Uniquely Abled

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Published:
02 Oct 2016
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10 min read
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Selflessness, consistency and humility are the hallmarks of special teachers who take care of kids with special needs. Dayaram Maharjan is one of these educators. He has been helping differently abled children find a place under the sun for the past 26 years.

What role did your family play in the work you do today?

Both my parents were involved in social work. My mother, especially, spent most of her days tending to women in labour. At times she would get so involved in her work that she forgot to cook us meals. She was so well-known in our community because of her devotion to social service that she was usually the first one to be summoned every time there was a birth or death in a family. My mother’s willingness to help others taught me the true meaning of sacrifice.  


What did your family do?

I come from a middle-class farming family from Bungamati. My four siblings and I helped our parents look after the fields and cattle when we were younger. I was also involved in carpentry and did basic electrical work. Our parents taught us to never sit idle and encouraged us to use our skills to help those in need.

What type of a kid were you growing up?

I have always been drawn to helping people, and I looked for a solution whenever anyone encountered a problem. I used to help local community members dig up trenches, maintain roads and repair patis and temples. Of course, not all of my initiatives were appreciated—many locals didn’t see eye to eye with me when I proposed abolishing open defecation in our community.

Did you always have plans to be a teacher?

After completing my bachelor’s from Tahachal Campus, I worked at various places. One thing led to another and I ended up applying for a teaching position at my school—Adarsha Shaulah Yuwak School—in Bungamati. Back then, we didn’t have a proper school building. We used to study in makeshift classrooms in the Rato Machindranath’s pati or sometimes under the open sky. I hadn’t planned on returning to my old school, but I got selected and my teaching career took off in 1986.


How did your involvement with differently abled children start?

I was fascinated by Louise Braille during my college days. I began doing some research on the Braille system and found myself trying to learn the script. But it all formally started in 1989. One of my students, Jeevan Dangol, was lagging behind due to his disability. In order to help him, I enrolled in lessons and eventually was helping my first visually impaired student. I had no idea that my life would turn out this way, but I am glad it did.

Tell us about your experience learning Braille.

Learning Braille was more like learning a new language. It was definitely difficult, but every time I felt exasperated, I reminded myself how difficult it must be for a visually impaired person. In about four months, I was able to read and write the script. I translated the entire school curriculum into Braille too. News travelled fast and more kids started coming to the school. I take immense pride in the fact that Jeevan passed his SLC; he was the first visually disabled Nepali student to pass the examination from our school. He is now helping me teach visually impaired kids.

You also started a boarding school—tell us something about that decision.

I had started collecting data on kids living with disabilities around the Bungamati area. During one of my surveys, I landed in Badhikhel, where I saw a five-year-old kid, Anil, who had lacerations all over his body. I was really moved by his state. I searched for his family, only to discover that Anil and his mother had been abandoned. They were living in a cowshed near a jungle, so I offered to take care of Anil and promised his mother that I would provide him an education. She willingly let me take him. I would say that Anil spurred me to set up a place for abandoned, disabled children in Nepal. Today, he works with computers and is an active member at our boarding house, which is home to 53 students.


What has kept you going all these years?

I believe that life is a never-ending process of learning and growing. After getting the hang of Braille, I began learning sign language to help the deaf students at the school. I would get immense satisfaction from helping these kids learn alongside their other classmates. As children from other parts of Nepal started enrolling in our school, I had to expand the school’s boarding facilities. This led to the genesis of the DSA in 1997, which runs a hostel for children with physical and mental disabilities adjacent to the school.

How have you dealt with society’s perceptions of your work with special needs children?

In a society where disability was, and to a large extent still is, seen as a curse, it was tough to convince people to send their kids to school. I don’t entirely blame the families because a lack of awareness and education is the root cause of many social ills. Even when I started teaching Jeevan, many people ridiculed me. Eventually, when they saw that he was improving, more kids with special needs started trickling into our school. As educators, we are responsible for educating the community, and not just the children.

How hard was it to convince your family?

Initially, when I told my family and friends about Braille, they didn’t understand me. I would go to surrounding villages and ask about kids with disabilities and encourage their parents to send them to school. Many families were sceptical of my intentions. Sometimes I would go to a sarki tole to provide physiotherapy to disabled kids and my family would be appalled that I was interacting with the so-called lower castes. Even when I registered our organisation, I faced a lot of opposition from the villagers. They were displeased that I was bringing disabled kids close to the Karya Binayak Temple; they believed that their presence would prove inauspicious for the other temple-goers. However, the results of our hard work eventually silenced our detractors. Today, this little school in Bungamati has not only changed the lives of many handicapped children, but also brought about societal changes.

Was it more challenging to teach kids with disabilities or to change people’s perceptions?

I had no intention of creating awareness when I started out. I think it happened automatically when people started seeing the positive changes that the education and the environment had on the kids. I could sense the shift in perception—earlier, temple-goers would avoid them, probably because they were considered a bad omen. Today, the same people smile at the kids when they cross paths.

You were awarded the USA-Nepal Humanitarian award in 2014. Have awards motivated you?

I’ve been so busy with my work that I was honestly surprised when I was told about the award. It feels nice to be appreciated, and I’m hoping that more people will now visit the school to show their support. More than awards or monetary rewards, I think words of encouragement motivate me to work harder and aim higher.

Along with the standard education, you are also passionate about vocational training.

Although we lack proper facilities, we try to counterbalance this by providing quality education to our kids. This includes providing opportunities for our kids to hone their musical and artistic skills, among others. The Nepali curriculum lacks technical and vocational subjects, but these additional courses are important in producing self-reliant and enterprising individuals. At the moment, I have been working on starting an organisation that provides kids an opportunity to learn coffee-making, Dhaka fabric-weaving, cosmetology and basket-making. Also, if we are to teach kids how to farm vegetables, we can easily grow our own produce and that will help us cut down on our expenses. I’m looking for a piece of land that I can rent and maybe encourage kids to grow their own food.

What’s your biggest achievement?

There is nothing more important than providing children a pathway to success, and this starts with education. I am happy that I’m doing this. Like my students, I have learned to view the world from a different angle and have started understanding things from a new perspective.