Children and teenagers are different here in Kathmandu.
Some sit on walls looking out on the world with adult eyes. Others busy themselves with adult work maintaining a childlike curiosity on their faces. Both sights are compelling.
There is no undercurrent of aggression, no surly teenagers hanging around street corners. You’d just as likely ask an adult the way to a restaurant you can’t find, as you’d approach a kid with the same question. An odd thing for a Londoner.
A lot of what I say comes from me falling back on non-verbal communication this week. I rely on it whenever I feel apologetic about my presence in a particular country. That comes from being British.
The more time I’ve spent here in Kathmandu, the more I’ve recognised how there’s a basic humility in everyone, young or old. It’s a world away from my experience. It’s as though the human spirit is easier to find here.
I think things clicked for me after I’d visited a couple of schools and homes for disabled children. This week I’ve come into contact with somewhere in the region of 160 disabled children, and a variety of different conditions.
I’ve learnt more about disability in the past seven days than I ever have. More on that a little bit later in this post.
In a lot of cases, orthodox methods of communication aren’t an option. Smiles turn out to be the only reliable currency. And they come in spades too. And it’s heart-warming. Because as soon as you start communicating with your eyes or with a smile, then suddenly everyone regardless of their age is a human being.
What those disabled and disadvantaged children don’t realise when they’re smiling at you is the effortless way they’re forcing you to reflect on yourself. In every interaction you’re battling with your own thoughts and feelings. What’s the right way to interact? How can I help? What’s the most valuable way to help? Care? Encouragement? Assistance?
One school here — one I can only describe as progressive — does something startling. It takes the assumption we all secretly still have about severely disabled individuals and turns it on its head. It challenges the assumption that ‘nothing can be done for them’ and endeavours to help them help themselves.
It chooses the hard path, painstakingly training those with severe motor problems to do the things the rest of us would assume they will never be able to do. Clenched fists aren’t unusable. People who can’t walk can, after 6 months of intensive physiotherapy, gingerly make their first steps, and its a joy to witness.
Other therapists in other homes I’ve visited have demonstrated equally remarkable things. Mute children can, fuelled by love and patience, be encouraged to make sounds and, over time, say words. And when they do they make the rest of us snivel. Teenagers who maybe overlooked because their families can’t integrate their challenged child into the day to day life, are given a helping hand and an education.
One such kid came up to me asking my name.
“Jon,” I replied.
“What’s your surname?”
“Jacob.” “Jon Jacob. That’s a great name.”
Only one other person has ever said that to me. Sandi Toksvig. On-air.
Elsewhere this week I’ve seen determination of an entirely kind than I’ve ever seen before. On my first day here I saw a boy with motor problems fitting his own prosthetic legs after which he tried to clamber in the back of the minibus we were using for a journey we were making. He didn’t quite make it unaided. I’m in no doubt he’ll manage it next time. He’s that kind of individual. You can see the determination in his eyes.
Later in the week I watched another young boy with a clenched fist struggle but succeed to complete an alphabet jigsaw. There was no pressure on him to achieve. There wasn’t any impatience from me either (surprisingly). I held off from helping him, using willpower alone to encourage him. It was a magical moment. Precious.
And, yesterday, I walked through a gate opened by a disabled boy who had been appointed as the school’s security guard. Not only was he being given a task which maintained his attention and movement, but it also taught him the importance of responsibility. I struggled to lock the gate behind me. He lunged towards me attending to the latch with a warm smile that made me feel like a complete fool. Good for him.
Such projects as these are, inevitably, going to be littered with such stories. And when you’re thousands of miles away from home, they’re bound to tug at the heart strings more. Perhaps in our charmed UK life we’re siloed. Not so here. Everyone’s on the streets. Earning their living. Keeping alive.
What amazes me most is how it took me coming this far to learn about something which I really ought to have known about already: how disabilities occur, and how they’re overcome. Instead, what I know of is the story that is written about disability within a diversity narrative: equality, targets, and representation.
These are all important, of course, but they skew things unhelpfully. If we were to educate and empower might the narrative change?