Uduak Esin strode towards an old couch in the sitting room and sank into it quietly. She reached out for her phone on a wooden stool and slowly checked whether she had missed calls or had unread messages from relatives and friends. Despite her visual impairment, one could tell that she knew her way around the apartment, with her calculative movements, and loved the freedom she had to do certain things by herself.
“I don’t depend on my mother to do things for me. I wash my clothes myself. I cook myself and do other things myself,” she said with an aura of clairvoyance as though she sensed that our correspondent might attempt to guide her subsequently.
Esin became blind after she was diagnosed as having glaucoma at a tender age of 12, though the condition had earlier been mistaken for malaria and typhoid by her family.
“It happened in 2012 on my way back from school. I was 12 years old at that time. As I was returning from school, I noticed that I could not see clearly. Some people around took me to hospital and I was treated for malaria and typhoid. I was discharged but, subsequently, my eyes were itching terribly and I had watery discharge from my eyes. I was told that I had glaucoma.
“But the doctors said I couldn’t undergo surgery because it had reached the worst stage. I was not happy at all. In fact, I wanted to commit suicide. But I was encouraged by family and friends who stood by me. But in spite of my condition, I still have hope that I can do things sighted people can do,” she said with a grin.
In spite of the barrier created by the loss of her sight, Esin remained optimistic that she could aspire, like every other kid, and realise her dream of becoming a medical doctor. In preparation for that future and in a bid to begin her adjustment to a new life, she and her mother relocated from their home state of Akwa Ibom to Lagos, where she enrolled at Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted Children, a few years after she became blind.
“I started using Braille in 2016. I didn’t know I would be able to use it to read and write. But I met a friend who taught me the alphabets in Braille. I thought I would not be able to learn it but she encouraged me to stay focused and learn,” she added.
In 2018, she joined Queen’s College, Lagos, as a Senior Secondary School 1 pupil, and had hoped that the exposure would give her the equal opportunity needed to get quality education. But Esin, now 20 and in her final year at school, said her hope of becoming a high-flier in the medical sciences was dashed when she found out that the school did not have special teachers for pupils with visual disability as she and three other blind classmates were taught by regular teachers using teaching materials meant for sighted pupils.
“At Queen’s College, we make use of laptops for note-taking because the teachers there can’t use Braille. I don’t understand what the teachers teach; that is why I sleep in class at times. If the teachers were special education teachers, they would know how to teach us in our own way. There are materials for special pupils to learn mathematics.
“We don’t have a special teacher at Queen’s College. The only one we have is a resource teacher and her work is just to translate our examination or test questions to Braille. Her work is not to teach us in class. There are four visually impaired pupils in my class and about 20 in the school. We ought to have a special teacher, especially for mathematics. My grades have been bad. Sometimes, I get F9 and sometimes, I get C’s. Sometimes, our mathematics results are not recorded. I don’t know why. I wanted to study medicine before I lost my sight but I decided to change my course to mass communication since visually impaired persons cannot be in the sciences; that was what I was told,” the 20-year-old lamented.
School-age children among 25 million persons with disabilities in Nigeria
At least one billion people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, with a higher prevalence in developing countries, while between 110 million and 190 million people experience significant disabilities, according to a 2020 World Bank report on Disability Inclusion. In Nigeria, over 25 million people live with different forms of disability. In its World Disability Report published in 2011, the World Health Organisation identified inappropriate teaching materials and methods of assessment as one of the barriers to education for children with disabilities.
Stranded pupils in poorly equipped public schools
Investigation by our correspondent revealed that one of the challenges militating against the right of children living with disabilities in public schools to basic education was the dearth of special teachers. Nigeria has 21 federal colleges of education and 52 state colleges of education, according to the website of the National Commission for Colleges of Education, as of December 16, 2020. There are also several public universities offering courses in education across the country. But in spite of the thousands of Education graduates being churned out every year, many public secondary schools in Nigeria are starved of teachers trained in the science and art of catering for children with special needs.
Checks by our correspondent also showed that the challenges bedevilling the education of blind pupils are not limited to Queen’s College as many other public secondary schools across the country that claimed to offer inclusive education to children living with disabilities did not have special teachers to cater for pupils with special needs in all subjects or, at least, the technical ones. This is in addition to inadequate teaching and learning materials for the visually impaired in the schools.
The materials include stylus and slate, Braille embosser and printer, and Braille notetaker. A Braille embosser is similar to a printer and transfers Braille characters from a computer onto paper for a blind reader and the least costs as high as $2, 000 (or N718, 000 at an exchange rate of N379 to a dollar), an amount too expensive for an average blind pupil. A Braille notetaker is a portable device that has a word processor and connects to the Internet. It has other software applications that enable blind pupils to carry out various tasks; the device also comes with inbuilt refreshable Braille displays. Like a pen or pencil used by sighted persons, a stylus and a slate are learning materials used by the blind to create characters, with raised (embossed) dots or bumps, on a paper.
Sadly, the inadequacies in public inclusive schools are clear violations of Article 16 (3) (h) and (i) of the Protocol to the African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa, to which Nigeria is a signatory.
Article 16 (3) (h) and (i) of the protocol stipulates that “states parties shall take reasonable, appropriate and effective measures to ensure that inclusive quality education and skills training for persons with disabilities is realised fully, including by: ensuring that educational institutions are equipped with the teaching aids, materials and equipment to support the education of students with disabilities and their specific needs” and “training education professionals, including persons with disabilities, on how to educate and interact with children with specific learning need.”
The current situation in many of the schools investigated showed that special education in Nigeria is incongruous with Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which the federal and state governments profess. One of the objectives of Goal 4, which centres on quality education, is aimed at building and upgrading “education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all,” according to the United Nations Development Programme.
In its ‘Education for All, EFA, 2000-2015: achievement and challenges’ report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation recommended that between 15 and 20 per cent of a country’s budget should be allocated to education. But Nigeria’s education sector has continued to receive one of the lowest allocations in the annual budget. For example, in the N10.33tn 2020 budget, the Ministry of Education received a total of N572,749,394,995, comprising N479,576,007,217 for recurrent expenditure and N75,173,387,778 for capital expenditure. The total amount allocated to education was 5.5 per cent. Also, in the proposed 2021 budget of N13.08tn, the ministry received a total of N742,517,832,970, comprising N125,364,671,980 for capital expenditure, N576, 742,384,994 for personnel cost and N35,410,765,966 for overhead. The total amount allocated to the sector was 5.6 per cent.
With the miserly funds set aside for education every year, the expectations in the sector have remained the same – poor. It was gathered that while King’s College, Lagos, managed and funded by the Federal Government, has only three special teachers, it was not the same its sister institution, Queen’s College, Lagos.
Only two special teachers (for Social Studies and English Language) employed by the state government were provided for more than 25 visually impaired pupils at Lagos State Model College, Agbowa, Ikosi. It also had two volunteers engaged by the school authorities to teach the pupils music and arts and craft. It was further learnt that while the school was in dire need of computers and audio recording devices for the visually challenged pupils, it had no modern Braille machine as the ones donated by a telecommunications company went bad five years ago.
In all, the pupils are left to bear the brunt. Like Esin, Henry Okeke, 19, a final-year student of King’s College, Lagos, wished he had his sight so he could enjoy one of his favourite subjects, English, and increase his chances of studying for a degree in English at the tertiary level. But understanding and mastering phonetic symbols and diagrams during practical classes in English Language and some science subjects was like a barrier made of steel. The teenager told our correspondent that the challenge left blind students with no other option than to either skip difficult questions or do guesswork during examinations.
“During (classes on) phonetics, there are symbols and sounds given. So, if you don’t see them, you cannot understand the questions. So, we needed the aid of a sighted person to help us explain such. The second challenge has to do with diagrams in almost any subject. For example, in biology, we need the assistance of someone that has sight to help us explain the diagram.
“We only had a special teacher for mathematics. I don’t think we have more than four special teachers. During external examinations, we are not allowed to be assisted by fellow pupils. We had to skip the question or do guesswork. In the case of school examinations, if our teacher understands, they could help us or allow us to call for the assistance of a sighted pupil. You will hardly find a visually impaired person doing sciences; it’s almost impossible because science is full of diagrams and practicals. So, there are many challenges and at the end, we might end up failing woefully.”
Tunde Animashaun, also a pupil at King’s College, said being taught by a regular teacher in a way not suitable for visually impaired students left him and others with visual impairment at the mercy of their sighted classmates.
“It’s difficult if you don’t have friends or make friends. During combined classes, I sit among three of my sighted friends and ask them what the teachers are writing on the board. If I don’t understand, I would ask the teachers but there are some impatient teachers who would tell me to look for someone else that would better explain it to me. In mathematics, it is very difficult. It affected my grades. The teacher would say, ‘This plus this…’ What is this? In Literature, they just read to us but it would be better if all these things are available in audio formats for visually impaired persons,” he said.
At Federal Government College, Ijanikin, Lagos, our correspondent gathered that there are only three special teachers catering for 24 visually impaired pupils in the school. A teacher in the school, who did not want to be named, said the authorities were compelled to limit the senior pupils to arts subjects owing to the dearth of relevant teaching and learning materials, including slate and stylus, thus, limiting the ability of the pupils to pursue careers of their choice.
“They (visually impaired pupils) have a right to have an idea of what others are being taught. After all, other arts pupils (who are sighted) are taught mathematics and they must do well before they are admitted into universities. So, why should they be deprived of that opportunity? We, as special teachers, are supposed to be involved in annual refresher courses to help us perform better,” the teacher said.
Our correspondent gathered that the situation in other parts of the country also leaves much to be desired. It was learnt that schools open to persons with disabilities in Imo State, including Mbaise Boys Secondary School, Aboh Mbaise, and Government College, Owerri, had a few or no special teachers. It was further learnt that Government College, Makurdi, in Benue State, has no special teacher while St. Peter’s Secondary, in the Vandeikya Local Government Area of the state, has only one.
A special teacher in Benue, who spoke on condition of anonymity for the fear of being victimised, said, “The situation in Benue State may be the worst. Government College, Makurdi, has visually impaired pupils but there is no special education teacher in that school. For the fact that it does not have special teachers, the pupils exempt themselves from mathematics. There is no special regard or consideration from the government when it comes to the education of persons with visual impairment. We don’t have Braille papers for the children and the government is aware. First and foremost, we will advise that the government should make sure that the materials which are relevant for these children should be provided and teachers for such subjects should be employed.”
One of the visually impaired pupils at Special School for Exceptional (physically challenged) Children, Aliade, in Benue State, Tanyaregh Desmond, lamented that he and his classmates struggled to cope with the “unfavourable methodology” used in the school. He said he had to wait for days, after a topic had been taught, to get the notes from other sighted pupils and translate the same into Braille.
“We have just two special teachers but have to take 10 subjects. One of the teachers handles social studies while the other handles agriculture. We don’t have a special teacher for mathematics, biology and English. We are just managing. The way they teach us mathematics is not helpful for us. Really, it is a challenge to us because it is a compulsory subject.
“During school examinations, we try to answer the objectives section because we find it difficult to answer the theoretical questions and it affects our results. Part of our suffering here also includes note-taking because we don’t have enough learning materials. The government wants us to do well at school but doesn’t provide the materials we need to enhance learning. If the government can provide computers and textbooks in Braille for us, we will be glad,” the 18-year-old Junior Secondary School 3 pupil said.
Another pupil at the school, Dooshima Nyior, said the problem had left her in despair and paralysed her hope of getting higher education.
“We lack teachers and learning materials here. We need Braille machines, slate and stylus. We don’t have them. We don’t have a teacher for chemistry and we don’t take the subject. We only have two special education teachers in the school. We find it very difficult. It makes us lose hope,” 19-year-old Nyior told our correspondent.
Government not showing serious concern for special education – Special education teachers
The National Association of Special Education Teachers said that the federal and state government had failed to show seriousness in the welfare and special education teachers and the education of pupils with special needs.
“The problem with inclusive schools is that when you want to operate an inclusive school, there are a lot of things that should be on the ground, even the environment must be conducive for the learners. In my view, the government is not so serious about the issue. When you are talking about an inclusive school, there must be a counsellor, health practitioner, caregivers and others for the schools to be effective.
“The teachers are not enough. When you have subject teachers and they are not specialists, there is no way they will communicate with the deaf. When you want to teach the blind and you don’t know how to use Braille, how do you want to pass knowledge to them? It will be very difficult,” the national secretary of the association, Ogunshakin Moses, said.
The blind excel in the western world
While the inadequacies in Nigeria’s educational system increase the barriers against children living with disabilities and paralyses their dreams of becoming successful even in the sciences, their counterparts in developed countries receive premium education and many of them have broken the glass ceiling of impossibility. For instance, David Hartman, who had glaucoma and detached retinas at eight, is a visually impaired doctor in the United States of America who completed pre-med and medical studies and earned a medical degree at Temple University, according to Florida Agencies Serving the Blind, an organisation that improves and grows professional rehabilitation services available for Floridians living with blindness and visual impairment. In 2019, 25-year-old Alexandra Adams was celebrated by the British media as the first British on the verge of becoming a doctor who can’t see or hear.
PWDs constantly denied access to quality education in Nigeria – Disability rights groups
The Executive Secretary of the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, David Anyaele, said Nigeria, as a country, was founded at the exclusion of persons with disabilities. He added that the situation in the country had created numerous problems not just for the blind but for other categories of Nigerians living with disabilities.
Anyaele said, “Educational institutions are among the state institutions that initiate, plan and implement state policies on education with little or no consideration for the education of persons with disabilities, and blind persons in particular. Federal and state policies on the education of persons with disabilities in Nigeria are not implemented as they ought to be, and as such, the governments apply a charity-based approach to implementing policies on education of blind persons. What that means is that whatsoever they give you is what you take. It’s incredibly sad.
“Poor motivation to go to school and dropouts is what you will find among blind students. The challenges could also lead to low morale to contribute to society and increased poverty and, sometimes, untimely death. We will struggle to make progress on the education of persons with disabilities, and blind persons in particular, until the state applies the right approach. With the right approach, it would be easier for the government at all levels to identify educational gaps around persons with disabilities for necessary actions. With the passage and assent to the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018, organisations of persons with disabilities are required to take adequate measures to draw the attention of the appropriate ministries, departments and agencies to this issue to ensure full and effective implementation of the Act.”
Similarly, the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities, Lagos State chapter, said the problem could be linked to inadequacy in the training of teachers in Nigerian tertiary institutions.
“This problem has been there forever. Even when I was in school, I didn’t get enough attention in mathematics. Many of our teachers didn’t study special education when they were trained as teachers. The government cannot just bring teachers and put them in schools. Where are the schools in the first place? In Nigeria, there are less than 10 universities offering special education.
“We have been advocating that all universities and colleges of education should make it compulsory for all teachers to take a sufficient number of courses in special education. In a situation where teachers are trained in this 21st century and not trained to engage all manner of learners, for me, that is where the gap begins. The Federal Government has an inclusive education and some states also have, yet there are no teachers to implement the policies,” the state chairman of the association, Dr Adebayo Adebukola, added.
Psychosocial, academic impact devastating – Experts
A professor of Gifted and Talented Education at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Prof Ike Nwazuoke, told Sunday Punch that in addition to inadequate teaching aids, unconducive learning environment, most of the teachers assigned to special needs pupils were not trained to handle the peculiar needs of the children. These, he said, had debilitating effects on the academic performance of the pupils.
Nwazuoke said, “There are special materials for teaching the visually impaired but what we encourage people who educate them to do is to emboss some of those things (teaching materials), and make them look larger than they are. That makes it easy for the child to use their fingers to trace. We also have some ‘talking books’. When we talk about challenges, the government is not doing anything about them. The government pays lip service to some of these things, so in many cases, people rely on donations that come from good-spirited Nigerians or mission houses.
“Some of our teachers are not properly trained by the government. For instance, you have a situation where somebody who didn’t study special education is posted by the ministry to a school where these children are found. Of course, he goes ahead to teach since he earns his salary from there. And because they are not trained, it also affects their attitude towards special needs pupils because attitude is everything. Sometimes, you find people who engage in this avoidance behaviour; they want to stay away. Especially with expectant women, there is a superstition that disability can affect their unborn child. So, it affects their attitude to life in a special school.
“That is why children living with disabilities are not doing well. People learn in different ways. Some people process information auditorily, while some use the eclectic approach. So, for someone who processes visually or auditorily but can’t see or hear, how will the person learn? It is a big challenge. Funding is another problem; sometimes, teachers’ salaries are not paid so motivation is low.”
A lecturer at the University of Jos, Plateau State, Prof Jurmang Isuwa, corroborated Nwazuoke’s submission, adding that the global requirement was to provide quality training for special teachers at the tertiary level and appropriate materials for the pupils. Isuwa also noted that the ability of special needs students at tertiary institutions would improve if the government got it right at the basic education level.
“Our problem in this country is that our personnel are not well-trained. It’s a big problem in this country. There are certain concepts blind pupils, especially those that were born blind, have never come across in life, even when they have knowledge of the daily usage of a particular terminology. For example, there was a blind pupil who was studying Agricultural Science and had been taught about the bark of a tree. But one day, one of the lecturers peeled off the bark of a tree and handed it over to him. The blind student screamed because he did not know what the bark of a tree looked like.
“I worked with a blind mathematics pupil. I followed him up to university but the university didn’t want to accept him because he was blind. He was later offered admission but for several years, he struggled to adapt. In fact, the headache we had at that time was how to get a talking scientific calculator for him and, in the end, we were able to get it through a white lady. Today, he has graduated; he is at the Federal Ministry of Education,” Isuwa said.
But a special educator and lecturer at Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, Owerri, Imo State, Glory Ibeabuchi, said poor access to learning materials could have adverse mental effects on the pupils, including low self-esteem. She, therefore, called on the federal and state governments to recognise the rights of children with disabilities to good education.
Ibeabuchi said, “Persons with special needs in Nigeria have not gained enough recognition, as far as teaching and learning are concerned. As a counsellor, I go for teaching practice in some of these secondary schools. Recently, I concluded a teaching practice in a special school in Imo State. It was discovered that most of these children had more than one disability. Some of them had comorbid disabilities and so they required special teachers in that area. But when you go to their schools, you will find a regular teacher that is not even a specialist. How do you expect that child to learn?
“And these children do not benefit from the classroom; they need additional methods and facilities. When the facilities are not there, these children become frustrated in the class and, of course, it has a lot of effect on them. For instance, when those identified as gifted and talented do not get enough teaching and learning that match their potential, they are impulsive and stubborn. Sometimes, they get tired and drop out of school and when they drop out, they become a problem even to society. They feel neglected. Most of these children have the capacity to do even better than their so-called ‘normal’ counterparts but they don’t have access to quality education. Some of them don’t have toilets in their schools. So, when they need to use the toilet, they use the back of their schools, then they get punished and made to feel inferior.”
Federal Government keeps mum, state governments react
The Federal Ministry of Education did not respond to calls made through its Director of Press and Public Relations, Ben Bem Goong. Goong also did not reply to a text message sent to him.
However, on December 23, 2020, the Federal Government inaugurated the governing council of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, more than a year after the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), signed into law the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act in January, 2019.
The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, who inaugurated the council in Abuja, had said the commission was established to bring the years of exclusion of persons with disabilities to an end.
Farouq said the establishment of the commission would go a long way in addressing the sufferings of persons with disabilities including seeing to their education, general wellbeing, employment and economic development.
But the Lagos State Government said it planned to deploy additional special teachers. It also said the provision of teaching and learning aids was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Manager, Lagos State Office for Disabilities Affairs, Dare Dairo, said, “Presently, we are doing an assessment of the situation before we can take a position. Recently, the Ministry of Education had a recruitment exercise for teachers and I know that they have increased the number of special teachers. They (teachers) are probably awaiting deployment to the schools. There are plans to upgrade those schools.
“Don’t forget that most of what had been planned for this year was disrupted by COVID-19 and a lot of government activities that were planned had to be rescheduled. So, that may likely be responsible for most of the lapses you are seeing. I can assure you that work is ongoing.”
But despite the lamentations of blind pupils in Benue, the Commissioner for Education, Prof Dennis Ityavya, said the state government had “done very well.”
“In Benue State, one of the areas where the Governor Samuel Ortom administration has done so well is education. He has done very well. Certainly, we need to employ more teachers but there is no crisis in the areas of mathematics and the sciences. Some teachers have retired and we are just about to replace them. That will be done in the new year,” Ityavya added.
Asked what the government was doing to address the complaints of blind pupils about the lack of teaching and learning materials for the visually impaired, the commissioner said, “The person who is saying that doesn’t know anything. The special school established by the government is well-equipped. We have computers for those who are visually impaired and it is located in Aliade. We have enough teachers and equipment, the most modern.”
After several unanswered calls from our correspondent and a text message sent to him to find out what the Imo State Government was doing to fix the problems bedevilling the education of blind pupils in the state, the Commissioner for Education, Prof Bernard Ikegwuoha, said, “You are free to send your staff for an interview so as to know what we are doing to better the lives and academic pursuits of the students.”