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In May this year, the government made a big show when Nepal ratified the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as its Optional Protocol. The government was expected to guarantee disabled Nepali citizens their rights as dictated by the UN after the ratification. A big statement, one could say, given the nature of our government. And stories from the visually-impaired relegate this pompous statement to pure inaction in implementing the Convention.
Nineteen-year-old Manil Maharjan, a plus-two graduate, faces major challenges in getting enrolled in a university as he is partially blind. Manil had access to Braille only up to grade six and was abandoned by his school thereon. “There aren’t enough books with Braille and Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY), and I have suffered because of that,” he says. “My brothers and sisters would read aloud for me to catch up with my studies after grade seven.” School officials did not help him at all; he was made to take written tests on his own without the help of a substitute writer. But despite the indifference, he managed to score well consistently.
Maharjan could have done much better in his studies had he had access to the services that a visually-impaired student is entitled to. He now wants to enroll in a university to pursue journalism. The subject is challenging enough for a visually-impaired person, but the lack of facilities creates greater hurdles for Maharjan. “I can’t go in the field and tackle crowds,” he says. “Similarly, I will not be able to use reporting tools such as cameras.” But Maharjan can still stay in office and interview people via telephone to write articles. “I would like to work for online media and do something for people like me,” he adds.
The ratification of the disability convention by Nepal is expected to bring “a paradigm shift in attitudes and approaches towards persons with disabilities.” Disabled people are not to be regarded as objects to be sympathised with, but as “active members of society with equal human rights to make decisions based on free and informed consent”.
With the convention ratified, one hopes that efforts of people like Maharjan are treated with respect. Previously, he had tried to write articles for UNICEF to publish on their website. But his tenacious efforts received no response. Such a reaction has become expectant to him; but he keeps his spirits up, and has not given up hope.
Another student who faces similar obstacles is 23-year-old Shova Gurung, who is pursuing a degree in education at Mahendra Ratna Campus in Tahachal. Gurung does not own a computer which she can use for digital-talking books, and her college does not provide them either. She thus resorts to using a recorder in class. “But recorded words from teachers are not enough. I had a desire to learn more about what was being taught in class. But what I can do? There’s neither a Braille text of the books taught, nor digital talking books. It gets tougher for us to understand the text when the teacher explains on the blackboard and through other visual media,” she says.
Gurung does not feel included in her college. Though her school years were better than Maharjan’s because she got Braille textbooks till class ten, her college life is fraught with extraordinary hurdles. She wants to pursue a career in teaching and will have to compete with normal people to be addressed as a teacher. Despite having no support, she is optimistic. “The life of a visually-impaired person like me is always full of obstacles. I have made it this far and have overcome the difficulties society places on me. I have enough strength to claim my future.”
There are about 200,000 partially sighted and 250,000 visually-impaired people in Nepal according to National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN). Among them, only 5,000 children are enrolled in schools and 1,500 are pursuing higher education. Some schools do provide textbooks in Braille but higher education institutions have no study materials in Braille at all. Birendra Raj Pokhrel of NFDN suggests the government to introduce books in DAISY format, as it is cheaper than Braille.
NGOs like the National Association of the Blind have established audio libraries in Pokhara. Similarly, Nepal Association for the Welfare of Blind established the National Braille Library in Kathmandu in March this year. These efforts provide hope, but the entire population of the visually-impaired remains yet to be reached.
The government, on the other hand, has acted minimally. It hired two visually-impaired people after the Civil Services Regulation introduced a policy of 5 percent reservation for the disabled in 2007. Similarly, a policy introduced in the budget plan in 2009—which states that persons with disability in private companies will get a 5 percent reduction in taxes for the company—is still practised. However, there has been no sign of action since it ratified the convention in May, as can be seen from the utter lack of any disabled-friendly infrastructure in public spaces.
The government agrees it hasn’t done enough to help the disabled. But what is more frightening is the candid explanation that it doesn’t have any plans to help the visually-impaired at all. Joint spokesperson at the Ministry of Education Dr. Lekhnath Paudel says that there is no monitoring for the availability of Braille books in schools and that the government has no policies for translating course books into DAISY format. Similarly, there are no plans to establish handicap-friendly libraries.
The absence of policy and inaction clearly speaks of indifference and inability to implement the UN Convention for persons living with disabilities. The ratification could soon be rendered meaningless, but people like Maharjan and Gurung continue to fight their battle and keep their spirits high to seize the dreams they are entitled to.