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.
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.
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.
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.
Although I have been blind for over 26 years now, I have got enough opportunities to interact and socialize with different people in the world. I have realized over the years that the real beauty of the world does not have to be perceived only through eyes. Along the journey of my life, I have come across different people who have helped me see the world in many ways. But over the years, I have also met some innocent individuals who have asked me some of the funniest questions without knowing that I am blind. I have had funny encounters with children as well as adults and I often giggle to myself when I reflect on those experiences. Following are some of the funniest questions I have ever been asked by both innocent children and adults.
- Are you the bus driver?
- Uncle, why are you sleepwalking?
- Do you have a stiff neck?
- Is there any car at the back?
I was on my way back to school after my winter vacation. In Phuntsholing, we had to come to the bus terminal so early in the morning to catch the bus to Samdrup Jongkhar. During those days, we used to have 1st bus, 2nd bus and so on and I and my late father had got our tickets in the 2nd bus which would leave at around 5:30 am. It used to take more than 12 hours to reach the destination and hence, it was the longest and most tedious journey. So I and my late father checked out of our hotel-room at around 4:30 am in the morning and got to the bus station well ahead of the departure time.
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.
Earthquake comes without a warning and when it comes, it shakes the entire shit out of you especially with the knowledge deeply imbedded into our brain by science that Bhutan is within the active seismic zone. Even the slightest trembling of the Earth a few days back sent many of us into panic and forced us out of our houses. The tremors recently felt in Bhutan was nothing compared to what we experienced in 2011. The earthquake that shook Bhutan on 18th September 2011 was the strongest shock I have ever experienced in my life so far, but the memory of how I instinctively reacted to it still makes me giggle sometimes.
If what we discussed and proposed during the consultative meeting with the World Bank team today is going to be implemented by Thimphu City Corporation, Thimphu will perhaps become Bhutan’s first ever accessible and inclusive city where persons with disabilities can enjoy greater independence. Today, almost all the public facilities such as sidewalks, public transport services, banks, hospitals, movie theaters and shopping complexes are not disabled-friendly and because of these barriers, we have not been able to fully participate in the public life. More importantly, the general attitude of the people towards persons with disabilities is still not as positive as it should be. As a result, many persons with disabilities are facing discriminations behind closed doors. For instance, Mr. Pema Tshering who is a physically handicapped person currently working in Simply Bhutan says he has been denied ride by taxi drivers on many occasions just because he cannot walk. But with the change in time, I think things are now beginning to fall in place. The consultative meeting held in the office of Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB) today was initiated by the World Bank as part of its new project to make the public transport services within Thimphu city more accessible and friendly for persons with disabilities and I was fortunate to be part of the discussion.
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.
Disability is a crosscutting issue and hence, its weight falls on every segment of the society: families, relatives, friends, educators, health workers and the nation as a whole. People with disabilities come from all walks of life and with the rising trend of deformed births, accidents and various diseases, the number of people living with disabilities is certainly increasing in Bhutan. In fact, even those who are not living with disability today are certainly heading towards it if they live long enough. This was the key message we were trying to convey to the Members of Parliament when I and my colleagues from the Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB) were invited by the Sub-committee on Women and Children on Monday, 14th September 2015 to share the concerns and needs of persons with disabilities in Bhutan. However, the reaction from the Committee and the government was not so encouraging. It’s really sad to know that the government still does not seem to be ready to align its commitment and efforts towards empowering persons with disabilities in the country through legal frameworks.