PICS: SIAN CHOO TONG
Secondary school teacher Shrikanta Sapkota never thought that as a visually-impaired person he could ever use a computer. But in the last few years, he is active on Facebook, and uses the Internet daily to prepare his lesson plans.
This has been made possible by a unique cyber cafe in Pokhara that specialises in teaching the blind how to navigate the net. The Inclusive Empowerment Center (IEC) is a non-profit working to encourage interaction between the blind and the sighted, one of the first in Nepal. Two out of the 10 computers in the IEC cafe are equipped with JAWS, an assistive audio technology that aids the blind to navigate websites, reading out everything on the screen and guiding users to read and type on the computer.
Sapkota, 26, who used to depend on his peers to check emails, felt that being computer illiterate was a handicap. "Sometimes I have private emails that I don't want people to see," he says, "now I can do everything myself, it makes me feel more independent and confident."
The part-time radio journalist also finds that being able to use the computer challenges the stereotypical assumptions in Nepali society towards the blind. "People used to think that blind people are a burden and can't do anything," he adds, "but I want to show them otherwise." Sapkota learnt computer skills at IEC and now frequents the cyber cafe daily and uses the computer for about an hour each time.
As a social enterprise, profit from the cafe goes directly to the funds used to train students at the IEC (read box). Founder Khom Raj Sharma, who is also visually-impaired, felt that equipping young people with computer skills allows them to gain more knowledge and enables them to get better-paying jobs.
"Nowadays, there is so much information online, that blind people are disadvantaged just because they can't use the computer," Sharma says.
"It helps me keep in touch with friends overseas," he says. As a massage therapist, the Internet also allows him to read reviews of his service on online travelling guides such as TripAdvisor. An unsuccessful eye operation during early childhood caused him to lose his sight in his left eye, while his right eye deteriorated.
But Subedi remains undaunted and constantly seeks to gain more knowledge through cyberspace. "Being able to Google for information helps me in my studies," he says. While he pays about Rs 1,500 for the class, students with financial difficulties get their course fees lowered or waived.
However, out of the 60 blind people trained by the IEC, only five are active users at the cyber cafe. "Many of them are still not confident enough to use the computer regularly," Sharma says. "We still need to encourage them."
To motivate them, the cyber cafe gives a 50 per cent discount to visually-impaired users. Sighted customers have to pay Rs 35 an hour. The IEC also installs the Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) software, another assistive technology for the blind, in the personal laptops of the trainees to aid them in their private use.
Reading books is also no longer a problem, as the cyber cafe can help scan physical reading materials and convert them into a version that can be understood aurally. Sharma says: "I'm looking forward to the day when blind people can have access to the computer if they need it and can use it without support."
Watch Khom Raj Sharma surfing the Internet with assistive audio technology
Watch Sagar Subedi using a computer with assistive audio technology
Not left behind
Despite being born blind with his left eye and having lost his sight in his right eye, Khom Raj Sharma has been passionate about computers ever since he realised how much his sighted peers use the machine. That was 12 years ago.
"They were doing everything on the computer, writing, watching movies, sending messages. I was so amazed," he recalls. So he enrolled at the Technical and Skills evelopment Center for Blind and Disabled in Kathmandu for six months.
Since then, he has been an advocate for computer literacy of the visually-impaired and founded the IEC in 2009 to train the blind in computer skills. He says: "Now everything is done online. How can we be left behind?"
Business for a cause, ANNE RENZENBRINK
Nepali social entrepreneurs are on the rise, but they could do with more support
Licence to ride, MINA SHARMA
Hearing impaired Nepalis demand the government to reconsider laws that bar them from driving
Not seeing is believing, LOCHANA SHARMA in POKHARA
The world's first national blind cricket team transforms the lives of Nepali women
Major Pawan Ghimire lost his sight during the conflict, he has now devoted his life to helping blind sports