There are more facilities for the visually impaired, but there is a long way for full mobility
On a recent morning as Nabina Gyawali and her husband Arjun Paudel make their way home to Balkhu, they hit their first snag: the tactile guiding pavement supposed to help them navigate lead them straight into a concrete electricity pole.
The guiding blocks run along the bus park sidewalk which are a favourite spot for people to urinate. Some bystanders stare and others trip on the white cane as the two make their way through the crowd. Rude street vendors spreading their wares on the guiding blocks ask them to move away.
“Half my disability is due to the lack of infrastructure. In America, I was not blind for even a moment, here in Nepal I am blind at every moment,” says Gyawali, who visited the US three years ago on an exchange program.
The streets of Kathmandu are bad enough for the sighted, but for the blind it is a nightmare of reckless drivers, haphazard parking, piles of boulders, water pipes, open drainage and potholes.
The 2011 census showed there are 96,000 visually impaired — 0.5% of the population. Nepal introduce the Disability Act 35 years ago, it is signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in 2012, the government approved accessibility guidelines. All this doesn’t mean much here at street level.
“On paper Nepal has the best policies in South Asia but there is no implementation,” laments Ramesh Pokharel, President of Nepal Association of the Blind (NAB) who fractured his left arm and tore an ankle ligament when he fell 3m down an open drain on his way to school in Pokhara. He was hospitalised for 45 days after which he went to the municipality to ask it to cover the drain. Nothing happened.
One of the major challenges these days is to navigate the city where streets are being dug up everywhere. “It is really difficult because the road is not the same as when we passed through in the morning and there is no information to guide us,” says Ikchya KC, 29, who started losing her vision gradually over the years.
Another challenge is while crossing roads. Says KC: “There are no indicators, whether tactile or audio, at zebra crossings, and motorbikes rarely stop. They try to drive around us and that gets dangerous.”
Sita Subedi was crossing the road at Lagankhel recently when a traffic police pulled her up for not using the zebra. “I had to explain that I am partially sighted and that I cannot see the crossing,” recalls Subedi, the chair of Nepal Blind Women Association.
Stray cattle and dogs are also serious hazards. Arjun Paudel was walking down Rato Pul a few years ago when a bull charged at him. “I was scared and nearly jumped off the bridge. Passersby saved me,” he remembers.
Most visually impaired rely on public transportation to go around the city and although there are reserved seats for them, during rush hour it is difficult to enforce the rule.
“There are people who willingly leave seats for us and go out of their way to help, but sometimes there are others who don’t give up seats reserved for those with disabilities,” says Gyawali.
While it is easier for white cane users to be identified and assisted, those with partial or low visual ability have a much more difficult time. Parwati Shrestha, 23, has partial sight and does not usually ask for the reserved seat or discounts on buses. “My disability is invisible and it is just tedious having to explain myself over and over again,” she says.
Blind women have another problem: gropers on buses. Gyawali says she once pushed a middle-aged man off the seat for making an unwanted advance.
Despite their challenges, the blind say there are signs of improvement and society is more aware of their special needs. “Public attitude has changed a lot, there was a time when the buses wouldn’t stop for us but these days both the driver and conductor help us get on and off and ensure we have a seat,” says KC.
Rajita Regmi finds people in Kathmandu more helpful than those in Butwal, where she is from: “I have limited mobility so I find it difficult to use public transportation. At home my father drops me and picks me up from school, but here in Kathmandu I found people were more willing to help.”
Apart from increasing awareness and changing attitude of the people, adopting universal design and mobility friendly technologies is necessary to make the roads safer for persons with disabilities.
Nara Bahadur Limbu of NAB has some more suggestions: “There need to be proper tactile pavements as well as audio and indicators at traffic lights, more accessible public toilets and public buildings. Buses should have audio announcements and tactile indicators to indicate stops.”