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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Nepalese 'VIP' advocates investing in disability

Tokyo University research student analyzes economic value of educating the world's 650 million disabled


Nepalese Kamal Lamichhane chuckles when he describes himself as a VIP. "As I told the audience at Manchester Metropolitan University last month, I really am a VIP — a visually impaired person. Unlike those people who become very important because of what they achieve in life, I have been a VIP since birth."

News photo
Disability research: Nepalese Kamal Lamichhane, a postgraduate research student, works at his "alternate eye," his computer at a Tokyo University research center. COURTESY OF KAMAL LAMICHHANE

Lamichhane, who is a postgraduate research student at the University of Tokyo, was part of a group of 40 researchers with and without disabilities and their supporters who traveled from Japan to the U.K. at the end of April to attend a two-day conference. The forum, held at Manchester Metropolitan University, carried the theme Disability and Economy: Creating a Society for All.

Inaugurated in 2000, the Todai Forum has been held roughly very two years to allow the University of Tokyo to present research developments to an international audience.

"This time, we presented the latest Japanese research on disability and the economy. It was especially exciting, because I was (master of ceremonies) and a speaker. I chaired the students' session and presented a paper. Nearly 160 delegates participated in the forum."

Returning from London, the plane half empty, Lamichhane was able to stretch out and catch up on his sleep. This was in large part because he sat alone, having decided not to have a supporter accompany him on the trip — a choice he applies to his daily life as well.

"I prefer to act independently," he explained. "This is not to say I don't need to ask for help on occasion, but I don't need anyone hovering around, reminding me that I am supposed to be different to everyone else. That's not my way."

Growing up in Chitwan, some 170 km from Katmandu, Lamichhane received no formal education in his early years. "I had to watch my brothers and sisters go to school while I remained at home in the dark. It was not that my parents were uncaring; they simply lacked awareness that I could be helped."

It was not until Lamichhane turned 11 that his father took the bus to the capital to find out what was educationally available, and found a school that was willing to accept his son. It was a regular school, but integrated: Children with and without visual impairment studied and played together. Sadly, Lamichhane says, such schools are a rarity rather than the norm.

Even Japan — a developed country in so many ways — has segregated schools in every prefecture. As the international community moves toward inclusive education, Japan needs to think again.

"I know that it's only a few decades since Japanese disabled were hidden away in shame. So yes, Japan has come a long way. But just because it supplies good services along with elevators, ramps, as well as Braille blocks, to become barrier-free does not means that all peoples' minds are open and accepting."

News photo
Best medicine: Research student Kamal Lamichhane, a self-proclaimed VIP, or visually impaired person, enjoys the sounds and smells of the ocean during a visit to Okinawa in 2007. COURTESY OF KAMAL LAMICHHANE

Initially, Lamichhane was not educated in an inclusive setting. He had a lot of catching up to do — learning Braille, for example, and learning how to move around independently. After one year, he took the exam to enter the fifth grade and passed, thereby overcoming his very late admission to formal schooling.

Learning English could have been another hurdle, but it was his favorite subject from the start. The visually impaired did not usually study languages due to the general lack of necessary materials, and at university Lamichhane was the first such person to graduate in the subject, securing the highest score overall in his country. At last, he says, he could really believe he was studying. "And now Nepal wants to learn from me!"

Lamichhane first came to Japan in 2003 for 10 months' training.

"How did this happen? Well, my travels began in 2000 when I went abroad for the first time, attending a conference in Germany." The following year he went to Stockholm. Then, in 2002, he made a presentation in Osaka at the International Forum on Disability to mark the final year of the Asia and Pacific Decade of Disabled People, a global conference exclusively for disabled people who seek to elevate the quality of life for disabled people everywhere.

"I met many people there, including staff from Duskin, a company that has a leadership development training program for the disabled within the Japanese welfare system. It was through this contact that I came initially."

Arriving here with two disabilities — "without a word of Japanese I really was lost" — he learned enough of the language to get around within three months. Now, he taps his way around even unfamiliar streets with total confidence, only asking for someone's arm when necessary.

Back again in Nepal, the opportunity arose to study in the U.S., but he passed on it to return to here in order to begin a master's degree. Based at the University of Tsukuba, he researched the education of children with disabilities.

He began his Ph.D. at Tokyo University in 2007, supported in large part by Japan's Ministry of Education. "I began by funding my master's first year myself — with the help of a loan from friends. But then I was granted a scholarship. I'm very grateful to Japan for helping me this one step further." Where will he go next, he wonders, in his late 20s when he finishes his doctoral thesis?

Lamichhane regards his life so far as being split into three, near-equal stages: a life of darkness; a life filling with brightness; and a wonderful life filled with light and opportunity. Such experiences have enabled Lamichhane to view the world from three different perspectives: the blind child in isolation; the child extending him or her self through education; the adult living fully in the world.

He believes himself fortunate to be so globally interactive, regarding his computer, equipped with screen-reading software in Japanese and English for the visually impaired, as his "alternative eye." There is nothing he cannot tackle, be it replying to e-mails, transmitting photographs, or researching.

Optimistic and amazingly positive, he shows no hint of self-pity. Why can't we all accept that we are all disabled in some way or another, visibly and invisibly, he says, and cooperate so that all people are able to live life to the fullest?

He often hears people saying, "Kamal is a VIP, but look, he studies so well!" His response? "That is discrimination. Wherever I go in the world, the U.K., the U.S., Asia, Europe, the only difference is that educated people use polite words and the uneducated curse us as somehow sub-human. The interesting thing, though, is that discrimination is the beginning of awareness."

Lamichhane's thesis concentrates on the economic value of educating the near 10 percent of the global population that is disabled — a staggering 650 million men, women and children, 80 percent of whom are in developing countries. Again drawing on ILO statistics, nearly 380 million disabled people are in Asia, with fewer than 40 million employed.

The general assumption is that it is a waste of time to spend money educating disabled people — that society gets nothing back. But Lamichhane finds the opposite to be true. The return from a disabled person is twice that of the able-bodied, simply because the investment is so prized that it becomes a matter of pride to prove oneself worthy. Back in Nepal, Lamichhane is a VIP twice over. He is a familiar voice on a radio station in Katmandu and, last year, he took tea with the first elected president of his country, Ram Baran Yadav.

Once he has completed his doctorate, Lamichhane has no idea what comes next. All he knows is that he wants to act as an agent for positive change, and will never give up.

"Every ending is the beginning of the journey," he observes. "Without difficulty, no journey is interesting and we should consider all problems to be opportunities."



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