Adults with Down syndrome don’t just need sympathy—they need jobs
KATHMANDU — Routine tasks make Pradesh Aryal happy. Gathering dirty dishes, loading them carefully into the sink and meticulously cleaning the cups and plates are among the most fulfilling experiences he has had in his 21 years.
“I have a huge responsibility at work. People here need me,” said Aryal, beaming with pride.
Aryal, who has Down syndrome, has been working as a dishwasher at Coffee Express in Durbar Marg’s Sherpa Mall for a year. The job gives him independence and purpose in life, but more importantly he feels included and equal to everyone else on the team.
“I feel welcomed and respected at work,” he said.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. Studies estimate that around 1 in every 700 pregnancies is affected by Down syndrome. Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have mild to moderate developmental issues, along with impairments to their cognitive ability and physical growth, according to Dr Mukesh Bhatta, a paediatrician at the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences.
“However, people with Down syndrome have the potential to work and lead independent lives,” said Bhatta. “The only things they need are proper support and opportunities.”
People with Down syndrome, however, face a lot of stigma and discrimination across the world when it comes to their ability to work and support themselves. Many people with Down syndrome only have mild developmental issues but are often treated as if they are completely incapable. But as Aryal demonstrates, with proper training and an opportunity to prove themselves, people with Down syndrome can be gainfully employed, providing them with not just an income but a sense of belonging.
“Although they are slow learners, they can perform well with practice,” said Shila Thapa, president of the Down Syndrome Society Nepal.
According to Thapa, vocational skill training is the best way to empower people with Down syndrome.
“They often find it difficult to grasp reading and writing skills but they have a range of abilities that they can explore if given skill-based training,” said Thapa.
Aryal was one of four people with Down syndrome enrolled in a three-month training program jointly organized by Down Syndrome Society Nepal and Silver Mountain College of Hotel Management. The objective of the programme was to provide adults with Down syndrome with housekeeping and waitressing skills.
“I learned how to make beds, fold towels and clean cups on my own,” said Aryal.
Ramesh KC, manager of Coffee Express, said that he feels glad he gave Aryal an opportunity to prove himself.
“Before I met Pradesh Aryal, I had never met someone with Down syndrome,” said KC. “In the beginning, it was difficult for us to understand him. However, with time, we realised that we needed to be patient and give him some time to adjust to the work environment.”
According to KC, Aryal has an affectionate personality that brings joy at work. “Pradesh always has the biggest smile on his face,” he said.
Neeraj Dahal, Aryal’s colleague, said that new customers are often surprised to see him working at the shop, since it is rare to find people with intellectual disabilities working in Nepal.
“We have provided him with an ID card, so that he doesn’t have to face discrimination from the customers,” said Dahal.
According to United Nations Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) Article 27, persons with disabilities have the right to work just like anyone else and that they shouldn’t face any form of discrimination on the basis of their disability.
Thapa, president of the Down Syndrome Society Nepal, however, said that there is still a lot of discrimination towards people with disabilities in Nepali society.
In May last year, former Janata Dal lawmaker Gayatri Shah and her husband Rajesh Mahato were arrested by the Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Range for abandoning their newborn who was born with Down syndrome at the Nepal Mediciti Hospital.
“There is still confusion about what Down syndrome is and what learning disabilities are,” said Thapa. “Employers mistakenly assume that people with Down syndrome have mental health problems as they are judged immediately on their physical appearance rather than anything else.”
Studies suggest that with proper training and guidance, people with Down syndrome can successfully work as baristas, housekeepers, chefs, waiters, cleaners, models, flight attendants, scaffolders and even clerks at offices. However, it depends on how inclusive a society is towards the intellectually disabled.
The three others who trained with Aryal have been unable to get jobs, as employers still hesitate to hire people with Down syndrome, said Thapa.
According to the 2011 census, 1.9 percent of the Nepali population has Down syndrome. A report by Down Syndrome Society Nepal shows that as many as 350 cases of Down syndrome were registered in 2016.
Although there isn’t exact data available on the number of people with Down syndrome who have paid jobs, Thapa assumes that there may be just a handful of adults with Down syndrome working. Thapa, who also runs the Satyam day care for children with Down syndrome, said that only three others from her school, including Aryal have gotten jobs so far. There are 28 students at the daycare where eight are involved in different vocational activities.
“Most who are working have obtained employment either through organisations’ contacts or through parents requesting employers to give their children a chance to prove their potentials,” said Thapa.
This is true for Aryal as well. Thapa had to request everyone in her social circle to help Aryal get a job.
“Adults with Down syndrome are adults first, with the same social, emotional and achievement needs as other adults. It is important that they are treated as individuals and not as burdens. They don’t need people’s sympathy, rather a platform to be independent,” said Thapa.
Both Subodh and Uma, Aryal’s parents, hope that his achievements will help society value people with Down syndrome.
“If people like my son get a job opportunity, they can live a dignified and independent life,” said Uma.
Aryal’s parents feel that the job has empowered their son and has given him the confidence to go out and be an independent person. The job has given him an identity, said Subodh.
“Earlier, Pradesh was viewed as an idle member of the society, but now he is engaged in something meaningful,” he said. “He is an individual who has challenged the prejudice and stigma society has against disabled people.”
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