Breaking the sound barrierAgents of change from the deaf and hard of hearing community are forging new opportunities for themselves in a tone-deaf society
Twenty-two year old Sunil Magar is no ordinary salesman. Magar, a resident of Itahari, Sunsari, works at the Gokulam Resort in Morang. And for as long as he can remember, he has been unable to perceive sound.
“Sunil is energetic, and can impress anybody,” says Radheshyam Poudel, the manager of the resort. “He is a strong and satisfying marketer whose sign language and charm communicate in lieu of verbal correspondence,” elaborates Poudel on his star employee. Prior to Magar’s employment at the resort, he worked as a glasscutter in a glass shop in Damak, Jhapa for Rs 6,000 a month. Much more pleased with his new job as a salesman, he happily confides, “Work hours have been shortened and my salary is a lot better than my previous job.” He further adds that he loves the travel associated with his new work and doesn’t miss the physical labour that comprised much of his former job.
Magar’s story is a unique representation of the deaf community in Nepal who are more than often subjected to discrimination and prejudice, and are considered ineligible for work in professional settings and in the public eye. Neeta Keshary Bhattarai, president of Shruti National Association of Hard of Hearing and Deafened Nepal, says that regardless of the level of education a hearing impaired person has received, most of the deaf population is limited to jobs demanding manual labour and is seldom offered jobs appropriate to their education and skill level. For people that are hard of hearing—those that are unable to hear well without hearing aids, or the deafened—those that can communicate verbally and through writing, and have most likely experienced hearing loss at a latter point in their life, they may either face circumstances similar to the completely deaf if exposed to deaf culture at a young age, such as by going to a school for the deaf; or may be at more favourable odds if they remained a part of mainstream culture and went to a normal school with the rest of the hearing population. It is still rare, even in the latter case, for a hard of hearing or deafened person to be rewarded with a job that satisfies their intellect and skillset.
“Instead of attempting to break communication barriers between employees in spite of disabilities, employers choose to discriminate and deny opportunities to the differently abled with utter disregard to their rights and dignity,” says Bhattarai. She criticises the majority of employers who refuse to take the risk of employing a hearing impaired citizen, even in areas such as administration or accounting where they are at no apparent disadvantage from hearing employees. Bhattarai further claims that despite the 5 percent disability quota system of employment in the country, opportunities are primarily offered to people with disabilities other than aural impairment. The root cause for such discrimination, even within the disabled population, is the prioritisation of communicating, via speech, because of its convenience in the workplace.
A pioneer in revolutionising the employment scene for the differently abled in the country, The Bakery Café opened its New Baneshwor outlet, seventeen years ago, with an aurally impaired administration. Shyam Kakshapati, Chairman of Nanglo International, initiated hiring the deaf with what was originally a radical idea for its time, “We began this project with the concept: why can’t we work with deaf people? We started out with 12 people and slowly, when we saw how capable they were, it encouraged us to hire more of them. Today, we have 65 aurally-impaired employees in six of our outlets.”
Reminiscing over the origins of what is, today, one of the most popular fast food chain restaurants in the country, Kakshapati recalls, “In the early stages, it was a bit difficult, mostly due to the communication barrier, so I had a personal interpreter who could communicate with them as well as myself. Initially, I had a lot of reservations as to whether they were capable of achieving what we expected of them. But when I started training the first batch of our aurally-impaired staff personally, I was surprised to see how quick they were to adapt to our training and learn with vigorous enthusiasm.”
Today, most of the staff in The Bakery Café outlets—from the manager to the cashiers and the chefs—are literate in sign language, making The Bakery Café one of the few enterprises that have successfully overcome the challenges of hiring the differently abled and collaborating with them in the workplace. Prior to knowing what a successful initiative this would turn out to be, Kakshapati discloses, “My biggest concern was whether they (the aurally impaired staff) would be accepted. I was worried the customers may question our choice of staff and ask, ‘How could a deaf guy be working here?’ That was my biggest fear. But amazingly, they reacted very positively and we were confident that our unique staff could provide equally good service as any other staff.”
Catch them young
Even amid such stories of hardships, there are some who have seen successes. Abishek Rayamajhi, assistant coordinator and guidance counsellor of Malpi Institute, is one such example. At the age of six, an accident triggered Rayamajhi to lose his hearing ability. His hearing loss was caused by bilateral sensory neuron loss which accentuated when he turned 10.
He confides, “My parents had a choice to send me to a deaf school or to teach me sign language. As soon as my hearing abilities started worsening, my parents provided me with hearing aids that would strengthen my hearing and prevent it from deteriorating further. They never let me feel like I was different from anybody else. They could’ve easily stopped me when I expressed interest in studying at an Amrican university—for risking too much, for going too far away on my own, but they never discouraged me or doubted me.” With the support of his parents and his three older sisters, Rayamajhi enrolled at Loras College, Iowa in 2005. He says he would email his professors prior to the beginning of every semester to inform them of his situation, so he could be seated in the front in classrooms and lecture halls, and provided with the suitable technology to supplement his hearing aid. He received positive feedback from his professors who were pleased with his enthusiasm and initiative. “If you have any difficulty, you have to address them. If you are comfortable enough with yourself to approach people confidently without shame, they will understand, be patient, and offer help even outside of the classroom.”
While in the US, Rayamajhi came in contact with a hearing specialist, Laurie Dewine, who was blown away by how he didn’t have any impediments in daily life in spite of his hearing loss. Hearing aids—much like any other electronic gadgets—do not last a lifetime, and are intended to be changed every four or five years. Dewine suggested he apply for the latest hearing aid made available by the American company Starkey that specialises in hearing aids. He applied for one, and his story was further carried to the people of the foundation run by Starkey. Taking an interest in Rayamajhi’s story, who was still an undergraduate student at the time, Starkey funded his new hearing aid, his fifth one so far, which he uses till date. As far as Rayamajhi knows, nobody in Nepal has worn this kind of hearing aid equipped with the latest technology and Bluetooth that enable connections with other devices such as Bluetooth-enabled microphones and smartphones.
Having said this, Rayamajhi clarifies that the kind of hearing aid a person requires differs from person to person depending on their hearing capacity, upbringing, and how early upon hearing loss was detected that hearing technology had been introduced to them. If there is a gap between detection of hearing loss and introduction of hearing aid, the hearing aid is of little use to the recipient as they will be unable to adapt themselves to all of these new sounds. This is why it is critical that hearing aids are made available to individuals experiencing hearing loss without delay.
The black, the white and the grey
Rayamajhi returned to Nepal at the end of 2013 upon graduating with a Master’s degree from Xavier University in Ohio and working in the States for a couple of years, primarily so his parents wouldn’t be alone. “My older sisters had gotten married by then and I didn’t want my parents to be alone. I wanted to be a part of their life. If they hadn’t supported me, my life would not have been what it is today. That is why I came back.” He rhetorically ponders how different his life would have been had his parents chosen not to equip him with hearing aids immediately upon confirming his hearing loss, and instead opted to assimilate him with the deaf community.
Rayamajhi is also quick to reiterate how fortunate he is to have found employers like the Malpi Institute, where he also did his A-levels, who have not only given equal opportunities but have also provided him a space to grow and fulfil his potential. “I cannot help repeat how grateful I am,” he says, “right from day one they’ve judged me only on the merit of my work. The topic of my impairment has just never come up. It is as if it wasn’t even there in the first place. Yet, sadly my case is an exception, not the norm.”
In light of these commendable achievements made by individuals and private organisations, it becomes even more imperative that efforts be made from the Government’s side to educate and empower the aurally impaired so they can be self-reliant. The Constitution as of today fails to recognise the spectrum of hearing abilities or lack thereof within the aurally impaired community, and only categorises people as either “hearing” or “deaf”. This definition excludes the hard of hearing and the deafened, and implies that only the absolutely deaf are deprived by their lack of hearing when in reality, the challenges faced by the hard of hearing are vastly different from the deaf and the deafened, and so on. The Constitution ensures free education for the deaf which is why many of the hard of hearing and deafened individuals are compelled to misrepresent themselves and assimilate within the deaf community to obtain such rights. This threatens the identity of the hard of hearing and the deafened, and denies their right to self-identity.
Shruti National Association of Hard of Hearing and Deafened Nepal is currently advocating for the recognition and inclusion of hard of hearing and deafened individuals in the Constitution. By proposing the Constitution to acknowledge the sunai apanga or aurally impaired (which covers all three categories of hearing impairments), anybody, who identifies with the stated definition, will rightly obtain free education, sign language training, captioning, and oral language interpretation. The organisation is also campaigning that the government make rehabilitation accessible to the aurally impaired community, provide hearing aids at subsidised prices (which costs anywhere from $500 to $7,000 depending on quality), and train teachers especially to detect hearing losses in children at an early age.
Rayamajhi iterates how fortunate he is that his parents made such choices for him, and fondly recalls his mother’s relentless dedication to visit his teachers at every school event and confront them with regard to his hearing loss. They never hesitated to try every known method from hearing aids to speech therapy to support their son. He considers himself lucky and shares, “I had the choice to pity myself. But I wasn’t brought up that way. I was brought up to work for myself, to be self-reliant.”
Contributor: Birat Anupam