When Rob Rose brought an iPad to a school in Nepal that teaches students with disabilities, he expected it to help the school’s nonverbal students communicate in a different way.
But he didn’t expect them to begin learning to speak English. Thanks to an app and the help of longtime friends, that is exactly what happened.
Now, Rose is asking for others to give gifts of iPads so that more nonverbal students can find their voice.
This current call for donations is just the latest in a two-decade effort to improve the lives of Nepali children in need. Through his nonprofit, the Rose International Fund for Children, and the Rotary Club of Bellevue, the Bellevue resident and longtime Rotarian has made a difference in countless lives by sponsoring those with special needs; funding nutritional, medical or facilities needs; or developing a campaign to wipe away the social stigma that comes with being disabled in Nepal.
Rose’s passion for helping the children of Nepal began with a phone call in 1997. While working at Brant Photographers, he had read an article about volunteering as a photographer for the Nepal Youth Foundation.
“I thought, well, what if they say no? Then I also thought, well, that’s true they could say no, but what if they say yes? And this phone call might have a big impact on my life?” Rose recalled. “I’d never had that feeling before. I had a premonition, I guess, that this might be a really important phone call.”
The call led Rose to connect with Olga Murray, who is still his mentor, and his “older Nepali brother” R.R. Pandey, a Rotarian with the Rotary Club in Nepal. Those connections would eventually lead to several highly-funded projects, the start of the Rose International Fund for Children and the stand-alone Nepali organization Ability Development Society of Nepal.
This past October, Rose made his 23rd visit to Nepal, and it was then that he was able to watch firsthand the impact modern technology could have on the lives of the children.
“I wouldn’t have gone further if it wasn’t this astounding,” Rose said of the iPad project and his desire to expand it. “With just two weeks of teachers working with some students and seeing the success in different ways than what we expected.”
The iPad went to the Special Education Rehabilitation Centre (SERC) for Children with Disabilities and had a special $250 app installed called Proloquo2Go. The app displays hundreds of images within images that, when pressed, speak a word and goes to the top of the screen. When told to do so, the app then reads the words at the top in a series, sometimes making a sentence, using a voice the user chooses.
“Some of the kids that were totally nonverbal kept pushing the button for, like, ‘orange,’ ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and they started to repeat the word,” Rose said. “I’m curious to know if kids are going to start to learn how to talk, specifically, from this, which wasn’t one of the features in the program when I went on the website to see how kids were using it.”
Others, like Safal Ghimire, a boy with cerebral palsy, have quickly picked up how to create sentences with the images and is beginning to express himself after a lifetime of being nonverbal.
In a video Rose filmed for his website, viewers can see Safal express through the app that he loves his brother.
“I think when you have autism or cerebral palsy, your brain is working in a lot of different ways,” Rose said. “Everything is inside, right what you need, but the connection to verbalize is not there.”
Rose said the inability to communicate because of a disability can be incredibly frustrating.
“There’s some kids with cerebral palsy or young men that are trying so hard to tell you something and they are firmly in grasp of that concept but it’s not coming out in an intelligible manner,” Rose said. “So the person trying to communicate with them is frustrated, and to be able to have a way to communicate and have a little conversation is like … a game changer, it’s like a life changer.”
There are also more inexpensive apps designed to help children identify emotions that Rose plans to install on a total of 20 iPads he hopes to donate by next fall.
If the program remains successful at SERC, Rose hopes to implement it in other third world countries.
And while it could be a while before those iPads are in the hands of Nepali students, Rose has plenty to keep him busy until then. This March, the international do-gooder will return to Nepal and then return home with a principal and teacher from a Nepali school for the blind.
The three have plans to visit the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver to have an “in-depth experience” and to show the visitors what education for the blind is like the United States. They’ll then take a trip up north to the Edmonds School District to learn about an inclusive program in which support is provided for blind students within the district.
After, Rose hopes to complete the loop by sending a representative of Washington State School for the Blind to Nepal, all through a “knowledge exchange” grant.
The project also corresponds with Rose’s long-term goal, which is to solve the “educational puzzle” for the blind and visually impaired students in Nepal.
Last year, he and the Rotary hosted a blind Nepali exchange student who attended Sammamish High School for eight months.
“I feel like I have a good handle on developing a solution for that but it’s a really big project,” he said. “There’s 92 schools across the country where blind students study.”
Rose envisions engaging the Nepali government as part of the solution but thinks the undertaking could take as long as 20 years.
However, it wouldn’t be the first large project in Nepal that Rose has spearheaded. During the Great Recession, Rose, with the help of the 35 matching grants through various Rotary Clubs, launched a multi-faceted, multimedia campaign to reduce the social stigma of being disabled in Nepal. Rose and Pandey convinced movie star Rajesh Hamal to be the campaign’s spokesperson, they received $50,000 worth of marketing services and materials and they set up a call center for information on various disabilities. Rose said they successfully made a positive impact.
“It’s like that in a lot of developing countries and in Nepal the superstition is that you’re cursed or suffering from a past life sin [if you’re disabled],” Rose said. “And in all my Rotary projects and my work with Olga’s organization, I met lots of people, young people, kids with disabilities and they had the same capabilities as any other kid but this societal stigma was holding them back.”
To donate a used iPad for Rose’s iPads in Nepal project, email him at Rob@trifc.org. For more information on The Rose International Fund for Children, visit trifc.org.