One Friday in 2020, Miriam Agbenu Oyinu, 26, woke up to a blanket of white dominating her sight at a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) lodge in Kogi, North-central Nigeria. From then, she would struggle to see the world.
Twenty years before in the same part of the country, Emmanuel Ameh was born with an imperfect vision and had to grow amid struggles. Unlike Miriam, he never knew what it was like to use an android phone, much less a desktop computer. But all of these were about to change.
In 2022, both Miriam and Emmanuel enrolled in a programme conducted by Zions Assistive Tech Solutions (ZATS) and run by Divinegift Usman, also a Visually Impaired Person (VIP). The training they acquired quickly turned them, in a matter of days, into technology-savvy individuals despite their disability.
Miriam’s impairment started in her second year at Nasarawa State University, where she was studying Microbiology. She suddenly found it difficult to view a lecturer’s writing on the board.
“The way I saw the whiteboard changed,” she narrated. “I couldn’t see it when I was in the middle row. So I started coming for lectures early to grab a front-row seat.”
When Miriam’s eyes were checked at a hospital, the doctor recommended glasses. But instead of seeing the writing on the board from a distance, she was only able to read what was close to her. So, she dumped the glasses and stuck to her initial plan to attend lectures early.
“This was how I managed till I graduated,” she told HumAngle.
Miriam suffered a persistent migraine. This usually happened after classes when she was tired. She quickly waved the symptoms off as simply a result of stress.
But then it persisted into her NYSC year in 2020. After lockdown, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she returned to her place of primary assignment, a school in Kogi State where she taught Physical Health Education to junior secondary classes.
It was almost three weeks into her service at the school and Miriam had begun to make lesson notes when the headache she knew so well back in the university returned harder. A doctor at the school clinic put it down to her blood pressure and sent her off with painkillers. But the headache only got worse.
One night, while her colleagues were all absent from the lodge, a major attack came. “I held the wall and found my way to the clinic. I was crying. I kept saying I was dying.”
Again, she was given a painkiller but it worked this time around and it seemed like everything was fine from Monday to Thursday. Then the unexpected happened. Miriam woke up from bed on Friday and could not see anything, “except white”.
After the hassle of trying to see the NYSC state coordinator without success and a visit to a general hospital in Lokoja, Miss Alice, an NYSC official, travelled home with Miriam.
Once, after trips to different hospitals, Miriam was given a particular medication at a specialist hospital in Lafiya, Nasarawa State. She gained some vision in her left eye and was able to use her phone a little.
“I used eye care and reduced the brightness,” she explained. “I used shades outside because the light reflected in my eyes in broad daylight. Someone had to support me because I could only see from one side. But it was better indoors because it was dim.”
Then, after a test, the hospital insisted that Miriam needed surgery to remove a tumour that had grown in her head. They recommended another hospital in Kaduna, but “kidnappings on the Abuja-Kaduna Road prevented us from going.”
At the time, Miriam and her father tried several hospitals in vain before surgery was done. “After the operation, I couldn’t see anymore with the left eye. The doctor said it would take some time. But it’s over a year now.”
Miriam’s vision from her right eye remained blurry as of when this report was filed. All she sees are shadows and dark images.
“I wasn’t able to do anything. It’s when they call my phone that I answer, using my fingerprint, and ask who the person is,” she said. “Sometimes I may recognise the voice. Sometimes I have to show someone to tell me what the caller ID says.”
When she needs to move around her home, Miriam uses the walls as a guide because it is familiar to her. Once she is required to go outdoors or finds herself in a strange environment, she panics because of the constraint to mobility.
But life became a lot brighter when she heard about ZATS and took an android phone course.
ZATS trains persons who are blind using a variety of software, after which they sit for an examination. In Miriam’s case, she was trained on how to surf the internet, make and receive calls, and chat, among other skills. In three days, she learned to operate her phone in a way she once thought impossible. She would have also wanted the computer training but she did not have access to one and could not afford to purchase it at the time. But this did not dampen her spirits.
“The experience was wonderful because now I can do everything on my phone. The only thing I can’t do is view images. I can’t watch movies but I can still play a movie and listen. I can also call [other peoply by] myself, save a number, and dial it,” Miriam said, the old excitement resurfacing.
“If an unknown number calls me and I get to know the person, I can save the number. I can send texts and chat on WhatsApp. I have opened a new Facebook account because my former account has been hacked.
“I use an app called Android Accessibility Suite that reads out to you. It tells me to swipe left, right or double-tap. When I swipe, it tells me the next option. When I swipe again, it does the same thing. It reads everything on my screen – my messages, contacts, numbers. It calls out the numbers for me to dial.
“WhatsApp has to do with your contacts, so, if I want to chat with someone, I go to search, double-tap and type the person’s name. Divine made me cram what’s on the keypads. So, I know where the letters are. Even if I don’t know exactly where, I know their positions. So, if I touch a particular key and get it wrong, I move my finger a little bit. If it’s the one, I double-tap. If I finish, I double tap on the place I typed so it reads out what I wrote.”
But all these seemed far-fetched while Miriam struggled with her sight.
“It was hard before. I couldn’t even use my phone. Now, when I answer my call, it tells me the particular person calling if it’s a saved contact. If it’s not saved, it reads out the number.”
Miriam had plans before the challenge with her sight. She hoped to go for her master’s if her dream job of becoming a lab technician or nurse did not come through soon enough. She is still hopeful.
Emmanuel dreams too
Yet to gain admission into a tertiary institution, Emmanuel is set on becoming a surgeon, as far-fetched as that may sound at the moment.
In his case, he was trained to use a computer, something he was handling for the first time in his life. Unlike Miriam, he was unfamiliar with android phones and was just getting to understand a new one he acquired.
Since Emmanuel has low vision, he sees a little when in a dark place.
“When I come in contact with something I am unable to recognise, then I use those keys, apps or software to recognise them,” he told HumAngle on his second day at ZATS. “Or when I don’t want to stress my eyes to read, I put on the screen reader.”
The computer cursor is usually Emmanuel’s greatest challenge because it is tiny. But it becomes more visible in a dark background.
New at computer use, he can now boast of being able to download books and other materials to read. Then there is the fact that the application he uses explains a diagram “to a layman’s understanding.”
From his first day, Emmanuel learned to use an application that makes images on his computer screen bolder. Then he applied himself to typing without stressing his eyes.
“I was able to type my sibling’s name,” he said with a smile. “I also edited my own name when my tutor typed it.” And this he did without using his limited vision.
Divine explained that since Emmanuel has low vision, he is taught how to use some software to maximise his sight through a screen magnifier.
“A totally blind person can’t use a magnifier,” he added.
In Emmanuel’s case, he can discern images on a television screen to some extent. So, his training will go a long way in ensuring he lives a more productive and independent life.
Falling and rising
Divinegift Usman, 28, was not visually impaired from birth. Like Miriam, he woke up one night after prayers to discover his sight was gone. He was only nine years old.
“Before then I had never even had conjunctivitis [Apollo],” he explained. “So, it was a bit strange. I have had like four surgeries in the UK, six in Nigeria, and four in India. After that it became difficult for me to identify people’s faces and participate in normal activities like others. In fact, I became an introvert. I was always in the room and could lie down all day.”
Divine’s friends had to devise a means to be with him. So, they too learned to stay indoors. This and a lot of things changed, like his participation in class.
“I had people recording my notes into my phone for me, and when it was time for the exam a teacher or student would be assigned to read out the questions to me, then I tell them the answer and they write it down.” Still, sometimes it was difficult getting such help.
“Even now that I am able to have some residual vision, I am used to being in the room and can be indoors for three days,” he said. Divine’s movement from his home office to the sitting room in his family house is impressive. He practically holds on to nothing for support and appears to know where a wall, centre table or couch is. He avoids them skillfully too like one with full vision. But it was not always this way.
It was a struggle through university for Divine. Bagging a degree in Computer Science from the Federal University of Technology in Minna, Niger State, was no easy task.
“It was a bit difficult for me. I think I was the only visually impaired person in my set. And because it was kind of new to the school environment, they didn’t know how to accommodate me.
“So, basically, I would look for people to record my handouts for me. It was a bit easier in secondary school because there were few handouts and textbooks, but the university was different. There were chunks of handouts, a hundred and something pages. Where do you get people to record all that for you?
“But God, by his grace, kept bringing people who were willing to record. And then all the lecturers did was assign, get someone to read for me during exams.”
Divine experienced, first-hand, what it is like to be part of an academic system where structures are inaccessible to persons with disability.
“I consider this a big problem because negligence in this aspect has contributed to limited participation,” he explained. “Such negligence has resulted in an increasing rate of unemployment, poverty, and a larger degree of confinement among persons with disability.”
In April this year, HumAngle reported how inaccessible workplace environments, absence of aid devices, and discrimination have continued to widen the disability employment rate gap in Nigeria. These have not changed despite the passage of a Disability Rights Act which requires that all public organisations should as much as possible reserve at least 5 per cent of employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.
A 2020 Nigeria Situational Analysis shows that (formal) youth unemployment rate was 77.3 per cent for persons with disabilities compared to 49.2 per cent for those without. Also, the adult unemployment rate was 62.5 per cent for persons with disabilities compared to 21.5 per cent for those without.
Some of these statistics, coupled with his experiences influenced Divine’s decision to create a platform where VIPs could learn how to use mobile devices and computer systems. In other words, they will be independent despite their disability. They will also be able to participate actively in school and thrive in the workplace.
“For example, as a visually impaired person, you are always asking people to help you identify money. But when you come, we train you, give you applications that can help you identify money by yourself, so you don’t need to ask anybody,” Divine explained. “So, it was basically inspired by the lack of concern shown to persons living with disabilities in the area of accessibility.”
He pointed out that the environment and development levels play an integral role in helping people with disabilities live full lives. Nigeria, for instance, does not have well-planned areas that would aid such persons effectively.
So, after graduation from the university, Divine sought training from an expert in Lagos. There, he got exposed to different software technologies.
“It was a new world for me because, personally, I had never typed on a computer as a computer scientist. I didn’t know how to. But Mr Opeolu Akinola gave me screen readers and taught me how to place my fingers. He himself is visually impaired. He’s more than 50 years old. He changed my world,” he said.
Not long after, he was able to send emails and type with his computer confidently.
“So, I thought that if I could benefit this much, others should also benefit. That was how I started passing on my knowledge.”
A 2019 study shows that 4.25 million adult Nigerians from “40 years have moderate to severe visual impairment or blindness.” Participants resident in the Southwest had the lowest prevalence while those in the North, particularly the Northeast, had the highest prevalence.
Another survey revealed that visual impairment is the most prominent type of disability in Nigeria “with 8 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men 15 years and older having difficulties seeing.”
The Nigerian National Blindness and Vision Impairment Survey conducted between 2005 and 2007 also estimated that 1.13 million persons “aged 40 and above are blind and the prevalence of blindness for all ages is 4.2 per cent of the population.”
So far, Zions Assistive Tech Solutions has tutored only four people with about five currently scheduled for training. This is probably because it is still a start-up with a small team that took off in 2021. At the moment, only Divine serves as a tutor. Some members of the team handle publicity or programmes, which involves writing daily articles around disability and coming up with strategies that include running a YouTube channel and other activities.
But this does not bother the founder. Divine is visibly proud and excited about his organisation’s small beginning. And, of course, he has the vision of establishing a training centre where VIPs can be trained on a broader scale by professional tutors.
At the moment he conducts his training from home and sometimes meets his clients halfway at locations they find more convenient.
“It has been a beautiful experience because, for me as a VIP, passing on knowledge to other VIPs gives me joy. The joy on their faces is the best reward. They are able to do things they were not able to do,” Divine said.
“Normally people put a call through for them, but they now call their parents themselves. So, the parents are happy.”
A major challenge, however, that has hindered the group from having many clients since it was established is that many VIPs are unable to afford their services. “Not because we are expensive, but because the gadgets needed to benefit from our services are costly,” Divine pointed out.
Clients need a laptop, android or Apple phone to partake. “There’s a man who listened to a radio interview I did and his hope was revived. He’s 49 years old and is visually impaired. He said he has always wanted to go to school but he never got the opportunity because he felt he couldn’t learn. Right now, he wants to go back to school and all he needs is to get a laptop. He doesn’t have the money but said he would make sure he does.”
ZATS is ready to go the extra mile for its clients. Like in the case of Miriam, Divine trained her in Abuja, even though he lives nearly 200 km away in Kaduna. So, all Miriam needed to do was travel from her home in Nasarawa State, which is closer to Abuja.
Divine insisted that if alternative formats can be created for VIPs, they would thrive. “I’d like to encourage societies and families to encourage them [VIPs] and make information accessible to them,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
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