Bibek's maroon eyes search blankly for something, an identity perhaps. He is wearing his pants back-to-front, saliva dripping down his shirt. With great difficulty, he scribbles 'A' on a piece of paper. At 13, Bibek can neither hear nor speak properly, and when he tries to stand up, he falls down. Holding on to his teacher's hands, he stands up again and the teacher leads him to the bathroom.
Bibek is an intellectually handicapped child, one of the many who attend the Navajyoti Kendra, a daycare centre for mentally handicapped children at Baluwatar. Intellectual disabilities can be caused if the mother falls ill, takes too much alcohol or medications or suffers from a lack of iodine or other vitamins and minerals during pregnancy.
Mental disability is not mental illness. Mentally handicapped children are not ill, they just develop and learn at a much slower pace than normal children. Mild and moderately affected children can be educated to a certain extent.
Traditionally, Nepalis believe that mental disability is a curse of the gods and parents feel ashamed, hiding their handicapped children and restricting their opportunity to explore, understand and learn what they can.
What later became Navajyoti Kendra was opened by an American social worker in 1978 with three boys and two girls. Parents and guardians who felt embarrassed and fearful of their children's condition finally had a daycare centre providing training and guidance. The centre is now run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth with the mission to educate mentally handicapped children in Nepal so they can be independent and happy.
Sixty-five youngsters, ages six to 23, are currently attending Navajyoti. The students are divided into seven groups according to their degree of disability, with each class having 8-10 students. Specialised teachers provide physical and mental exercises to the children who stay at the school from 10AM to 3PM. They are taught to manage their own personal hygiene, household duties and social property.
Classes also focus on language and communication skills, story telling, painting, dancing, yoga, speech therapy and vocational training. In addition, there are health education classes for parents and students, weekly medical checkups, educational tours and picnics.
In spite of everything, parents, guardians and teachers understand that it is not reasonable to expect mentally disabled children to become and behave 'normally'. But Navajyoti believes they can be made more independent and responsible.
"We help the children reach the best of their ability. When they come here and work with other children like themselves, it builds up their confidence and they learn to be more independent," says Bishnu KC, a teacher who has been working at Navajyoti since 1978.
Most of the children at the centre were initially dependent on others even for minor things but, amidst compassionate teachers equipped with effective learning strategies, they learn to understand and follow instructions, take care of personal belongings and express themselves.
Navajyoti children have won medals in International Special Olympics. Other alumni of the centre are now able to support themselves, and some even have part time jobs in offices and agencies in Kathmandu. One is currently working at Bhat Bhateni Supermarket, another is running a small shop near Sundhara. A lot of this is due to the dedication and commitment of the staff at Navajyoti who have persevered despite many challenges and stuck to their motto: 'Handicapped children may be victims of fate, but they shall not be a victim of our neglect.'
Deepti Sharma has just finished Grade 11 at Lincoln School and worked as a summer volunteer at Navajyoti Kendra this year.