Hearing for the deaf, seeing for the blind

Sarah Yonzan Giri never intended to become a sign-language expert. The wife of Nepal’s famous Panchayat-era prime minister, she was living in Bangalore in 2002 when she wandered into a class for sign language by chance.

“The room was silent, but there was a lot of animated signing going on,” Giri remembers. “They were shouting, but I could not hear them.”

She had found her life’s mission: advocacy of deaf rights. And recently, she has found that this passion extends to the rights of blind people as well. This has given her a unique vantage point from which she can compare the two worlds, and understand and articulate the unique needs of their inhabitants.

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Giri recalls her moment of epiphany: “I realised that I had been Deaf with a capital D, or culturally deaf. I could hear very well, but I was completely deaf to the unique language of the deaf community.” 

Back in Nepal, she started helping the deaf community organise art exhibitions, since the visible world is so important to those whose hearing is impaired. Every wall in Giri’s 3-storey house in Kathmandu is covered with works of deaf art — paintings that express the feelings and experiences of deaf people. 

In one painting, bells clang and bricks fall to one side of the canvass, while feathers float on the other, suggesting that for deaf people, loud sounds fall as gently as down.

Giri says deaf people want a channel of communication with the rest of the world, but for that they need proper schools where they can learn standardised sign languages. If not, they will be stuck with making improvised signs and communicating only with those close to them. 

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Every country has its own sign language – and learning at least standardised Nepali sign enables deaf people to communicate with others who know it in Nepal. It is best if they learn American sign too, which is quickly becoming the lingua franca for deaf people like English is for those who hear.

Giri herself is fluent in Nepali, Indian and American sign languages (each of which are completely different from each other) and communicates animatedly in all three. Her husband Tulsi Giri was always supportive of her work, but she took time off from it to care for him before his death in 2018.

One day after her husband passed away, Giri was walking along the Vishnumati when she heard a plaintive voice singing. “It was really strong and it touched my heart,” recalls Giri, who on following the sound to its source found the singer to be blind. 

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She invited him home, and along the way described everything to him: the roads, trees and buildings outside. Giri says she learnt then that sound is as important to the blind as visuals are to deaf people.

After working with people with two different types of disabilities, Giri has insights into their unique worlds. For example, the deaf have two names – one given by their parents which they may never have never heard and may not answer to, and one in sign language which they identify with. 

“Lighting is very important for deaf people. Something that normal people would see as mysterious dim light settings would not appeal to them, because they cannot sign and talk there,” she expalins.

It is just the opposite with blind people, where light is not important, but sound and touch is. When Giri brings her blind friends home, she describes everything to them — the colour of her living room, the texture of the table in front of them, what lies behind them or beside them. 

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She often takes blind friends on a walk to get them familiar with their surroundings because they may trip and fall in new places. “We can control things in familiar places, but the world is a live hazard for blind people,” she says. “We put construction materials on pavements, and sometimes street animals are lying around.”

Giri says she has learnt from the disabled community that they do not want to be just helped or pitied. They want to be contributing members of society.

Her fondest example is a recent outing to Raksha Nepal, an organisation that helps sexually exploited women, that she made with a band of musicians called Prayas, where all the musicians are blind. The visit was healing for both communities.

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Giri also helped organise an IT challenge with Bright Star Society, in partnership with hotel Yak and Yeti. Bright Star was founded by a blind friend Sushil Adhikari. Gautam Pokharel, the first blind person to pass the public service commission examinations and become a Nepal Telecom officer, won the challenge. Giri speaks with pride about these men and about many activist friends within the blind community.

“I admire the work of Shristi KC, who lost her eyesight late in life and now helps friends through the organisation Blind Rocks," she says. "Laxmi Nepal, Sanjiya Shrestha, and Sarita Lamichane work on empowering women and help protect them from gender-based violence. This thread of sensitivity, interest in human values and spiritual quest runs right across the community,” says Giri.

“The blind people often do not exercise correctly, because they cannot see how to do it. I want to give audio instructions for exercise for blind people, and am currently looking for open space in which to do so,” she says. 

With her rich immersion in these two contrasting worlds of experience, her sensitivity to difference, and her strong motivation to help, Giri is determined to do what she can to help Nepal’s deaf and blind people. 

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