational skills to disabled girls and women, thereby increasing their self-reliance and productivity. This institute has emerged as the gold standard for all NGOs working on skills development for the disabled. The focus of the centre is not to provide monetary support to disabled women, but to equip them with the skills that allow them to get back on their feet.
Dr. Salma believed that with the right training and encouragement, all members of our society, regardless of their gender, social class or disability, can make a positive contribution towards a healthier and prosperous society. The choice of the word Darakhshan (a Persian word for bright and shining) is highly appropriate for the institute. It has been guiding light for those who needed a little support and encouragement to get back on their feet.
Even in the twilight of her professional career, Dr. Salma kept pace with changing needs of persons with disabilities. As chairperson of PFFB, she built a team around her and opened the door of the e-communication gateway for the country’s visually impaired population by launching Pakistan’s first-ever Internet Cafe for the blind in Islamabad on December 25, 2006, just 16 days before her death.
Although Dr. Salma she did not live long enough to cherish the change being brought about by her last project, the internet cafÈ is still functioning and stays open on week days from 1:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The cafÈ is being used by many visually impaired persons who, after getting training in computer skills, are able to find meaningful employment. In addition to this, the beneficiaries of this programme are also benefiting immensely from counselling services which are helping restore their confidence and build their self-esteem.
To categorize Dr. Salma’s work as charity would be a gross mistake. Ask anyone among the millions of people whose lives she transformed, and they will tell you unanimously that they were nothing more to her than simply her own brothers, sisters and children. She was not driven by a sense of charity, but by a sense of responsibility towards her own family.
Dr. Salma was fortunate enough to earn recognition in her lifetime. She was awarded the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 2001, the Fatima Jinnah Award in 2006, Pakistan Golden Jubilee Commemorative Gold Medal for Social Services as a Member of the Rawalpindi Divisional Social Welfare Council in 1997, UN Testimonial for Dedicated Services to the UN World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons in 1992, Disabled People’s International Trophy for Dedicated Services to Disabled People in Asia Pacific Region in 1992, and an Excellence Award for Blind Persons, All India Confederation of the Blind, New Delhi, in 2003.
Dr. Salma was one of those few people who continue to live even after their death. Her legacy was simple: ‘If there is ever a chance to do good, ask not why, but why not.’ (May her soul rest in eternal peace).