When I was first invited by Bhutan Foundation for a consultative meeting on the production of a documentary to raise public awareness on the needs and rights of persons with disabilities in Bhutan, I had not thought that I would be the central character in the film. When I was later approached with a request to lead the story in the documentary, I was humbled with the offer but also anxious at the same time because I was not sure how well I would be able to present myself in the lead role. However, I finally accepted the offer with a strong conviction that I might be able to inspire and motivate other persons with disabilities and raise public awareness on disability-related issues through the story of my personal life.
Due to the lack of commitment on the part of the concerned agencies to produce reading materials in accessible formats, the visually impaired people in Bhutan still do not have access to public libraries and other resources. As of now, we are able to access only the free materials published online such as news articles and stories. The major publications such as books, magazines and research articles are beyond our reach. Forget about having the library books and other publications in accessible formats, we don’t even have enough textbooks that are accessible for the students especially those studying in higher secondary schools and university colleges. The publishers are too concerned about the copyrights that they are not willing to share the electronic version of their publications with the visually impaired readers. A library is the most popular source of information and knowledge but without accessible materials available, there is no way a visually impaired person can access it.
In order to celebrate the auspicious Dawa Dangpai Losar, I and some of my visually impaired friends got together and went to Paro with our families for a dry picnic today. It was a great occasion for all of us to have quality time together because in the hassle and bustle of busy urban life, social gatherings are becoming rare nowadays. It was also a wonderful opportunity for our kids to have outdoor fun together despite enjoying delicious foods brought by different people. We had planned this event since a couple of months ago and we had been looking forward to this big day for months. But the bad weather over the past couple of days caused some worries in us that we may not be able to execute our plans. However when the sun came up this morning, I knew we were finally on our way to Paro. My children were equally excited about it.
As a child, I was very active and agile. Climbing rocks and cliffs used to be my favorite adventure although the elder people in the family wouldn’t let me do it fearing I might fall down. I know I was not good at climbing trees but when it came to cliffs and rocks, I could climb them without much difficulty. Even the smallest crack lines on the rock’s surface would be enough for my hands to get a grip and I could balance my body quite easily as I pulled myself up. I often used to compete with myself on climbing some of the small cliffs and rocks in the village whenever elders were not at home. Probably because of being blind, I was not afraid of heights.
We have been lately talking about inclusive education in Bhutan and some of the schools have already been modified to accommodate children with varying abilities in the same learning environment. But no matter how accessible the general infrastructures of the school might be, or how well trained are the teachers dealing with students with special needs, I think the goal of inclusive education cannot be achieved if the school curriculum is not inclusive. When we talk about inclusive education, people mostly think about only accessible physical infrastructures within the school campus and disabled-friendly facilities and services. But we have never thought of the curriculum which is the backbone of formal education system in the country. I feel that our school curriculum is very rigid at the moment. We are expected to learn what is prescribed in the textbooks and not what we are good at or what we love doing. When the curriculum is developed, the needs of persons with disabilities especially the visually impaired children are never considered. As a result, the curriculum is largely visual-based and hence, the visually impaired children are deprived of the opportunity to participate equally in the classroom.
As the Capital City of Bhutan, Thimphu has been undergoing a major transformation over the years with numerous developmental activities coming up in all corners. With various modern facilities and infrastructures in place, the city has been considered a safe haven for thousands of Bhutanese people who come here for education, employment and business. However, with the rising cases of senseless murder, burglary and robbery over the recent years, I think Thimphu is now losing the glory of its past. There are many people who no longer feel safe here today.
On a hot July day in 2003, Dhan Bahadur Subba and his friends were felling trees in the jungle of Gedu under Chukha Dzongkhag. They had got the contract work to supply timber. The 18-year-old Dhan Bahadur was cutting the trunk of a huge tree with a chainsaw while his friends were working on other trees nearby. However, what he did not realize at the time was that the vibration from his chainsaw was causing a half-dried branch straight above him to slowly break away. Then at the flash of a second, he heard a crashing sound as the branch snapped off and came down straight on him. The branch hit his head and knocked him unconscious.
Bhutan is largely an agrarian society with the majority of people depending on agricultural farming for livelihood. Keeping this in view, we can safely say how our farmers play an important part in deciding the future of our economy. They are the key segment of our population. Without them, the country’s economy cannot prosper. We constantly talk about food security and economic independence, but we often fail to recognize how much our farmers in the villages toil in their fields every day to help us realize these national goals. I feel they would be the only consolation for the nation in times of global crises or famine. If they do not do their job well, I think more than half the population of this country would go hungry. Those of us who live in the towns and cities may earn money from employment or business, but in times of economic crises, we cannot eat the money raw. Only during such times we would realize how our farmers can become our real saviors. The point I am trying to drive home is that what they do in their fields throughout the year is directly proportional to the economic prosperity of the country. Hence, every farmer in the village who toils in the sun and the rain round the clock deserves to be treated with equal dignity and respect like anybody else, if not more.
With the advent of television and internet in Bhutan in 1999, the digital contents and audio-visual media have been providing an efficient way for the general public to access news, information and entertainment in the country. The publishing sector delivers most of its contents through their websites while the audio-visual contents are delivered mostly through the national television. Although the emergence of new technologies and innovative practices have revolutionized Bhutanese media over the years, the issue of media accessibility for persons with disabilities especially the visually impaired people still remains. Prior to the era of television and internet in Bhutan, the BBS Radio was the most popular source of information and since it delivered audio contents, accessibility was never an issue for us. However, with the advent of television and internet services, people began to give more importance to graphic contents and as a result, we the visually impaired people began to fall aside. Today, with some information delivered only in graphics and without audio description, we feel we are deprived of our right to access information and entertainment on mainstream media. However, the lack of media accessibility is no longer a technical issue today. We have all the appropriate technologies in place that have the potential to make our mainstream media fully accessible and inclusive. Now the issue lies only with those people who have those technologies in hand. If they have the will, they have all the resources to make their contents fully accessible for persons with disabilities without compromising the quality.
As Bhutan celebrated the 109th National Day in Trongsa today, it was once again time for all of us to collectively reflect on what the country has done for us and what we can do for the country. The entire nation felt blest as we witnessed the three generations of monarchs: the past, present and the future kings gracing the historic occasion today with their presence. I unfortunately missed His Majesty the King’s live address to the nation on television, but I remained conscious enough not to miss the re-telecast of the address in the evening. As an ordinary Bhutanese citizen, I got deeply touched by His Majesty the King’s concerns for the country and its people. I even became emotional when His Majesty shared his noble dreams for Bhutan. Among so many important issues His Majesty highlighted in his address, here are two key messages that touched me the most.
On 3rd December 2016, Bhutan joined the global community to observe the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on the theme “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want”. This theme recognizes the role of these recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals in building a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities around the world. Unlike the past years when all the relevant agencies used to come together to celebrate the day, this year’s celebration stretched out to reach larger audience in different places as different agencies came up with their own programs and activities to observe the event. For instance, the Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB) and the Special Education Division of the Ministry of Education went to celebrate the day at Tendruk Central School in Sibsoo under Samtse Dzongkhag while the other Disabled Persons’ Organizations like the Ability Bhutan Society and Draktsho Vocational Training Center had a grand celebration in Tashi Taj Hotel in Thimphu. Likewise, the relevant institutes such as the Wangsel Institute for the Deaf in Paro, Muenselling Institute of Khaling and other inclusive schools around the country celebrated the day in their own locality with various exciting activities.
I was truly delighted to be part of the Bhutanese delegation to participate in the Australia Awards South and West Asian Regional Alumni Workshop which was held in Kathmandu, Nepal from 17-18 November 2016. There were five of us from Bhutan who were selected to take part in the workshop themed “Education for All”. Although the Bhutanese team members were new to each other, we quickly developed acquaintance and made up an excellent team.
Having to live with the guilt of hurting someone unintentionally is really a traumatic experience. As soon as I instinctively shared on Facebook what eventually turned out to be a rumor about the missing Bhutanese student in Australia about two weeks ago, I felt as though I slipped off the edge of this entire world. Although I removed the post as soon as I doubted its authenticity, somebody was quick enough to take the screenshot of the story and started sharing it across Facebook and WeChat. It was indeed this copy of the post that ignited the issue and went viral on social media. So I feel it was this copy of the post that did more harm than mine. I believe everybody who deliberately shared the post to defame me should also be equally guilty of spreading the rumor and hurting the sentiments of more people. Many people soon contacted me privately and accused me of posting the story. I had to spend hours trying to explain and apologize to them individually. At last, I was able to make peace with most of them except a few whom I personally know. A former school-counsellor who is currently studying in Perth even went to the extent of defaming me openly on my Facebook wall. He openly questioned my professional ethics as a counselor and I fully agree that I have overlooked it when I blindly shared what I heard in a WeChat forum. But if we turn the table around, he is also a professional counselor, and yet the way he is using the social media to launch personal attacks on me does not demonstrate his ethical practice either. He seems to be a better counselor than me with good understanding of counseling ethics and values, but I can’t understand why he is so keen to spread the hatred towards me through social media. As a counselor, he should be able to see me just as one of his clients or an ordinary human being at this point of time. . He must know that a counselor is also a human being and he/she can never be perfect all the time. I have made the mistake and I have accepted it. So what is the point in digging the dried shit again and again?
Last Friday, I was walking with two of my friends on the Doebum Lam highway in Thimphu when a news reporter from India stopped us and asked us why Bhutanese people are happy. The reporter told us that his team was in Bhutan to understand our secrets to happiness. He excitedly talked to us how Bhutan has been known to the outside world as the Land of Happiness and that he was interested to find out why. So in response to his question, this is the gist of what I told him:
As Bhutan observed Thrue-bab or the Blessed Rainy Day yesterday, three of my visually impaired friends and their families joined me at my house for a simple meal. Keeping in mind the spiritual significance of the day, we all chose to have a simple vegetarian meal to join the nation in observing this year’s Thrue-bab. Although the Blessed Rainy Day is traditionally supposed to be a feasting day for the common people as it marks the end of the farming season and the beginning of the harvesting season, it is also believed to be an auspicious and holy occasion for Buddhists. On this day, it is believed that the rain will be blest with elixir and has the supernatural power to cleanse all our sins and bad karma if we take bath during the most auspicious hour specified by renowned astrologers. So since it is a holy occasion, even those friends of mine who were not vegetarians agreed to stay clean for at least this Thrue-bab yesterday.