Blind at birth, Babu K Maharjan feels he lives in a different world, not because he can't see but in the way society and the government looks down on him and the rest of the disabled population.
A 1995 UNICEF report put the number of disabled Nepalis at a staggering 10 percent of the population. By today's count, that should make 2.5 million people in this country are hearing impaired, visually challenged or mentally and physically unstable.
"In the villages, our disabled children and parents are crying for help but their voices are ignored," says Maharjan, acting president of the National Association of Disabled-Nepal (NADN). There is great awareness and sympathy, it is mostly lip-service. Since the Maoists started their 'People's War', the number of the physically and mentally disabled individuals have risen adding to the disabled population, according to experts.
"The UN and NGOs only talk about protecting children from the conflict or extend their sympathy for the dead, they never seem to care much about the children who are still alive with broken limbs and in trauma," says Nirmal K Debkota, speaking in sign language. The hearing impaired Debkota says he may not be able to scream for the government's help, but he has millions of friends to make his voice heard.
In July, Debkota joined a huge delegation from the NADN to present their case with its 15-point demand to Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa at his office. This meeting also launched the first-ever movement to demand equal rights and privileges for the disabled. All they were asking for was an amendment to the Disabled Persons Protection and Welfare Act introduced in 1982 during the Panchayat regime. Their demands also included five percent reservation seats in government jobs, free medical treatment in all government hospitals, 50 percent discount on transportation, free education for children and compensation for those disabled by conflict. Says Maharjan: "So far nothing has happened, but we will not give up."
Nepal became the first country in South Asia to introduce an act in favour of the disabled population, but lags behind the rest in implementation. In theory, Nepal's commitment towards the disabled is probably one the best in the world but neither the government nor the NGOs have done much, despite significant funding. Most of the disabled people, whether poor or rich, rely on family support, just as they always have.
"We are not asking for sympathy, just recognition for our skills and capabilities," says Arjun Timilsina (see pic) from Jhapa, who lost both his legs 18 years ago after a car accident while trying to save an old woman along the Jiri highway. It is difficult for Timilsina to negotiate the staircase in his wheelchair to reach the office of the Ministry of Women and Social Welfare, but he is there to convince officials that disabled people can also contribute to the nation's development.
Maharjan gives an example of the indifferent attitude of the government: despite a provision in the 1982 Act, disabled children who are guaranteed free education are still required to pay school fees. In 2000, Maharjan and his friends won a case at the Supreme Court to provide free education to all disabled children. "As a follow up, I visited a lot of schools and was shocked to find disabled children, even those from poor families, still paying fees. The matter has been ignored by NGOs too," says Maharjan.
It is not just indifference, government officials are ignorant about the laws. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2001 estimated that only 0.45 percent of the total population was disabled. "The government lacks a clear definition of a disabled person," says Bishnu Kunwar Singh, 28, from Gulmi, who had her left arm amputated. "Can you believe that I am not counted as disabled even though I don't have an arm?" She recently completed her Masters in Nepali and is having problems finding a job. Singh runs a centre for disabled women and wants to help them be independent. "I want to encourage more girls to study whether or not there are jobs waiting for them," she adds.
For now, this group of disabled Nepalis are preparing to launch a much stronger campaign to ensure their representation in all sectors, even politics. "We have no one but ourselves to rely on," says Tekhnath Neupane, a visually challenged teacher. "We want the government to create an environment where there is equal opportunity for all citizens." He wants the government to recruit more disabled people in the education sector. Out of the 200,000 teachers in government schools, only 400 are disabled.
"We don't want to blame the government or depend on it totally, but it is high time we were recognised for our worth," says Maharjan who believes the private sector and citizens have a role to play in giving them a chance to live with the basic rights and privileges accorded to all citizens. "There are some in the private sector who have been helping us but it is more out of pity than respect for our capability."
The business of helping
Nepal's top restaurateur Shyam Kakshapati's derives joy not just from his successful restaurant business, but also from employing 40 hearing-impaired waiters and waitresses in three of his Nanglo Bakeries in the Valley.
"I wanted to show the world that they are equally professional," says Kakshapati who has made his name as an entrepreneur with a heart. Since Kakshapati turned his small caf? into a successful restaurant venture, others were quick to copy his idea. Many named their cafes similarly and even copied Bakery Caf?'s trademark green. But one thing no one copied was its social consciousness and philanthropic mission.
The idea of hiring hearing-impaired staff came to Kakshapati even before he started his first small caf?. He wanted to run his businesses differently by combining social service with the service industry. If he could generate employment for the disabled while satisfying his guess, he had a win-win situation.
"I'm glad this is working well," says Kaksapati. While they have might certain disadvantages compared to normal people, Kakshapati makes sure that there is no public show of pity or special treatment. "That way we don't cross the line and take advantage of each other," adds Kakshapati who believes that the business community has social obligations and it's not just the government's duty to change the circumstances of the disabled. "If the business community wants, they can create so many opportunities for this section of the population," says Kakshapati.
His next challenge is to give vocational training for disabled people in the Information Technology industry so they can get decent jobs. He also hopes to employ more disabled in his other hotels and restaurants.