News Makers 2017

Against all odds

  • One woman’s quest to make basic education available to thousands of visually-impaired across the country
- Abijeet Pant, Kathmandu
But tougher than the challenges Nirmala faced in expanding the library from a few books is her journey which established her as one of the front liner advocates of differently-abled people

Dec 31, 2017-If it were not for Nirmala Gyawali’s perseverance, Nepal’s one and only Braille Library wouldn’t have existed. While establishing a library as such is a testimony to anyone’s hard-work and will to give back to the society, there is another facet that magnifies her contributions: Nirmala herself is visually impaired by birth.

Gyawali is differently-abled, but apart from that existential facticity, there is little that separates her from others: She knows every bus route and stops in Kathmandu. She has degrees in Major English and Sociology from Nepal and the US, respectively. And after having worked with the International Organization for Migration for six years, since 2014, she is now working with Ability Development Society of Nepal (ADSON), an organisation that specialises in the empowerment of people with disabilities.

Putting her white cane aside, Nirmala can often be seen reading in the library of 22,000 books stacked in thirty eight bookshelves. These books belong to genres of all kinds, ranging from Natural Science references to the popular Harry Potter series. But tougher than the challenges Nirmala faced in expanding the library from a few books to its current collection is the journey which established her as one of the front liner advocates of differently-abled people.

Born in 2040 BS in Gulmi, she was not the only child in her family to have this impairment. Among the five children born to the Gyawali family, Nirmala and her two elder siblings were also born with the visual impairment. But thanks to assistance from the Nepal Youth Foundation, Nirmala was brought to Kathmandu for schooling, where she completed her primary education and learnt Braille from the Laboratory School, Kirtipur.

Nirmala passed her SLC from Ideal Model School with a laudable 64.28 percentage, even though she hadn’t attempted diagrammatic questions and skipped the Science practicals.

“I had one of my juniors to write the answers on my behalf as I would dictate my answers to him,” Nirmala recalls those days.

Then she went on to study Humanities at Campion Academy, in Kumaripati where she topped her class and eventually all of her tuition was waived.

As she was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree, she applied to a programme called Partnership for Learning Undergraduate Studies, a programme that was to select 184 students from all over the world to offer them higher studies in the United States. She was the only candidate with a visual impairment.

The ensuing twenty six months in the US not only helped Nirmala build a strong academic foundation but also inspired her with the abundance of opportunities that were available--opportunities unheard of back in Nepal.

By attending trainings at the Colorado Center for the Blind, Nirmala learned to work on computers using software that are ‘blind-friendly’. During her college excursions, she got a chance to visit libraries with collections of all kinds of Braille books. Above all, she came across many offices which were predominantly run by people having the same impairment as her.

After her graduation in 2007, she returned back to Nepal with inspirations from the Colorado Center. She wanted to build a career of her own, but initially struggled to land a job. “I searched for a job for about nine months, I was very frustrated,” Nirmala shares.

Her job hunt finally ended when she was appointed by the IoM at the Bhutanese Refugee Camp in Jhapa. She gave cultural orientation sessions and trainings to Bhutanese refugees flying to the US for asylum. Working there for seven years––far away from family and the Capital––she also succeeded in converting her dream project into a reality: Building the first Braille library in Nepal.

With the help of Nirmala’s Seattle-based friend and a Rotarian, Robert Rose, she called on various libraries to donate Braille books, which began arriving in Nepal via plane––using the ‘free post for blind’ provision. The Braille library was then set up at the premises of the National Association for the Welfare of the blind (NAWB) in Thapathali, the umbrella body for the visually impaired.

Om Bam Malla, executive director at NAWB, shares that about 150 people visit the library annually. “Though the number is not all that flattering, we have to say that it still is a good turnover,” he says.

While, Nirmala adds, “There is still a long way to go to properly develop a reading culture among visually-impaired students. Moreover, we are currently trying to convert it into a mobile library so that it reaches more readers.”

Additionally, these days Nirmala has been working on various programmes to uplift the living standards of not just visually-impaired, but also people with other physical disabilities. Though ASDON, she has been working to provide vocational trainings like sewing, embroidery and the production of reusable sanitary pads.

“Our main focus is to try to create an environment where people can earn their bread and butter, in spite of their physical differences,” she shares, “Even in the US, the visually-impaired have reached respectable posts like that of an attorney. We must train people by clearly considering their limitations.”

Similarly, Nirmala has been advocating for the availability of Braille textbooks all over the country. “Though the academic session starts in Baisakh, people do not get Braille books even until Magh in so many regions of Nepal,” she says, “We try to ensure that this doesn’t happen. And we have also been distributing special Braille books on human anatomy, and a World Atlas, among others.”

“Though our constitution clearly boasts the provision of ‘Education for all’, it hasn’t been implemented in reality. Why are we lagging behind when it comes to educational opportunities for differently-abled people?” Nirmala asks. “Furthermore, there is a lot to be developed in the social security sector. Serious reform must come from the policy level.”

Her message to every differently abled person is simple: utilise every opportunity that comes along your way. “Due to what we are, we must work harder than others. And only by utilising all the opportunities, can we triumph despite our limitations,” she shares. “As they often say, the opportunities are available only to 10 percent among us; we should bear in mind that this 10 percent should work towards empowering the remaining 90 percent.”

Published: 31-12-2017 13:34

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