How Nirmala Gyawali built the National Braille Library--brick by brick

7 min read
17 Oct 2017
7 min read
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From the Archive (Jun, 2016): The National Braille Library is Nirmala’s dream project: she started the library because she wanted to provide an opportunity for visually impaired people like herself to immerse themselves in printed texts
Nirmala Gyawali hopes that more students will come to the Braille library. And that over time, they will develop the same passion for reading she has always had

But despite all the work that she has put in to have the library be a resource centre for visually impaired people, on most days, save for the librarian’s, the 10 or so blue plastic chairs beside the shelves remain empty. The number of students who visit the library usually doesn’t exceed more than 15 to 20 every month. But Nirmala still waits every day hoping that more students will come to the library, and that over time, they will develop the same passion for reading she has always had.

Nirmala started the library because she wanted to provide an opportunity to visually impaired people like herself to immerse themselves in printed texts

The library is Nirmala’s dream project: She started it because she wanted to provide an opportunity to visually impaired people like herself to immerse themselves in printed texts. She knows that reading opens doors for people with blindness. She herself got to where she is today, she believes, because she focused on studying and learning from a very early age. She had always been a very good student—she graduated top of her class in humanities in Campion College. Now, she wants to encourage visually impaired students to read and to learn so that they won’t have to depend on anyone else but on their own capabilities to create their own place in society.

It look a lot of work for her to put the library in place. She first conceived of the idea for the library when she came across reference books for people with blindness at a library when she was a student at Colorado State University. She had gone there on a scholarship to study sociology under the Fulbright Partnership for Learning Undergraduates programme. In the US, she was amazed by how blind students like her could access all the study materials she wanted, and she couldn’t stop thinking about those in Nepal who didn’t.

So she called up her friend Robert Rose, who she knew shared her belief in creating opportunities for the differently abled. Over numerous telephonic conversations for over two years, they came up with plans for a Braille library in Nepal. Robert, who was in Seattle, got busy writing letters to and collecting books from the Washington State Library and the Library of Congress. They planned to send the books to Nepal using the Free Post for the Blind provision, through which items for the visually impaired could be mailed internationally for free.

When Nirmala returned to Nepal, in 2005, after she was done with her bachelor’s, she coordinated with various organisations to get the project off the ground. She engaged in conversations with the Rotary Club of Kasthamandap about receiving and storing the books when they arrived in the mail. She worked with The Rose International Fund of Children and the Nepal Association for the Welfare of the Blind (NAWB), in Nepal, and came up with ways to create resources for the library. Together with the NAWB, she arranged for a space inside the NAWB premises, in Thapathali, to house the library. She hoped that the students who came to NAWB to get their Braille notebooks (the NAWB distributes free Braille notebooks for the visually impaired) would stop by the library—and maybe pick up a reading habit. With help from all these organisations, the library finally saw the light of day in 2009. It wasn’t easy overseeing the whole project, but Nirmala has never been known to back down from challenges.

Nirmala, 32 years old now, was born with total blindness in a family in which three of the five children are visually impaired. Her father, who also suffered from late-onset blindness, passed away when she was six. She always knew that it was only education that would allow her to get past her difficult circumstances and make something of herself. She had seen her sister Sita Gyawali place immense faith in education: Indeed, Sita was the first visually impaired woman in Nepal to get a master’s degree. With encouragement from her whole family Nirmala set her sights on doing well academically.

Even with more visually impaired students enrolling into schools and colleges, the government still hasn't been printing enough braille books

And for most of her school years she had to figure out ways to absorb the contents of books she was interested in. When Nirmala was doing her bachelor’s, more than ten years ago, the colleges here didn’t even have textbooks available in Braille script; and of course reference books were out of the question. She would thus commute all the way from Dhobhighat to her friend’s house in Dakshindhoka, where her friend would read out into a tape recorder the contents of works like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Shakespeare’s Othello. She even roped in her teachers to record lessons for her, from which she would transcribe notes in Braille script. She knows that that dismal reality hasn’t changed much for the visually impaired even today—that not much is being done to address the problem related to the lack of Braille books. Even with more and more visually impaired students enrolling into schools and colleges, the government still hasn’t been printing enough Braille books.

According to Ramesh Pokharel of the Nepal Association of the Blind, the problem with the shortage of textbooks could be addressed if the government were to supervise the process properly. Every year the government is supposed to ask the NAWB and NAB to print a certain number of books for the visually impaired students after the government has calculated how many blind students have enrolled for the year. But it has never carried out this task on time. Every year, the NAWB and NAB get the directive after the academic session has already started. This year, they have been asked to produce only one thousand books; so the 1,200 to 1,500 students with blindness in schools across Nepal will have to share books—which the schools will only get in the middle of the academic session. This means, the students will have to rely solely on the teachers’ dictating the lessons in class. And things get even bleaker for them after their SLCs. Most colleges don’t have any Braille books produced for them by the government.

Nirmala’s Braille library, thus, is Nirmala’s attempt to make sure that students who are still struggling to find textbooks will have other things to read so that they don’t give up on reading Braille books or listening to audiobooks altogether.

When Nirmala was in class four, she first listened to an audiobook, which she had especially ordered from the US, about Helen Keller’s life. She learned about the resilience with which Helen Keller faced the struggles owing to her disabilities, and Keller’s story of persistence gave Nirmala the much-needed inspiration. Nirmala subsequently took in many other books, such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Mother, Maitighar, and other classics of both Western literature and Nepali literature.

In the hope that as many Nepali kids as possible also develop a love for literature and learning, she has been actively involved in running a mobile library. Through the mobile library, which is supported by the Ability Development Society of Nepal and NAWB, she and her associates take with them books from the library and deliver them to schools across Nepal. Through the project, they have already distributed close to a thousand books in school libraries around the country.

Nirmala would like to see both the brick-and-mortar library and the mobile project grow. In fact, she has a 10-year plan in place for them. She hopes to procure more Braille paperbacks, and then add on to the collection e-books and audiobooks so that she can transform the current library into a complete resource centre for the kids.

All children, blind or not, Nirmala believes, are eager to learn about the world around them. It’s just that the many constraints they have to live with prevent them from nurturing that curiosity during their formative years. Nirmala hopes that her resource centre will be able to provide the kids with the resources that the State has not been able to provide.

That as they start visiting the centre, they will get a hold of perhaps one book to start with, fall in love with it, and then another book, and another. She hopes that eventually the kids will come to the library because of more than just curiosity, but for the love of material it houses. And that just like her, they will find a faith in learning, and that the learning will take them places.