Eyes hear and hands speak

Arjun Shrestha sits in a cafe with his wife Jamuna. Her eyes catch everything: leaves swaying gently in the breeze, a waiter passing by with a tray of food, a sparrow alighting on a nearby chair.

Arjun, 38, is deaf from birth. He moved to Pokhara from Syangja for better schooling opportunities, where Arjun started his formal education at the age of six at Srijana Secondary School for the Deaf in Pokhara.

No one in his family knew sign language. He used to communicate with his siblings at home, and eventually with everyone through written communication.

Everything was going well in school, he was making friends, learning and growing, but Srijana Secondary at the time had no provision for SLC. An audition school helped him, but again at the intermediate level of audition college, he had no sign language interpreter.

In 2002, Arjun returned to Srijana Secondary as a teacher where he taught students like himself sign language and English.

“My goal has always been to help improve educational opportunities for the deaf and hard of hearing, and working directly with the children was a great start,” Arjun says through interpreter Akriti Neupane.

In 2011, he was offered a scholarship to study the BA in Deaf Education and Linguistics at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, where he realized how much more needed to be done for Deaf education back home.

“When education programs for the deaf started in Nepal, we didn’t have sign language and included a finger spelling system at the initial stage,” Arjun continues.

The very first Nepali Sign Language dictionary was produced in 1989 by the Welfare Society for the Deaf with the coordination of the Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD) with the support of the Peace Corps. KAD was established in 1980 but before that time, the deaf organization established in 1975 in Bhairawa was the first association of any kind in Nepal run and managed by disabled people themselves.

The National Federation of the Deaf was established in 1996 and joined the World Federation of the Deaf. A year later, Nepal Television started broadcasting news in sign language every Saturday.

The first school for the deaf, however, was established 56 years earlier as “School for Deaf Children, Kathmandu” in Naxal. After that, three schools for the deaf of the same name were established in Surkhet, Bhairawa and Saptari. The school in Kathmandu was later renamed “Central Deaf Higher Secondary School” where today classes are held up to baccalaureate level.

When Shrestha returned to Nepal from the United States, he supported the deaf community and deaf schools by working to develop bilingual education for deaf children, their leadership skills, advocacy and by starting his own business to teach language and literacy skills to students. The feedback was positive, with children coming to learn sign language, English and writing, but Shrestha wanted to do more.

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