Whenever Suresh Rajbhandari passes by in his neighbourhood, everyone greets him. A few ask him if he needs help, but he refuses, comfortably tapping his way around with a white cane.
Rajbhandari, 54, has been blind since the age of two when complications during a bout of typhoid led to his loss of sight. He has no trouble navigating the places that are familiar to him-like his alleyway and the neighbourhood around his home. “I know this alley and it knows me,” says Rajbhandari. “But so many other places are difficult to get around.”
For people with physical disabilities like Rajbhandari, navigating Kathmandu can be a nightmare. There are over 17,000 persons with disabilities living in Kathmandu, according to the 2011 census. Among them, about 22 percent are blind, 35 percent cannot walk and 25 percent have trouble with speech and hearing. But there are few provisions and infrastructures to assist them in getting around the Valley.
Tactile paving—a textured surface on pavements meant to assist the visually impaired—was only introduced two years ago, and is only available on around 15 kilometres of Kathmandu’s total pavements. Even in places where tactile paving is available, it often ends abruptly, abandoning those using it in the middle of streets. Some pavements lead to poles, others to trees. Parked bikes and scooters and roadside vendors often obscure the few places where they do exist.
“Many people are still not aware of the significance of paving,” Rajbhandari says.
Despite provisions in the 2017 Disability Rights Act that ensures equal access to physical infrastructure, even officials responsible for implementing them seem apathetic. In a brief interview with the Post, Kailash Shrestha, director general for the Kathmandu division of the Department of Roads, was seemingly unaware of the significance of tactile pavements. When the Post reporter explained what tactile pavements were, Shrestha said that the Department of Roads had no further plans to construct more of them, especially on the Ring Road where roads are currently being expanded and new sidewalks are being built. “That is China’s project, not ours,” he said. “It’s their responsibility to carry out the construction the way they want to.”
The pavements that exist were constructed by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City under the Kathmandu Sustainable Urban Transport Project, with aid from the Asian Development Bank. The project ended two years ago and there has been no further call from the KMC to build more pavements, said Suraj Shakya, the project manager.
The problem, however, does not end with paving. There are dozens of other obstacles those with disabilities face every single day. Crossing streets is a major problem for the blind and for those physically impaired. The lack of zebra crossings and traffic lights, along with the drivers who refuse to slow down for pedestrians, means people like Rajbhan-dari often have to rely on good samaritans for help.
It is at times like these that 29-year-old Yami Jhankri Magar misses her legs the most. Magar lost her limbs after an unsuccessful spinal tumour operation.
These days, waiting to cross the road at busy intersections is doubly difficult for her. She takes her wheelchair wherever she goes but it is not practical when travelling long distances. Public vehicles often frown on the extra space her wheelchair takes up and she cannot always afford to take taxis.
Rajbhandari does not have a vehicle of his own either. His only method of getting around Kathmandu is to take public transport. Many buses and microbuses do not stop for him, assuming that he might not pay his fare or that accommodating him might be a nuisance, he says.
On public transport, conductors often do not reserve seats for people with disabilities if they do not look ‘disabled enough’, says KP Adhikari, 40, who lost his hearing when he was 25 after an unsuccessful operation.
These are problems with basic communication, says Adhikari, who cannot always respond effectively during a conversation. There have been many instances when people simply do not understand what he is trying to say. At stores, he says he often ends up paying more due to his inability to bargain properly-and because the shopkeepers never think of correcting him when he overpays.
Day-to-day tasks like banking and operating an ATM are made all the more difficult by policies that do not take the disabled into account. Banks in Nepal do not allow the visually impaired to hold accounts independently. “We are supposed to hold joint bank accounts with someone who can see,” says Rajbhandari.
Bhuvan Dahal, CEO of Sanima Development Bank, does not completely agree. “Joint accounts for the visually impaired are not mandatory,” says Dahal. “We just do not allow them to use ATM services until they can confirm that they are solely responsible for any kind of security threat.”
Discrimination against the disabled doesn’t end there. According to traffic regulations, deaf people are not allowed to drive, even though studies have shown that the ability to hear has a little negative impact on a person’s ability to drive. Special devices are also available to alert deaf drivers. Two years ago, Adhikari joined a movement demanding driving licences for the deaf.
“Many other countries have already implemented this provision, it should not be an issue here,” he says.
Rajbhandari says that companies still discriminate against people with disabilities, even if the job has nothing to do with their impairment. He provided an example of a friend who was selected for a position based on her qualifications and skills but not hired when they found out that she couldn’t see.
“I do not think our ability lies only in our vision, but not all people think the same,” he says.
Such discrimination, both overt and more subtle, is rampant in every sector for Kathmandu’s disabled population. When he was a student, Rajbhandari was forced to make do with class lectures as not all subjects had books in Braille.
The National Federation of the Disabled-Nepal (NFDN) has long been lobbying the government to institute disabled-friendly policies and work more towards building infrastructure that facilitates ease of access for the disabled. The new Disability Rights Act was passed in 2017, in close cooperation with the NFDN, replacing the 1982 Disabled Persons Welfare Act.
The new Act marked a significant shift in Nepal’s institutional understanding of disability-from a welfare approach to a rights-based approach. All kinds of discrimination on the basis of disability are now punishable with significant fines and the Act includes provisions for equal access to education, health, employment, physical infrastructure, transportation and information.
Under the NFDN’s lobby, a five percent quota for people with disabilities was reserved in the public sector via amendments to the Civil Service Act. But this quota is often handed to people who don’t have significant disabilities or don’t have disabilities at all, says Sudarshan Subedi, president of the NFDN.
Whether it is employment, schools, banks or even just commuting from place to place, the physically impaired continue to face problems in spheres of everyday life. “There is nothing in the country for us,” says Magar.