Recently, a group of six visually impaired people in Thimphu had gone to the Bank of Bhutan to apply for ATM and M-BoB services. But the bank did not accept their request because they could not sign. This has ignited an interesting discussion within the visually impaired community in Bhutan. I think the banks believe that all those who cannot sign are illiterate and hence, they can be irresponsible and vulnerable to theft and robbery. But not all the visually impaired people are illiterate. Everybody who has studied at Muenselling Institute in Khaling knows how to read and write, at least electronically or in braille. The only problem with them is that many of them do not have signatures just because they cannot sign. As a result, they are denied access to the online banking facilities which otherwise would make their lives much easier.
The people with eyesight seem to see so little that they often fail to recognize what is around them. Whenever I hear about people falling off the cliff or bumping into objects on the way, I just wonder why they have not been able to make full use of their eyes. My wife occasionally goes out to attend public functions and celebrations, but always comes back to say that she did not see anything. I have many friends who have been in the woods but have not seen anything special there.
The tradition of consulting astrologers has always been an integral part of our social and cultural life for centuries. Even today, many people still continue to believe in the astrological findings and consult astrologers whenever they feel inadequate in their efforts to pursue their dreams. Besides, we also consult astrologers when a child is born or when a person has died to see what the future holds for him/her. This practice and the belief it generates gives us a psychological comfort and satisfaction. The astrologers believe that the movements and positions of the stars and planets significantly influence the way we think and act. The predictions are therefore derived from the careful observation of the movement and position of those celestial bodies in our solar system. In the modern era of advanced science and technology that promote logical thinking and reasoning, it sounds like a fairy-tale to believe that our life can be predicted when we do not even know what will happen to us the next moment.
When I was studying in Khaling, we had developed a unique code-language that enabled us to communicate privately amongst us. Being visually impaired, it was of great advantage for us because we could safely talk about anything without the fear of being intercepted by teachers and other staff of the school. We always felt safe to converse in our code-language because nobody outside our circle of friends could comprehend it.
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.
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.
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 a blind, I think nothing is more difficult than having to communicate with a deaf person. Whenever we the disabled people from different parts of the country come together on special events such as the celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities and other disability-related programs, we the visually impaired persons and the hearing impaired persons reach a real deadlock not being able to communicate and interact with each other. On one hand, the hearing impaired persons can’t hear what we say and on the other hand, we can’t see the sign language they use. What makes the matter worse is that we the visually impaired persons do not have the concept of sign language and hence, we can’t even gesture what we are saying to them. To someone who can see and hear, the situation may look so funnyand unique but this is a reality.
My wife is illiterate and looks innocent but sometimes she can really think out of the box and tiptoe far into the future. Realizing how disability can create barriers even within the family, she always tries to keep our children closer with me with the hope that they would grow up learning to accept me as their disabled father. Ever since my eldest son and my adopted daughter were 6 or 7 years old, she would let them guide me whenever we went out into the town or other places and every time I refused to walk with them not being able to trust them, she would always warn me they would hesitate to walk with me when they grow up if we don’t let them do it right now. Yes, after all, she was right. I realized that we should never let such a wall form between me and my kids right from the beginning. Hence, I always started walking with my kids whenever I went out and today, my eldest son always comes to my office after his school hours to fetch me home. As of now, both my adopted daughter and eldest son do not seem to hesitate to walk with me and this is what my wife wants to see in all the times to come.
The 21st century is truly an era of technological revolutions. With the advent of advanced technology, our life today has certainly become more comfortable and meaningful than ever. Science is continuously pushing its boundaries into the world of unexplored mysteries and trying to demystify whatever that appears beneficial for us to understand. With the expansion of scientific thinking and innovations, I think the word ‘impossibility’ is soon going to be a thing of the past. I am blind but the advanced technology has enabled me to move comfortably along with other non-disabled people, be it in the office or at home so far. Now with the advent of smart phones, my life is now becoming even more comfortable as numerous applications are being designed to help the blind see right through their mobile phones.
You might have noticed that almost all devices with numeric keypads such as telephones, mobile handsets and remote controllers have a raised dot or a raised bar on number 5, but have you ever wondered why? It certainly has more meaning than just being part of the layout of the keypad/keyboard. In this article I will try to explain the purpose of this striking feature to the best of my knowledge.
When I lost my sight at the age of 9, I was totally shocked and confused. I didn’t know what was happening around me and what kind of future I was heading to. All my family-members, relatives and neighbors were deeply worried about my future. They all thought that with my sight gone, my door to the outside world was shut forever. Everybody thought that I would have to spend the rest of my life depending on others for help. All those who came to see me sympathized with me and I became the mouthpiece of everybody in the neighborhood. It was really a terrible experience. I lost the ability to do many things which I used to do easily when I had sight. My hopes and dreams all collapsed at once. But after I went to school, I slowly began to see the beauty of my new world and discovered my own strengths. I gradually regained my confidence to live a normal life with others and I got back my smiles that had vanished along with my sight. . Today, I am a happy person despite of being deprived of the opportunity to see the physical world with my own eyes. Although I have lost my sight, I have got the vision of my life. My disability is actually supposed to limit my freedom and choices to enjoy the real beauty of this life, but as I grew up, I began to see in it many advantages instead. Following are some of the advantages of being blind I have come to understand based on my own personal experiences:
As you might know, today is a special day set aside in many countries in the world to celebrate the achievements of persons with visual impairment and to promote white cane as an important symbol of independence for the blind. Over the years, the white cane has become a very popular tool of mobility as well as a symbol of independence for the blind across the globe because it is this particular device that has brought the visually impaired persons out into the streets and highways, and helped them live a fully independent life in the community. Prior to the invention of this type of cane, the life of visually impaired persons was mostly confined within the four walls of their house. But today with the help of this mobility device, we the visually impaired people have been able to come out into the public and participate in the mainstream society without much difficulty.
It still freezes my nerves whenever I think of those accidents which I have narrowly escaped during my school days. As a child, I guess I was quite restless and adventurous because I still remember being always curious about everything my hands landed on. I would keep exploring things around me until I got some clues what they were and I was not afraid to put my hands into almost anything to explore what was beneath or inside. One day when I was living with my late father in Gai Khure, above Rinchending, I still remember putting my fingers deep into a small hole I had discovered in the ground while playing until I found some small eggs. I didn’t know they were frog’s eggs until I broke one of them and placed it on the top of a flat rock. There was a premature little frog which instantly died after being heated by the scorching sun. I was able to see at that time though. When I told this to my father, he scolded me for risking myself from the bites of poisonous creatures like snakes and centipedes. But I still continued to explore whatever I saw and whatever my hands reached for. When I was in the village, I and my late sister often used to go to the river to take bath and try to catch fish. During such times, I used to put my hands deep underneath huge rocks in the murky water and take out dangerous crabs with my bare hands without being hurt by them. However, my inborn talents to catch crabs finally came to a stop after a small soft-bodied crab pinched me on the finger so hard that I even cried. That was the most terrible and painful experience I ever had, and I instantly stopped catching crabs, but I still continued my adventures in other areas. I used to catch all types of spiders, tease the swarms of beetles in their nests, learn to be a sharp shooter by stoning red-headed lizards peeping out from behind trees at the distance and indulge in many other mischievous and often risky activities. But all that happened before I lost my sight.
It’s normal for sighted people to wonder how we the visually impaired people interact with the outside world and make sense of things around us. People obviously feel that there is no other more painful situation than having to spend the entire life in the absolute dark. As a result, various questions run through their mind when they see a visually impaired person living a comparatively normal life. With the help of modern technologies and wisdom of our leaders, life has been much better today for persons with disabilities especially the visually impaired people mainly because of the fact that we were the first to receive formal education. Based on our capabilities and knowledge, there are many platforms today where we can exercise our rights to participate in the mainstream society. Due to such great transformations in the lives of visually impaired people who were once deemed useless and burdensome, many people wonder how we manage to laugh and smile everyday despite being robbed of the most important sense organ, the eyesight. A man from my village had even equated me with God when he saw me reading a braille note because what I was reading with my fingers did not make any sense to him. It was a real wonder for him. Likewise, many people seem to wonder a lot about how we make sense of the universe and universal phenomena. Many a time, we have been asked some of the strangest questions by our curious sighted friends and personally, I never mind answering them. Some of the questions are funny but they make some sense especially when we look from their perspectives. Following are some of the questions sighted people have asked us so far: