Double trouble for visually impaired pupils in Nigerian schools


In this first part of a two-part report, Afeez Hanafi writes about how dearth of learning facilities compounds the plight of visually impaired persons in schools across Nigeria

With exercise books, a pen and few other materials, Kehinde Lawrence is good to make the best out of every lesson. A Junior Secondary School 3 pupil at Owo High School, Ondo State, she reads her numerous textbooks in school and at home without let or hindrance.

But such ease is a mirage for her visually impaired classmate, Godfrey Ekevre. Aside from a snippet that he takes out of every class, the 25-year-old needs more several hours – or days – to write the same note Lawrence will have completed the moment a class ends.

The Delta-born pupil has been going through the strenuous routine since 2005 when he lost his sight to glaucoma. Before then, he had enjoyed stress-free learning as Lawrence up till Primary 6.

His 13 years of academic life without sight has been both harrowing and depressing; no thanks to the dearth of facilities in the school to aid his learning.

Devices such as braille hand frame and stylus, slate and stylus, Perkins Brailler, SMART Brailler, braille embosser/braille printer and braille notetaker are writing and reading tools for visually impaired persons with the last three devices considered up-to-date but expensive for the special pupils, many of whom are from poor families, to afford.

Perkins Brailler and SMART Brailler are typewriter-like machines for producing braille texts. While the former is old-fashioned, the latter is a modern tool that displays, vocalises and produces information typed in braille.

Similarly, Job Access With Speech, a computer screen reader programme for Microsoft Windows, allows visually impaired persons to read the screen with voice notes or by braille display.

In a review, Vision Australia, a leading national provider of blindness and low vision services in Australia, describes braille hand frame and stylus as a means of writing braille introduced over a century ago. It is said to be “very time consuming,” requiring an average of 90 minutes to produce a page of braille.

Sadly, Ekevre and many of his counterparts in Owo High School, Ondo State and some other institutions across the country use either the moribund braille hand frame and stylus or the archaic slate and stylus to write notes.

Besides the rigour of using the old-fashioned tool, Ekevre is faced with the burden of getting braille paper he slots into the frame to produce notes.

“I wish I was a sighted pupil,” the 25-year-old said regrettably as he began to share his plight with our correspondent.

He continued, “The school used to provide braille paper for us (visually impaired pupils) but they stopped buying it about two years ago. They said there was no money. Since then, we have been buying the paper by ourselves. A pack of the paper is N1,200 and it contains 100 pieces. I use about three packs a term.

“It is also difficult to get sighted pupils to assist us. We call them to dictate their notes to us after classes while we use braille hand frame and stylus to write. We usually give them money for them to assist us. I give them about N500 weekly.

“I bought a fairly-used typewriter which I use during exams for N10,000. My mother cannot afford to buy a new one for me. As I speak to you, it is faulty.

“The school has a library, but it does not make provision for the visually impaired pupils. Even the braille library at the Ondo State School for the Blind where our boarding house is has a few braille materials and most of them are scriptures. Majority of the books on the shelves are in print form.

“Our textbooks are supposed to be in braille so that we can read them by ourselves but what some of my friends who have recorders do is to give textbooks to sighted pupils to dictate to them while they record. I wish I had my own midget too instead of writing notes all the time which is very stressful.”

Although pupils with visual impairment at the school enjoy free boarding and do not pay tution, the expenses they incur to make themselves relevant academically are high compared to what their sighted counterparts are required to spend.

Our correspondent gathered that a regular pupil pays less than N2,000 per term as tuition; half of what Ekevre spends in a term only on braille paper.

For the 25-year-old on whose neck poverty and parental issues hang like a noose, the stress he passes through in the course of learning comes with its attendant psychological implications.

“I don’t usually feel settled. I think of how to get braille paper once the pack I have is almost finished. My mother is a petty trader and she has been striving by all means to fund my education. My father has two wives. For three years now, I have not seen him. He is with the second wife,” he added.

Ekevre’s counterpart at the United Faith Tabernacle College, Jarawan-Kogi, Plateau State, Yohana Iliya, endures a similar gruelling experience. But unlike Ekevre, the stress is reduced for the Senior Secondary School 3 pupil with the aid of a recorder, which he bought with donations by some Good Samaritans.

“Quality braille materials are expensive. That is why most of us resort to what we can afford. We beg classmates to dictate notes to us. Last term, I sought the help of a classmate, but he refused to offer any help. From the tone of his voice, it was clear that I had become a burden to him. I felt very bad that day, but I had to bottle up my feelings.

“The school has some braille machines but they are not working. We use slate and stylus to write our notes. Since I have a recorder, I spend less on buying braille paper,” he added.

Hundreds of kilometres away, at the Government Secondary School, Kwali, Abuja, Amos Bako strives endlessly to seek education like every other ambitious person. At 27, the SS1 pupil is unwavering in his determination to become an expert in International Relations despite the many hurdles that stand in his way.

He began his tortuous academic journey in 2007 after he became blind as a result of some particles that entered his eyes at a mechanic workshop in his village in Takum, Taraba State.

Like Ekevre and Iliya, Bako does not pay school fees, but he spends a lot of money on buying learning materials which are said to be unavailable in the school.

He stated, “My parents are retired civil servants and they live on their pensions. It is my mechanic friends that sponsor the larger part of my education. Back then when I was an apprentice, I did not think of going to school. I started my primary school in 2007. I finished in 2013 and proceeded to the secondary school.

“Special pupils are facing enormous challenges. Our writing materials are too costly but they are what we need to excel. I buy a pack of braille paper N1,500 here (Abuja). Frame and stylus costs N7,000. Perkins brailler is around N250,000 but I cannot afford it. The school has three braille machines but they are not working now. They have been faulty since I got admission into the school.”

Learning appears to be more daunting for many students at higher institutions across the country. Often times, they depend on some tolerant sighted course mates to move from one lecture room to another and document their notes.

Except for a few whose families could buy them modern facilities, many visually impaired students, especially at public higher institutions, make do with outdated devices to study, too.

Bulus Chuanoemoa, a 300-level student of Special Education, Visual Handicap, at the University of Jos, Plateau State, is one of such indigent students whose studies have been fraught with frustration resulting largely from non-provision of braille facilities by the school.

He said, “We face many challenges starting from the nature of the school environment which is unfriendly to the visually impaired students. The locations of our lecture theatres and departments are difficult for the blind students to navigate. Most times, we need our sighted friends to assist us to attend classes.

“Books in the library and those recommended by lecturers are only available in print form and it is difficult to get them translated into braille. One can buy a book for N1,000 and spend N5,000 to produce it in braille. And sometimes, we have two or three books for a particular course.

“What most of us in my department do is to buy textbooks and look for people to dictate to us while we record. The recording has its own disadvantage too because some pronunciations may not be correct and you will not be able to get their right spellings. There are times when the people that assist us in dictation are unwilling to help. You have to give them money to persuade them to help at such times.

“At times, I copy notes during exam periods when I should be reading. It is very unfortunate. The school has a resource room but it does not have materials we can access. The resource masters there are the ones helping to read questions out to us during exams; the questions are not in braille and we do exams with our typewriters.”

Born to the family of peasant farmers, the 24-year-old in a recent encounter with Saturday PUNCHexplained how he had relied largely on the benevolence of churches to augment whatever his poor parents could afford.

He added, “I could not afford to buy a Perkings Brailler. Instead, I use slate and stylus to write my notes. It consumes a lot of time and energy.  A good laptop or desktop computer with JAWS installed in it is much easier and more convenient for a blind student to use to take examination than using a typewriter. A standard laptop should be about N100,000 and installation of JAWS is N20,000 or more. Where will I get the money from?”

The student of Special Education had it smooth at the primary school section of Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted but while in the secondary school section, he had to wait for days to get braille textbooks because the (secondary) school reportedly had just one functioning braille machine.From his secondary school days at Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Lagos State up till now that he is doing a master’s degree programme at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, 32-year-old Oyewale Oyetunji, has been dogged, defying all odds to become a scholar.

“In the 21st Century, the world has gone beyond typewriter which is prone to errors. But in Nigeria, blind students still use it,” he said in utter disappointment.

“I spent a lot of money to have textbooks in braille during my undergraduate days in UI. What I do mostly now is to scan the textbooks and read them on my computer with the aid of JAWS.

“Most of the materials in the school library are in print. In terms of accessibility for the blind, the library can be rated low – two or five per cent. What I see is the dearth of facilities and we have complained to lecturers a number of times, but they blame it on inadequate funding.”

Corroborating the lack of facilities, the Principal, Special Inclusive School, Kogi State, Dr David Matthew, lamented that all efforts to get the attention of the state government to the plight of the special pupils had proved abortive.

It was learnt that the school was established by  Christian Missions in Many Lands – a United States faith-based mission – and managed by the state government.

The principal said, “Copying of notes and lack of braille machines are some of the challenges the pupils are facing. We also have shortage of special teachers.

“Our learning disability department has collapsed because the person in charge has been made the principal of his community school. He has a master’s degree in learning disability. Unfortunately, the government is not providing replacement for those who are leaving.

“Over the years, I have visited Kogi State Ministry of Education and Government House several times, but all I got were empty promises. I later decided that the best thing was to make do with our little resources. My belief is that these challenges are temporary. I believe a time for divine intervention will come.

“A blind pupil has to be active and studious and should get friends around to dictate notes to them. If they don’t have pocket money to motivate their sighted counterparts, it will be very difficult for them to catch up.

“Sadly, most of them come from poor families. That is why we don’t insist that they buy new typewriters. A fairly-used typewriter is between N6,000 and N10,000. Sometimes, foundations donate writing materials to the school. It costs visually impaired persons a lot of money to succeed academically.”

Asked whether the deficient learning tools had implications for the pupils’ performance, Matthew said, “Performance cannot be attributed directly to inadequate facilities. You may have a pupil who has all the necessary tools but may not be brilliant. And you may have a pupil who doesn’t have all and he may be brilliant.”

He recalled that learning was excitement during his school time as he was given scholarships which are hard to come by these days.

“When I was in secondary school, I was lucky to be given scholarships by the then Benue State Government. At a time, I had as many as five typewriters but today, such privilege is not common. What we need is political will. The government should be ready to carry physically challenged persons along,” he added.

Tongtonk Danlami, a special teacher at Nakam Memorial College, a mission school in Jos, also decried the rate at which inadequate funding was crippling the smooth running of the inclusive boarding school.

Danlami said, “The issue of braille books for visually impaired pupils has been a problem over the years. Even when the school could afford to change print books to braille ones, where to do it was a problem.

“We have a library where we use a computer with JAWS, but it has stopped working. We also have the problem of having examination questions in braille. It is the teachers that assist the special pupils. The school only has one braille machine and it is old.

“A number of the children come from poor families and most parents don’t pay school fees. We have been having challenges in feeding them. Also, visually impaired persons need white canes (a cane that primarily aids its user to scan their surroundings for obstacles and helps other traffic participants in identifying the user as visually impaired) so that they can move from one place to another by themselves. We need sponsorship to provide all these things for the pupils. A white cane is about N10,000.”

National Policy on Special Needs Education in Nigeria

The Federal Ministry of Education in the 2015 National Policy on Special Needs Education in Nigeria admittedly highlighted the deficient educational system for persons living with disabilities. It stated that though Nigeria was involved in the special needs education, the practice fell short of the global best practices. The report added that the special needs classroom laboratories in the country were not technology-driven.

It read in part, “Facilities and materials that enhance learning are either lacking or – where they exist – inadequate and or/obsolete. What is more, many special needs education practitioners lack the technical knowhow to operate specialised special needs education gadgets.

“….Also, professionals in the area of gifted education are few in Nigeria. Learning materials are generally inadequate. It is the general teachers that seem to be dominating the field of Special Needs Education. Graduates of Special Education in Nigeria face the challenge of relevance on graduation because the curriculum in place is not skill-relevant after school life.

“Bias, cultural archetypes and negative behaviour patterns about special needs education are endemic in Nigeria…in the National Police of Education, it is stated that services to persons with special needs should be free, but it is not stated in an imperative term for the Federal Ministry of Education to operate.”

The report recommended that federal and state governments should ensure that necessary training and facilities that would guarantee easy access and implementation of special needs education progammes were put in place. For instance, it was stated that for students with visual impairment, there should be “training in orientation and mobility, braille reading and writing, use of computer with JAWS and repair of the equipment, etc.”

The report equally pointed out that there was inadequate synergy between the Federal Ministry of Education and other government ministries, agencies, non-governmental organisations, private sectors and international development partners.

Unfortunately, little or nothing has been done to address the disturbing issues raised in the report three years after.

No provisions for blind pupils in 2017, 2018 education budgets

A look at the 2017 and 2018 budgets of the Federal Ministry of Education showed that no provisions or allocations were made for the procurement of learning facilities for the visually impaired pupils.

For example, the 2017 budget with a personnel cost of N3,236,821,170 and an overhead of N827,950,190, did not mention any provision for blind pupils. In the budget, the government made provision for Almajiris (disadvantaged school-age children in the North roaming the streets) with N5,000,000 budgeted for their education programme. However, there was no such budget for the visually impaired pupils.

The government budgeted a staggering N30,000,000 for supply of text books to primary schools in the Kankara area of Katsina State. Similar provisions were made for several schools across the country, but there was no mention of materials for the blind pupils.

Meanwhile, it was observed that the ministry budgeted N5,000,000 for the training of personnel working in centres of persons with special needs. The government also earmarked N15,000,000 for the training of  95 teachers handling persons with special needs in the northern part of the country.

Also in the ministry’s 2018 budget totalling N621,226,697,523 with capital projects of N102,907,290,833, there was no mention of any provision for the visually impaired pupils or their schools.

The Ministry of Education’s Director of Press and Public Relations, Mr. Ben Bem Goong, did not pick several calls put across to him. He had also yet to reply to a text message sent to his phone by our correspondent on the lingering challenges facing the blind pupils.

Ondo, Plateau react

The Chairman of Plateau State Universal Basic Education Board, Prof. Matthew Sule, said the agency recently conducted training for special teachers in public schools across the state.

He added, “We are providing facilities for the children that are physically challenged. We have also provided teaching resources across the 17 LGAs in Plateau State.”

The Ondo State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Yemi Olowolabi, said the government provided the necessary braille equipment for the Ondo State School for the Blind.

But Olowolabi was silent on the provisions made for the visually impaired pupils in other public schools in the state, including Owo High School, which Ekevere attends.

He said, “This administration has spent so much money on the school. Government has increased funding of the school. Its quarterly grants are regular so that all their braille equipment is adequately provided. The government has a budget for the equipment.

“The Commissioner for Education also visits the school on a regular basis and a monitoring team was set up to monitor how the equipment is utilised.”

How visually impaired pupils fare in US

Unlike in Nigeria where special needs education is in a shambles, countries such as the United States provided state-of-the-art learning aids for visually impaired pupils.

For instance, the American Printing House for the Blind annually produces braille textbooks and other educational tools in large quantities, and distributes them to visually impaired pre-college pupils across the 50 states in the US.

The 2017 fiscal year report of APH stated that $17.8m was allocated to providing accessible materials to 63,357 registered pupils with visual impairment through the Federal Quota Programme. The FQP mandates that textbooks and aids are provided free to the eligible blind pupils in educational settings throughout the federation.

Other functions of APH include conducting research to develop and improve educational materials in core curriculum areas such as science, mathematics, English language arts, and social studies and adapting testing materials related to these subject areas.

APH also undertakes research in areas such as braille reading, orientation and mobility, and assistive technology while special materials are developed for teaching.

In the report, APH President, Craig Meador, identified BrailleBlaster as one of the modern technologies produced for the visually impaired persons to further bridge the educational barrier between them and their sighted counterparts.

“This revolutionary new software tool translates text into braille more quickly, easily and accurately – giving students access to learning materials on the first day of class at the same time as their sighted peers,” Meador said.

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