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Visually impaired and journey to fulfillment… how society can help

By Isaac Taiwo and Paul Aduwoke
05 August 2023   |   4:08 am
A recent visit to the Eye Centre at Isolo General Hospital, Lagos State, was eye opening. At 7.30am, over 200 people had besieged the centre waiting for doctors’ arrival to commence attending to patients. Although members of staff of the centre did well in coordinating the patients to ensure orderliness, the experience was no less harrowing.

The Principal, Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind (FNSB) and Vocational Training Centre, Joseph Oladokun (second left) and some students of the centre displaying their products

Rather than resigning to fate, some visually impaired Nigerians are resolute on engaging in productive ventures but lack adequate support from society. In this report, ISAAC TAIWO and PAUL ADUNWOKE highlight some of their challenges and how stakeholders can help them to lead fulfilled lives.  

A recent visit to the Eye Centre at Isolo General Hospital, Lagos State, was eye opening. At 7.30am, over 200 people had besieged the centre waiting for doctors’ arrival to commence attending to patients. Although members of staff of the centre did well in coordinating the patients to ensure orderliness, the experience was no less harrowing.

At 2.00pm when The Guardian left the hospital, those yet to be attended to could be up 100 if a roll call were taken.
All the patients at the centre had one eye challenge or the other. In fact, some were already being aided to walk by relatives. The visit to the hospital was apparently to see if doctors could help them to avoid blindness. They see what visually impaired or blind members of the society suffer and do not want to experience such.
While marking the World Sight Day in 2020 with the theme, ‘Hope in Sight’, The Nigeria Association of the Blind (NAB), the national association representing blind and partially sighted persons in Nigeria, disclosed that based on the National Blindness and Visual Impairment Survey conducted from 2005 to 2007, more than 1.13 million Nigerians aged 40 years were blind, a further 2.7 million adults aged 40 years had moderate visual impairment and additional 400,000 adults were severely visually impaired.
However, latest data by the Nigeria Optometric Association (NOA) barely a year ago showed that about 50 million Nigerians had one visual disability or the other, while nearly seven million Nigerians were blind.
President of NOA, Dr. Obinna Awiaka, who disclosed this while briefing journalists on the 45th yearly conference of the association in Abuja, in July last year, said: “The percentage of people living with visual disabilities across the world is almost 40 per cent. Nigeria has close to 50 million persons that have some form of visual disability or the other, limiting their ability to work, learn or play.”
NAB had also stated that people who are blind in Nigeria were grappling with daunting challenges ranging from widening social inequality gap, inaccessible educational institutions, attitudinal barriers as well as political exclusion. It also noted that there is high level of unemployment, excruciating poverty, massive discrimination and lack of clear-cut policies geared toward the inclusion of people who are blind in the society.  
“Neglecting such a huge population will be counter-productive overtime,” the association warned.
However, a visit to the Federal Nigeria Society for the Blind (FNSB) and Vocational Training Centre indicated that the country still has a lot of work to do to support the blind in their journey to fulfillment.

During the visit, The Guardian was informed of the conscious efforts the students were making to sharpen their natural talents irrespective of what many would describe as a predicament. They just refused to resign to fate. While some choose to further their education up to the university level, some take to vocations such as fashion designing, making of ladies’ handbags, key holders and beads, among others, which showcase their resolve not to be a burden to society. However, they lack adequate patronage for the items they produce.
According to the Executive Secretary of the school, Oluwamayowa Oke, FNSB and Vocational Training Centre is a voluntary non-profit organisation with a mission to produce sustainable and collaborative support for the blind. The school, he said, rehabilitates and trains people who, for one reason or the other, became visually impaired or blind at adolescent or adulthood.
“The Society established the Vocational Training Centre for the Blind, Oshodi, in 1956, with the primary objective of providing an institution to educate and empower visually impaired people, giving them opportunities to pursue their various ambitions either academically or through entrepreneurial training. Visually impaired people don’t have to be illiterates if they are taught or trained to read and write braille. Braille is not a language. It is a tactile code enabling blind and visually impaired people to read and write by touch, with various combinations of raised dots representing the alphabet, words, punctuation and numbers.
“We have a boarding facility that provides breakfast, launch and dinner for the students.  With the problem of removal of oil subsidy, I call on the general public, blue chip companies and corporate organisations to come to our aid financially so that we can continue to meet our obligations. We have been operating for the past 68 years and I believe that with the help of the people out there, we can do more,” he said. 
Oke described the students as people who unfortunately became blind and need to be rehabilitated, adding that they really need the support of religious bodies, philanthropists, corporate bodies as well as individuals to attain fulfillment.
He stated that the school was not enjoying any subvention from either the state or Federal Government.
Oke also disclosed that since the commencement of the Centre, a large number of blind men and women have been trained in braille writing and reading, tie and dye, mobility skills and switchboard operation, among others.  
He stated that students that graduate from the centre are suitable for employment, noting that many of them can also be self-employed.

The Principal of the school, Joseph Oladokun, explained that students are admitted for either a year or two-year programme, adding that those who undertake the two-year programme are students admitted with Senior School Certificate while the one-year programme is meant for students with advanced certificates like NCE, HND, ND, B.Sc and above.
Oladokun added: “According to a Chinese philosopher, if you give a man a fish, he would ask for more. But teach a man how to fish and he would continue to eat fish forever. Here, we do not want our students to continue to beg to live because of their peculiarity. When I was growing up, I used to know blind people as beggars. But these days, the tide has changed. What we do for those who come to our centre and are yet to acquire advanced certificate is that they are trained and registered for external exams like WAEC or NECO and thereafter encouraged to register for UTME.
“One of our former students in now in year two at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, studying Sociology and Anthropology. Not only that, one of our instructors is a former student of the centre, who graduated from this school about eight years ago. He went from here to the same University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to study Sociology and Anthropology and graduated with Second Class Upper. After his compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at the centre here, since he had the competence and quality to deliver, he was retained. So, what we are trying to say is that we encourage our students either to further their studies or to acquire skills that would enable them to be responsible and independent. 
“We are planning an event, which is titled, ‘Open House’ that would enable us to showcase their skills, which includes music presentation, drama presentation, braille reading and sports.  Not only that, they also do so many things that people do not believe that blind people can do. This is exactly what we are doing here.”
Oladokun appealed to the government and private sector to begin to give blind people the same privilege as people with sight. 
“We do not want job discrimination. Once they are competent, they should be gainfully employed as long as they have the quality. In our centre here, we have graduates, apart from those that we trained, who are trained by other institutions. Since we have seen the quality in them, we employed them and they are doing well. This is the idea we are selling to the people out there. They need to be encouraged and supported. What we charge is less than 10 per cent of what we spend on our students. When we calculated what we spend on just one student, we arrived at over N1 million per annum because we feed them three times in a day. They take their breakfast, lunch and dinner. We do not deny them any thing; we charge only N70,000 per term and we have three terms in a year. Yet, a lot of them find it difficult to pay.

“However, we have some partners who come with foodstuffs and money. No amount is too small for us to accept. We are ready to collect any amount given to us,” he added.
Oladokun noted that the school has the challenge of lifting the spirits of students who hold the notion that becoming blind is the end of life. “This is because not all of them became blind from birth. Some of them became blind two years ago as a result of sickness, three years ago as a result of accident, five years ago as a result of attack from different angles and corners. So, because of that, they have depression. They are always depressed, asking the question why are they in this condition. Imagine the situation of a student who, at a time, was collecting about N500,000 as salary and suddenly becomes blind. It takes the grace of God to be able to keep such a person to continue to do what they are being asked to do. What we are trying to say is that there are so many challenges, but we are only trying to manage them. Some of them are aggressive; some of them are downcast. Some of them take hard drugs and when they are asked, they give the excuse of trying to suppress their depression. However, we have been talking to them that they just need to have faith in God who can do all things, to perfect His work in their lives,” he said.
He showered praises on Christian associations, Muslim associations, individuals and organisations that visit the school to interact with the students and donate items. 
“They do come to interact with the students. We also welcome clubs.  Recently, we had members of Rotary Club of Isolo, led by their President, Abimbola Oseni, paying the students a visit from morning till night. They came with foodstuff, mattresses and pillowcases for the students. It was a glamorous day for the students who ate, danced and showcased their products that were bought by their president and other club members just to encourage the students and make them happy. The students need this type of fellowship to encourage them,” he noted.
Speaking with The Guardian, the President, Student Union Group of the school, Taiwo Alagbala, pleaded with Nigerians to come to support the students more by patronising their products, saying it would go a long way to encourage them.
Two other students of the school, Mojisola Fafunwa and Sixtus Ugoala, made similar appeals to Nigerians, stating that buying their products would help them in the payment of their school fees. 
In September last year, NAB had appealed to the immediate past president, Muhammadu Buhari, to sign the newly revised Copyright Bill to remove legal barriers for persons with print disabilities. 

Addressing journalists in Abuja, the association’s President, Ishaku Adamu, lamented that many Nigerians were being deprived of the huge benefits that others enjoy due to their disabilities.
He noted that the domestication of the Marakesh Treaty through the assent to the new Copyright Bill would make Nigeria a society with equal reading opportunities for both print disabled and non-print disabled members of the community. 
He noted that it was crucial that Nigeria domesticates the treaty in view of the many benefits to print disabled persons. 
Adamu said: “These people are currently being deprived of the huge benefits that others are enjoying because of the increasing availability of reading material on every imaginable subject.
“In fact, even books by Nigerian authors like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, which have been produced in accessible formats in other countries, are not available to Nigerians with a print disability. This lack of reading material affects writing quality and general communication. 
“Nigeria has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), therefore voluntarily committing itself to complying with the provisions of the convention. This means that Nigeria owes its disabled citizens the duty of providing works and materials in accessible formats as provided in Article 9, 19, 21, 24, 31 and 33.3 of the UNCRPD. 

“Estimates suggest that about 10 per cent of the books produced in developed countries are accessible to print disabled persons. In developing countries, the situation is less clear; perhaps less than one per cent of books are in accessible formats.
“Under such circumstances, the organisations, which produce books in accessible formats have to make difficult choices about what books to transcribe, record or make accessible. Books are produced, not because of their intellectual quality, but because of their market popularity. 
“The situation is worsened because if an organisation of the blind in one country makes a book in an accessible format, current copyright laws do not allow it to be shared with a similar organisation and its members in another country.” 
Two months ago, Adamu still expressed disappointment over low government investment in special schools across the country.
Speaking when the association donated translated versions of approved curriculum textbooks to the Bauchi Special School to contribute towards the education of the visually impaired, he noted that the development was making it impossible for the students to study as required, adding that, “all children have right to education.”
According to Adamu, the braille books, which were produced with the support of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), would ease the learning process among the visually impaired, adding that the gesture was a pilot exercise being implemented across the country.

“The textbooks were produced to develop the blind students in education. The visually impaired have no adequate textbooks to improve on teaching and learning process.
“Teachers have to study the available books and dictate to students, making it difficult for assignments, which textbooks are key in a successful learning process.

“The text books are in 18 subjects for primary and secondary students, and so far nine of the states have benefited from the first phase of the project.”
He, therefore, urged the government, philanthropists and other organisations across the country to replicate such intervention for quality education among people with disabilities.
Adamu further advocated for more allocation of resources to fast track learning and quality education among the physically challenged in the country.
How the current administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu addresses these challenges would be clear in the course of time.