Khom Raj Sharma isn't letting social barriers in Nepal hold him back. He's a social entrepreneur and runs an institute for the empowerment and inclusion of people who are blind.
Khom Raj Sharma has devoted his life to empowering blind people
The Nepalese national anthem is played as hundreds of activists and experts gather for a conference on disability issues at Triebhuvan University in the country’s capital Kathmandu. They are here to discuss the challenges faced by disabled people and to dream up new projects to address the needs of their communities.
Khom Raj Sharma is blind and has taken part in this annual event for years. He is the founder of the "Inclusion Empowerment Centre," a continuing education institute, in Pokhara, central Nepal. The center provides blind students with computers and the technology they need to use them. They also offer English classes.
"It's not so easy to find a job in our society if one is blind," Khom Raj Sharma told Deutsche Welle. "That's why my students always have to prove how good they are. That's why we organize seminars to make clear how much potential blind people have."
Khom Raj Sharma opened his center for the blind a year ago. The classrooms are sparsely furnished but they are equipped with the latest technology. He teaches his 35 students for free because he knows that their families are unable to afford fees.
Optimistic and ambitious
Students learn to use computers so they can eventually get jobs
As Sharma spoke about his work his face lit up. His enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. In Nepal, it is difficult for visually impaired people to find employment, as discrimination against those with disabilities is widespread.
The 27-year-old said his goal is to get his students jobs as interpreters or tour guides, jobs in which they can use their English skills. It is still unthinkable in Nepal for a blind or partially-sighted person to work in a bank.
Sharma has long been active in disability rights organizations and has become a vocal advocate for the rights of blind people in Nepal. In January 2009, Sharma was awarded a scholarship and invited to attend the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Kerala, India.
He took an 11-month course to learn more about project management, planning and fundraising.
"It was a very good opportunity for me and made me become more self-confident," he said. "We were from 14 different countries. It was wonderful to exchange our experiences."
Sharma is an important role model for students like Sabitri Batrai. Blind from birth, she uses a computer equipped with specialized software that allows her to hear what she is typing. Despite the challenges ahead, she has big plans for the future.
"I would like to teach at a computer institute," she said. "My friends want me to teach them basic computing skills. I want them to be able to stay in contact with the whole world, even when they're at home."
Sharma's wife Sushma holds their son 'Vision', who is able to see
Born in small village in western Nepal, Sharma lost his eyesight when he was just 11 years old. He was born unable to see out of his left eye, but had some vision in his right. He didn't have access to proper medical care and his condition worsened.
Sharma's parents, who were peasants and unable to read, took him to a nearby temple in search of help. They were told Sharma’s blindness was punishment for something bad he had done in a past life. Being blind in Nepal is considered by many to be a curse.
When he was finally taken to see a doctor, it was too late. He had lost the sight in both eyes forever. But Sharma says he doesn't blame his parents.
"That's what society was like," he explained. "There was no hospital near my house. My parents had no money and they wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway."
A new life
Sharma was able to get into a school for the blind and continue his studies. That's where he met the woman he wanted to marry. She was from a lower caste, which means she was considered socially beneath him, and again Sharma found himself fighting against discrimination.
"In Nepal, social standing is everything," he said. "You're not allowed to marry someone from another caste. I belong to the so-called 'top caste,' my wife (is from) a different ethnic minority. It was hard to convince my parents."
But the couple did eventually get married and they had a son, who is now three. They named him "Vision," because he is able to see.
Sharma gets inspiration from his homelands, the foothills of the Himalayas, near Mount Everest. He explained that the feeling of being on top of the mountain ranges helps him aim high, and stand unshaken in the face of any challenge - that's what he aims to teach others.
Author: Isha Bhatia / act
Editor: Saroja Coelho