MIN RATNA BAJRACHAYA
'Education for all by 2015' is a slogan that sounds hollow to visually-impaired students of Nepal.
In addition to the lack of texts in Braille, blind students are further plagued by the examination system which they say isn't practical for them. Sita Subedi a graduate of Padma Kanya Campus says it is difficult searching for people to write for her during exams. "I waste most of my time during exams explaining the concept to the person writing for me," Sita laments.
Ramesh Pokhrel of Pokhara is a blind teacher who has been teaching at Kalika High School for the last 16 years and has similar complains. "It is a challenge for teachers as well who have to teach without books in Braille and proper training," he says.
In 1964, Laboratory School in Kirtipur introduced education in Braille. Since then, there has been very little done to help blind students. For the past 50 years, the examination system has remained the same and no new teaching materials have been developed. Many schools don't yet even have Braille notebooks, slates, or stylus which means blind students have to rely solely on spoken words only.
Nepal Blind Welfare Association started publishing books in Braille in Nepal since 1986. However, due to the high cost of production very few books are published. A set of Braille books costs between Rs 1,700 to Rs 17,000. The budget of Rs 4 million that the Ministry of Education sets aside for every three years, cannot support the number of books required every year, informs Ramesh Pokhrel, General Secretary of Nepal Blind Association.
Last year's budget helped publish 528 sets of books for school students. Of the total books there is only one set available for every ten students. Recently the Nepal Blind Association with the support of the Education Department published 300 sets of Braille pictures which will be helpful in subjects like Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Three set each will be distributed to 90 schools where visually impaired students study. However, the 700 or so students in medium and high schools don't have access yet.
Audio libraries in Pokhara and Kathamndu have provided some relief to blind students and the Blind Welfare Association also plans to expand mobile libraries in different districts.
Till then it is an uphill battle for the visually impaired in Nepal. For them there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for at least a few years.
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Engineer Him Gautam used to work at the Department of Water Supply before he lost his eyesight in 2001. Back then the only education software available for visually-impaired people was in English. Gautam then began working on similar software in Nepali language which was successfully completed in 2008. The technology is now available to 200 blind people across the country.
With the support of an Australian foundation, Gautam is now working on his own software for blind people in Nepali language called Triveni. Similarly, he has also developed a font converter software that converts eight fonts of Nepali language in Unicode with audio.
A professor of Nepali at Ratna Rajya Campus since 2000, Govinda Prasad Acharya is among very few blind people teaching in colleges. He says that blind students' problems are made worse by the lack of disable-friendly educational institutes. The central library at Tribhuwan University also lacks educational materials and resources for blind students. "Although they have been demanding for better facilities, the university administration has turned a deaf ear," laments Acharya.
Suprabha Aryal is a blind student who passed her grade 12 examinations with the support of an NGO and more importantly by listening to lectures with the help of a friend. Aryal experienced a lot of difficulties as she was unable to find a person to write for her exam. "At times I don't even feel like a real student," says Aryal. She is apprehensive about attending college because of the lack of proper educational materials.