Disability-friendly camp offers morale boost in Nepal

Published: 17 August 2015 7:34 CET

By Rosemarie North, IFRC

The April 25 earthquake had destroyed the business Nirmal Shrestha spent years building up. He was teaching touch-typing and basic computer skills in Word, Excel and Photoshop to children and adults in English and Nepali.

“My youngest student was 12. The oldest was 72. He wanted to communicate with his grandchildren. When he started, he pecked at the keyboard like a chicken. Afterwards, he could touch type,” says Nirmal, 45, from his tent at a temporary camp set up by the Nepal Red Cross Society.

Not only did the earthquake destroy all five of his computers and business. It also destroyed his home. Finding a permanent, disability-friendly house has been challenging for Nirmal. He has been using a wheelchair since he suffered a spinal cord injury caused by falling masonry when he was 22.

There has always been a shortage of disability-friendly accommodation in a city where elevators are rare. The earthquake damaged many apartments and houses in Kathmandu. Now there’s more demand for fewer places as people seeking work moved into the capital city after the earthquake. What makes suitable flats even scarcer are landlords moving from the previously desirable top floors of their apartment blocks to the ground floor, where they can evacuate more easily in the event of another earthquake.

When Nirmal had to leave his home, his only option was to join dozens of other people living with disabilities among hundreds of strangers camping on a football field. There were no wheelchair-accessible toilets or showers. More than two months after the quake, Nirmal was relieved to move into a camp for people with sensory, mobility and learning impairments, set up by the Nepal Red Cross and  Independent Living Centre for People Living with Disabilities Kathmandu (CIL-Kathmandu), a self-advocacy organisation. Nirmal says having the support of other people with disabilities has been crucial in improving his morale after the earthquake.

“Prior to moving into this camp, I couldn't do any work because I felt alone and isolated," he adds. "Now I have made many friends and I’m encouraged to do more in life." 

The purpose-built camp has accessible kitchen and bathroom facilities, flat pathways marked with bricks and other modifications. By late July, it housed 25 adults and two children in 10 tents that offer some insulation from the burning sun.

Together with CIL-Kathmandu, The Lalitpur branch of the Nepal Red Cross Society now takes care of the camp. Getting the facilities just right was a learning curve, says Niroj Maharjan, the Lalitpur Red Cross district water, sanitation and hygiene supervisor. “It was really different from working with other people,” he explains. “With the toilets, we had to make some small changes to make them accessible. We had to think about things we don’t normally think about.” For example, there are two types of water taps, one that the user twists, the other a lever that can be pushed or pulled. 

Nirmal shares his tent with two other men. One of them, Bharat B C, says the football field camp was a difficult place to study for the exams that would give him admission to a bachelor’s degree in social work.  A polio survivor who also uses a wheelchair, Bharat is keen to find a permanent place to live in, but agrees that the camp and its facilities are a huge improvement compared to the football field. “We have all the facilities we need here. Drinking water, food and lodgings. I can bathe here every day. This is like a small village here. We are all happy here,” Bharat says.