After months of planning, the first deaf school in Nepal’s Dolakha district was built. Three weeks later the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, devastating the country.
“Prior to the earthquake, the government would provide scholarships for up to 10 disabled students per school. Schools could not support additional disabled students and would often reject their enrolment.” School committee member Ramesh is also member of the Disabled Peoples Organisation, a community-led organisation that provides support to people with disabilities.
Global research commissioned by Plan International has found that children with disabilities are 10 times less likely to attend school. Most public schools in Nepal don’t provide the equipment, teacher training or helpers to ensure all children can learn.
Ramesh appealed to the government for support. “Either you find a way to support all deaf children or you support us to create a new school. We did not want children to fall behind.”
The school opened its doors to its first 41 students just three weeks before the 2015 earthquake.
“One student lost their mother in the earthquake. All students lost their family homes,” the teachers explain. “The children were worried, so we phoned the parents to say, ‘Can we send the children to be with you?’ Much to our surprise, all of the parents responded and said, ‘No do not send them home. Our house has collapsed and we have nowhere to stay. They are safer with you’.”
It was six months before the students returned home to their families, during the Dasain holiday. For the first two months the teachers focussed on providing a space of fun and light-heartedness without the stress of classes. They worked to help students find normalcy after the trauma of the quake.
“Before enrolling, I did not know sign language and I had to study at a normal school. I could not understand what the teachers were saying. We would see words on the whiteboard, but did not know their meaning,” Urmila*, 14, is a female student at the school. “This is not just a school, this is like a home to us. I love being with my friends. I do not want to go home, I am alone at home and cannot communicate with my parents.”
Stigma and superstition are still prevalent around people with disabilities in Nepal. Some parents believe they are being punished, that their children are bad, unlucky or cursed. Some show no interest in visiting the school to see how their children are learning and developing.
Bishnu, a teacher at the school explains: “We want the parents to visit our school, so they understand how their children are learning and the importance of sending their children to school. Most parents do not know sign language, and struggle to even communicate with their children.”
“I feel extremely proud.” Bidhaya, the school’s headmistress joined the staff in 2015. “As a deaf person who struggled with my studies my entire life, I feel honoured to run the first deaf school in Dolakha and provide students with a quality education.”
Over the next two years, Plan International is prioritising the construction of model schools in priority districts affected by the earthquakes. As well as constructing and repairing schools, Plan International will focus on inclusion, to ensure future schools provide an environment where children with disabilities can learn and feel safe.
The school in Dhaka will be equipped with six permanent classroom blocks, water, sanitation and hygiene facilities as well as solar lights. The teachers are hoping to grow to accommodate over 100 students: “We have already enrolled six new students for the coming school year.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of children living in vulnerable areas.