The eyes hear and the hands speak

Arjun Shrestha is seated at a café with his wife Jamuna. His eyes take in everything: leaves swaying quietly in the breeze, a waiter shuffling past with a food tray, a sparrow alighting on a nearby chair.

Arjun, 38, has been deaf from birth. He moved to Pokhara from Syangja for better schooling opportunities, where Arjun began 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  in home sign, and eventually with everyone through written communication.

All was well in school, he was making friends, learning and growing, but Srijana Secondary at the time had no provision for SLC. A hearing school helped him out, but again in intermediate level of the hearing college he did not have a sign language interpreter.

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

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

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

“When education programs for the deaf began in Nepal, we did not have a Sign language, and included fingerspelling system at the initial stage,” Arjun continues.

The first-ever Nepali Sign language dictionary was produced in 1989 bythe Welfare Society for the hard of hearing with coordination of the Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD) with the support of Peace Corps. KAD was formed in 1980 but before this period, deaf organization formed in 1975 in Bhairawa was the first association of any kind in Nepal led and managed by people with disabilities themselves.

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

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

When Shrestha came back to Nepal from the US, he supported the Deaf community and deaf schools by working in the development of bilingual education fordeaf children, their leadership skills, advocacy, and setting up his own company to teach students languages and literacy skills. The feedback was positive, with children coming in to learn Sign language, English and writing, but Shrestha wanted to do more.

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