Touching others with words
Every day, after returning home from college, Sarita Aryal sits down for her homework. But these are not her class assignments, she transcribes books for visually impaired students like her.
Using a needle-thin stylus, she engraves sheets of chart paper on a slate board and punches the dots wordy by word.
Born blind, the 26-year-old was brought up in Surkhet. Despite her condition, her family never treated her any differently, and she was allowed to go swimming in the river with friends and explore the countryside.
Because she could not see, Sarita grew up reading very little. There simply were not enough books in braille, and she is now determined to change that for other visually impaired students like her.
She has recorded more than 125 audiobooks, and released some of them through the Keta Keti Online channel on YouTube.
She also transcribes stories for the visually impaired in braille, and she gets help from the Children's Literature Foundation Nepal. After writing down the stories in braille, she recites them for the audiobooks. The process is lengthy and Sarita often has to do several takes to make sure there are no mistakes, and then she has to edit the audio files.
She initially started with biographies of famous and inspiring individuals, and has now moved on to other genres. Sarita’s mother Devikumari is proud of her daughter and is always the first to listen to audiobooks.
Sarita’s elder sister was also born blind. Since the village lacked proper resources to teach visually impaired children, Devikumari and her husband admitted their older daughter to a school far away from home. But one day she died while on her way to school.
With one daughter gone, the parents decided to keep Sarita at home and discontinued her schooling. However, when her younger sighted siblings started school, Sarita insisted that she also be allowed to attend class.
One day, everyone in class except Sarita had submitted their classwork to the teacher. When she finally presented her work, the teacher humiliated her and hit her head with a stick.
“The teacher was not satisfied with my written work,” Sarita remembers. “I could answer all questions orally, but I was belittled for not having legible writing.”
The incident traumatised Sarita, who stopped going to school. She stayed home listening to radio programs, reciting poems and compositions she heard on the radio.
Then a chance encounter with a foreign visitor to the school took her life in a new direction. The man talked about a school for the blind in Kathmandu and suggested that Devikumari send her daughter there.
Devikumari enrolled Sarita in the third grade at the Technical & Skill Development Centre for Blind and Disabled in Kirtipur.
“Being away from my family was difficult,” recalls Sarita. “But I got used to it as I had many friends like me and that made it fun.”
Sarita had learnt the alphabet orally, and started learning braille. Within a year she was fluent in reading and writing and transferred to Laboratory School and started walking with the help of a white cane.
“The road in Kathmandu is not suitable for people with disabilities,” she says. “I have run into construction material, garbage, or shops on the footpath.” She once fell into a pile of garbage when on her way to college and was forced to walk back home smelling of it.
Besides inaccessible roads, Sarita has had a difficult time continuing higher education, as Nepal neither has separate colleges for people with vision impairment nor proper books and equipment for them in regular schools.
At college, she has to share one book with six other friends who are also blind. "When the syllabus changes, there aren’t any books for us," she says. "Having braille books would make it easier for us to study."
To make up for the lack of books, Sarita records the lectures and discussions in class and transcribes them. She often relies on the internet for reference materials.
Sarita doesn’t think she is less capable than others in her class, but often faces problems when she can't find the books she needs or a writing assistant during exams. Whenever she is not studying, Sarita devotes her time in making audiobooks for others.
Says Sarita, “I didn't get to read much. I grew up listening to programs on the radio. I am doing this work so that other visually impaired children get the chance to read.”
Translated from the original in Himal by Aria Parasai.
Read more: Hearing for the deaf, seeing for the blind, Sewa Bhattarai