Seeing Through The Inner Lens
Full of life and almost immediately chatty, Kemi Odusanya, Femi S.A Bayode, and George Fenemigh Jolomi are three of the 2.2 billion people around the world whose vision is impaired.
Patience to correct and educate, these three are among the 15% of Nigerians who have made it their life’s goal to give hope to those in the disabled community.
Enter Nigeria, a country where an illness is synonymous with a spiritual attack, visual impairment is treated with fear and disdain mixed with ignorance.
Femi S.A. Bayode, the first visually impaired and disabled student to become president of a department (Special Education Department) at the University of Jos says that he has been a victim of the three. Although he has been visually impaired for most of his youth, it is almost impossible to believe that Femi is blind as his hearty laughter and confidence leaves you with a/ impressionable/heartwarming first impression.
Citing ignorance, wrong diagnosis and negligence as the reasons for his predicament, he says that when his family noticed that his sight was deteriorating, his parents [like most African parents] strongly believed that their son was under spiritual attack and sought a solution from religious leaders while going to the hospital half-heartedly.
During the cause of finding a cure, Femi was given a solution containing methylated spirit alongside other herbal solutions to restore his sight. It didn’t help that the medical help, a private optician in Ondo state, gave them a wrong diagnosis. “The federal hospitals were on strike then. It was the private optician that actually diagnosed me with cataracts, meanwhile, it was something else. By the time we got to know, it was too late.”
His father, who he describes as his hero, refusing to allow his son’s condition to become the end of him, ensured that he continued to go to school. “This is where the enlightenment of the parents comes in. I only stopped schooling for two months.” While his mother was worried about how he’d cope and sought to overprotect him, his father is the reason he denounced fear and learned courage.
“My father said, ‘no you must finish your schooling. We can be seeking a solution while you continue with your education.’ My mum didn’t know I was starting school until the day I was going for my rehabilitation.”
Now, a Masters’ degree holder, Femi organises ICT programmes where he teaches other visually impaired students web design for free. “Most of the things that I learnt on the computer including web design, I learnt myself through online forums.” Thanks to technology via read-to-text software, reading as a visually impaired person is not a hindrance.
“Many people use my success as a benchmark. They say if Femi can do it, then I can. I have been able to affect many people’s lives positively.”
With a woman by his side, he says that butterflies are no strangers to his tummy. “In fact, she is not the first that I’ve met. There were so many butterflies the first time I spoke to a lady but I finally spoke with her and now, It just comes to me naturally,” he says chuckling.
Persons with disability are persons before disability- Kemi Odusanya
Giving up is not an option for Odusanya whose blindness happened in the early 2000s.
Save for her family who were concerned about their daughter’s failing sight, it was during one of her check-ups after the eclipse of the sun that they discovered that she had a retinal detachment.
She had several laser joint surgeries but that resulted in the muscles of her eyes coming out. Odusanya is one of the 4% around the world who has experienced complications during a laser eye surgery.
Hit with the impairment, Odusanya says that she felt that her consultation will come with “begging, getting married, having children or just dying. This is because I never saw an educated person with disability until my story happened.”
It was only then that she realised “that not everyone knows how to handle someone in this state. Even those that are sympathising with you might not know how to express their feelings to you.”
Since living with the condition, Odusanya has helped young ones to first visit the rehab centres, start a radio programme – Living with disability- for persons with disability as well as another show, Dialogue with the specials on UNILAG FM.
“During my service year, I was posted to a particular radio station and they had enlightened people and foreigners so I felt that they would know about it. But they were scared and at the end of it all, I created a radio programme. Setbacks will come but the ability to encourage yourself is what matters,” she concludes.
George Fenemigh Jolomi, an activist on disability issues, is busy surfing the internet for the latest information on disability when we start the conversation. Born congenital in a well-to-do family, his father, a well-travelled civil servant, took young George abroad for several operations.
Thankfully, he “was able to recover one sight. So I used that one till I finished secondary school.” What came after the restoration of the sight was unprecedented: he could not be protected from bullying and ended up settling for the nickname, Cyclops. “Growing up I was bullied a lot, called Cyclops but it is a normal thing [to be bullied] so I just moved on.”
Moving on meant using the only defence mechanism he knew how: acting numb. Bullying in Nigerian schools, a study titled A Comparative Assessment Of Bullying Among In-School Adolescents In An Urban And Rural Setting In Southern Nigeria by Esohe Olivia Ogboghodo et al (2018) reveals is at a high prevalence of 78%.
However, having one sight did not quench his appetite for serving in the military. But he was hit with another limitation, “the only sight I had wasn’t really good because I still had to use glasses.” Now a graduate, he says with pride that not only is he the “second graduate out of six in my home,” he has since pursued his passion of becoming a web designer. Again, that itself has its own barrier.
“Over the years, I have gotten clients and most people don’t really want to give their job to someone who can’t see, it takes a whole lot of courage.” Although referrals have been very helpful, “business is not really as lucrative as it used to be because everyone is doing it.”
Now a disability advocate, Jolomi runs CITAB (Centre for Infrastructural and Technological Advancement for the Blind), an NGO aimed at advocacy and the promotion of assistive technology for the blind. Through CITAB, he has kept successive state governments in check. With his writings published by media houses including Vanguard, ThisDay, SaharaReporters, he says that his writings are reflective of the concerns plaguing the disabled community as a whole.
Full of praises for the signing into law of the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, he bemoaned the non-implementation of the act.
“The government claims that they are doing enough but they are not. How can you say you run an inclusive education but disabled people don’t have assistive technology to help them. Make consideration for the disabled community and implement it. Also, slots [in the civil service] should also be secured for disabled persons.”