Experience/Impression of Prof. Boguslaw Marek Ph.D. OBE, The John Paul Catholic University of Lublin, Poland:
From Poland to the top of the World:
It was not easy to decide which was a bigger surprise 'the beauty of the Simikot Valley, or the scope of activities and the level of support offered by HEAD Nepal to children with a visual impairment at what seemed like the end of the world in a forgotten part of the Himalayas. I knew there were no roads leading to Simikot and that there were only two ways to get there' either on foot (just a ten-days walk from the nearest place accessible by car) or flying a small single engine or a Twin Otter plane from Nepalgunj or Surkhet 'both services operating only in favourable weather conditions. With a suitcase filled with educational resources I did not have a choice and decided on flying from Nepalgunj' a decision requiring a certain degree of courage and patience. I waited six days in Nepalgunj, reporting at the airport at 6:30 each morning only to find out that the flight is cancelled due to a snow fall or strong wind. But I finally made it, and was welcomed by Chhitup Lama (founder of HEAD Nepal, by his colleagues Lokraj and Resham, by Tomek Kozakiewicz (another Pole who was there to make a video about HEAD Nepal and who told me about the organization) and by blindingly beautiful mountains surrounding the village.
'Nepal blindingly beautiful 'is a T-shirt slogan advertising activities of IEC 'an organization serving students with a visual impairment in Pokhara
Just a few minutes walk up a narrow path serving both the locals and caravans of yaks, mules and donkeys and I was greeted by a group of children at HEAD Nepal headquarters. A small two-level stone house with an office, children's bedrooms, a computer room, one larger meeting room, a kitchen, a toilet and a terrace frequently used as a dining room or a classroom.
I did not know much about my students-before I went to Simikot. A chart with the children's profiles which I found on the Internet gave only a vague idea of their age. Only on arrival at HEAD Nepal I learned that the child born in 2058 was now twelve, as the year 2014 is 2070 in the traditional Nepali calendar. I could not wait to find out what the children's education looked like. I soon discovered that I had to be ready for a few surprises:
- All children speak at least a little bit of English, all enjoy learning it and even the youngest children know how important it is to know the language.
- - All children are learning Braille, including those with low vision. With some children's vision deteriorating it is extremely important that they become fluent with Braille before losing eyesight. A Braille slate and a stylus is the standard Braille equipment used by the students. No Braille typewriters are available.
- - All children go to a mainstream, school. This is possible not only thanks to Chhitup Lama's efforts but also thanks to the farsightedness of the local educational authorities. (Mr Kul Bahadur Phadera 'District Education Officer is a great enthusiast of well organized inclusive education') I was greatly impressed by the response to the awareness raising workshop which I offered to sighted children to help them understand blindness and the potential of persons with a visual impairment. I very much hope that their positive attitude towards visual impairment will last in the weeks, months and years after the workshop. This hope is well justified by good understanding by educational authorities of the importance of inclusion, by the attitude shown by the teachers and by the efforts of the local radio station to acquaint the community with the work done at HEAD Nepal and with the various (including artistic) achievements of students with a visual impairment.
- All children learn computer skills. With just seven PCs they must sometimes wait for their turn, and as the computers are not equipped with a Braille display screen readers and speech synthesizers is all that makes the computers accessible to totally blind students.
All students, even teenagers enthusiastically responded to 'Ballyland' 'SONOKIDS' software designed for introducing basic computer skills to young totally blind learners and having a possible application as a language learning tool. . The sound effects and the spoken language associated with various keys were met with laughter and cries of joy!
- No tactile graphics was available until my arrival and it was a bit of a shock to meet seventeen or nineteen years old students who had never explored a tactile drawing, a diagram or a map and had never had the opportunity to draw. Introducing tactile drawings and helping totally blind students understand the relation between an object and a drawing and to raise their confidence with tactile drawings of geometric shapes, simple objects and maps of small and large areas and getting them ready for a meaningful exploration of a tactile map of Nepal was one of the goals of my visit. Time will show what effect my visit will have. More time is certainly needed to give each child enough practice with tactile graphics and I very much hope that my first visit to HEAD Nepal was not the last. But my next visit to Simikot will have to be preceded by a fund raising campaign to help HEAD Nepal get more resources, more specialist equipment and, what to a visitor from Europe seemed a basic necessity, to get warm clothes for all children to make the harsh Humla winters a lesser challenge.
Good luck, Chhitup! Good luck HEAD Nepal! See you all next time!
- Boguslaw 'Bob' MAREK<
- The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
- and HUNGRY FINGERS 'Poland'
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