Nigerians with visual disabilities on the street to mark the International White Cane and Safety Day 2019

A quick fact-check: Presenting the 2019 budget proposal to the state House of Assembly in November 2018, governor of Akwa-Ibom State, Mr Udom Emmanuel, announced that his administration had spent a chunk of the N646.649bn budget for 2018 on training and resettlement of 20 visually impaired persons (the blind) in different skills at the Nigerian Farm Craft Centre, Lagos and subsequent empowerment for them to start up their businesses in the development trade they learnt.

Suppose the governor did exactly as he had told his legislature, that would have been 20 persons lifted out of a life of penury and street begging for which Nigerians living with disabilities are known.

Several SMS and Whatsapp messages sent to Charles Udoh, immediate-past Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information, requesting for information on the details of the trainees and the amount of the budget invested on them did not receive a reply.

To verify the governor's claim, the reporter contacted the principal of the Nigeria Farmcraft Centre for the Blind, Mohammed Shuaibu Afegbua, who made it known that no student attended the centre in 2018, not even in 2017.

This school has neither admitted nor trained a single visually challenged Nigerian since 2016, he stated, adding "the last set of students we admitted graduated in December 2016.

Also, it is not possible for a state to send twenty visually challenged persons to the NFCB at once in a given session, contrary to Emmanuels claim. This is because the centre is a federal institution that operates a quota system of admission.

In essence, only three visually impaired candidates from each of the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory may be admitted in a given academic session, the principal further disclosed.

But as I speak, virtually all the states have candidates waiting on standby from six years back.

Conclusion: It is not true that Mr Udom Emmanuel spent part of the budget passed by the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly in 2018 to train 20 blind citizens of the state at the NFCB.

IN THE THROES OF DARKNESS

The casualties of this kind of official deception are much more than those shortchanged by Governor Emmanuel. No less than a million persons living with blindness across the country are in dire need of some form of urgent rehabilitation to enable them live a productive and independent life again.

That is an estimate from an old study though. For over a decade now, just one national blindness and visual impairment survey has been carried out across the country.

The survey, at the instance of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shows that well over four million Nigerians are visually impaired.

Visual impairment among those who cannot read and write, according to the survey, also stands at 5.8 per cent nationwide. This is against 1.5 per cent among those who can.

Ahmed Pindiga is one of such sore statistics of unlettered blind Nigerians analyzed in the now obsolete eye health survey. Every Friday afternoon, he joins a phalanx of itinerant street beggars who prime themselves around the Ikotun Central mosque, East of Alimosho Local Government Area in Lagos State.

The beggars have not come to observe the Jumat prayers. Rather they would wait patiently for the worship to end, and the scramble for the day's Zakat, the Islamic form of religious alms-giving and show of benevolence to the needy, would begin.

He was at the same spot on September 6 this year when the reporter had a chat with him. Suddenly, Ahmeds right hand disappeared into his pocket and brought back an old mobile phone. Soon he began to fumble with the keypad on the device as the phone rang and vibrated endlessly to signal an incoming call.

Unbeaten, he fiddled with the keypad again and again, glowering at the same time, until his restive finger finally found and hit the green button after several unsuccessful attempts.

Its not exactly unusual to see frustration written on his face and many like him each time they try to receive calls on their mobile phones, Babatunde Mohammed, a rehabilitation expert and Chairman of the Nigeria Association of the Blind in Lagos State, told the reporter.

It has to be so because the phone obviously is not designed to enable a visually impaired person receive calls or identify his callers, he explained.

That aside, it is also apparent he has not been through a functional rehabilitation program necessary to enable him leverage assistive technology to be independent and enjoy his privacy as a blind.

For an illiterate, non-speaker of the English Language who relies on a child guide to lead him around as he scrounges for a living amidst the bedlam of crazy traffic at the busy Ikotun intersection, functional rehabilitation, independence and privacy, as hinted by Mohammed, actually sound like some jargons from a Latin dictionary.

Ban jiba walahi, Ahmed responded in his native Hausa dialect to inform the reporter he didnt understand what the rehabilitation expert meant by assistive technology.

Ahmed is not alone in the dark about the option of rehabilitation and assistive technology available to enable him live an independent life. So is Isaac Olayinka, a blind clergyman at the Christ Apostolic Church in Ibadan who also relies on others every day to enable him navigate the crowded Ibadan roads and elsewhere he goes to preach.

Like Ahmed, Isaac has never learnt how to use a Braille machine or computer-assisted devices to enhance his duties as a preacher. The best he has done, he told the reporter, was to perfect a cumbersome method to enable him recall chapters and verses of the holy bible.

For a long time, I have mastered how to cram the bible on a daily basis, after people must have read any particular portion to me, he told the reporter.

I have never heard that computer and phone can help one read the bible or other Christian books on ones own as a blind. You are the first to tell me so.Graphics of years Nigeria needs to rehabilitate its blind population at NFCB

IGNORANCE EVERYWHERE

That kind of widespread information poverty is not exactly unusual in Nigeria. Eye health crises and the exact rehabilitation needs of those worse affected by visual impairment have been worsened by an apparent scarcity of public health education and accurate data.

That is in addition to a combination of depressing geographical, financial, and personal hurdles which constantly stand between this vulnerable community and the rehabilitation they need to be independent.

In other climes where inclusive education and rehabilitation are at the front burner of policy discourse, community-based rehabilitation initiatives are already eliminating those obstacles impeding the likes of Ahmed and Isaac.

For one, the innovation is less cumbersome because it provides rehabilitation programs to persons with visual disabilities right in the communities where they live.

So they dont have to travel long distance from their communities to attend a rehabilitation school, or be huddled together in one outskirt of the town, as though disability is infectious," Dr Sheu Bukola Adebayo, Chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities in Lagos, explained.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is yet to come to term with this social model of rehabilitation. And thats why the traditional model of rehabilitating the visually impaired continue to fail us.

Blessing is a casualty of that failurethe inability of governments at all levels to launch a widespread and sustained public enlightenment campaigns about community-based rehabilitation options for the blind who scavenge for a living in street corners and those locked up in different homes by their families.Blessing showing off one of her bead work at the NFCB

Struck with a sudden blindness at age of three, Blessing was simply abandoned to rot away in her Delta State hometowndenied of any formal education. She is 19 years old already, she told the reporter,after a Lagos-based television personality found out about her plight and offered to reform her.

Usman Ojo, now registered at Omoyeni Home School for the Blind in Ibadan, Oyo State, also suffered the same cruel fate as Blessing. Blind at birth, the boy spent the next 12 years of his life in a dinghy room with his mother, without nursery and primary education.

The father, a tailor before coming to Lagos to work for a fashion outfit in Lekki, told the reporter he got to know about the possibility of a school for the blind late.

He was born blind, so I didnt know anything could be done to get him an education. But by the time I heard about Pacelli School for the Blind in Lagos, they were not willing to take him again, he told the reporter.

When I tried again the following year, and I couldnt meet up with the financial obligations, I became frustrated, he lamented.

Sad, but real, a vast bulk of visually challenged Nigerians may never learn to be productive or independent after all, worried Dr Adebayo, if government fails to systematically implement the National Policy on Inclusive Education currently gathering dust in the Federal Ministry of Education in Abuja.

We have a National Policy on Inclusive Education at the federal level, and about 15 states also have their own policies as well, but the problem has always been implementation, the JONAPWD chairman lamented.

Part of the implementation problems is the scanty number of rehabilitation centres for the blind, compared to the population of persons living with visual disabilities across Nigeria, explained Nicholas Obot, Principal of the Vocational Training Centre for the Blind in Oshodi, Lagos, and National Secretary of the Braille Advancement Organization of Nigeria.

Majority of these centres are mostly private initiatives and profit-driven too, the reporter discovered.

COLLAPSED INFRASTRUCTURE

Despite plunking down N25m in 2017 to revalidate the National Policy on Rehabilitation of Persons With Disabilities, only a few things would appear as normal for anyone visiting the Nigeria Farmcraft Centre for the Blind in Lagos for the first time.

Established in 1967, according to its Principal, Muhammed Shuaibu Afegbua, the centre bears the responsibility of rehabilitating visually impaired persons from across Nigeriathrough developing their skills in mobility, Braille, computer/ICT and craft as well as farming.

Not many blind Nigerians and their families are aware the NFCB exists however. This is because the centre is neither advertised in the media nor in public enlightenment and rural outreaches.

At any rate, for two sessions back to back, the centre, with all of the hope it brings to the blind, was left to rot away.

NFCB did not admit or trained a single visually challenged Nigerian since 2016 until April 2019, the reporter who visited the centre in the guise of a blind person seeking rehabilitation found out.

And according to Afegbua, that is because of certain challenges he would not disclose to the reporter during their chat.

But at the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs headquartres in Abuja, sources told the reporter the disruption was due to funding and seething tussling between the federal ministries of Education and Women Affairs and Social development over which controls the NFCB.

CORRUPTION UNLIMITED

The years of redundancy at the NFCB, however, did not stop civil servants in the centre from earning their monthly salaries and leave bonuses.

It also did not stop some corrupt officials at the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, under which the NFCB is an agency, from creaming off a huge N40m from the 2017 approved budget, supposedly as upkeep for the trainees at the NFCB, even though no single person with visual disability was admitted into the centre that year.

The steady sleaze in the guise of rehabilitating the blind leaped through the 2018 budget as well, even though the gates of the NFCB remained shut to trainees. Another N150m was sneaked into the 2018 approved budget of the Women Affairs ministry, as "upkeep of the trainees and strengthening activities at the following social welfare, rehabilitation and other welfare centres."

The Rotary Club of Egbeda, trying to do good in marking its 15th anniversary, also visited the NFCB on Saturday, March 31, 2018. The visitors did not suspect the centre had neither admitted nor trained any blind Nigerian for two years. So, they donated clothings and other items, supposedly to keep the blind trainees comfortable.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

Waiting endlessly on the queue is a torture any prospective blind must endure before he is considered for admissionat the NFCB, the reporter found out.

The centre can only admit three candidates from each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory in any particular session, disclosed its Principal. And that is just 111 lucky few every year. The less than fortunate candidates are then made to wait on the lists until another year when the jostle for admission would begin again.

Admission is competitive here because your state must have to recommend you to us for admission in any particular year, revealed Afegbua. But as I speak, virtually all the states have candidates waiting on standby from six years back.

Assume that the population of blind Nigerians will remain at one million as indicated in the 1998 national eye health survey, and the NFCB will only admit 111 persons out of this cluster in any given year, it will invariably mean that Nigeria will need some 9,009 years to rehabilitate and make its blind citizens independent and productive again.

But if the entire population of the blind and visually impaired, put at a little over four million in the survey, is to scramble for a space at the NFCB given the yearly admission benchmark, then Nigeria will require some 35,036 years or more before the entire visually challenged population would be fully rehabilitated.

To make matters worse, unlike in the past when trainees used to enjoy tuition-free rehabilitation,stipends and boarding at the centre, a prospective student is now expected to pay a huge N120,000 upon admission.

The conspiracy against the blind, the reporter found out, was reached at the 10th National Council on Women Affairs and Social Development held between August 5-10, 2019 in Lagos, with all Commissioners for Women Affairs from across the states in attendance.

Those who are not fortunate to be sponsored by their states, explained Afegbua, may then have to attend the school as self-sponsored students.

That financial burden is yielding a backlash already, the reporter found out.

When the NFCB finally resumed academic session in April this year, only 48 visually challenged students from across 15 states of the federation were fortunate to take up their slots.

Blessing didnt get a sponsorship from her Delta State of origin though, but she is one of the two self-sponsored trainees from the state currently at the NFCB. And to be in class, a good Samaritan had to squeeze out the compulsory tuition fees of N120,000.

FAILED STATES

The other 21 states, Afegbua said , simply would not invest N360,000 on three of their blind citizens at the cost of N120,000 each for the entire session due to lack of funds.

Many of the defaulting states (Edo, Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Cross-Rivers, Taraba, Kano, Katsina, Bauchi, Borno, Adamawa, Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Plateau and the FCT) are from the North of Nigeria. This is followed by a few South eastern states and then two statesOyo and Ekitifrom the South-West.

Akande O.M. of the Social Welfare Department at the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development in Oyo State revealed as much. The devil that sabotaged the efforts of candidates from the state in filling up their quotas at the NFCB this current session was a combination of bureaucracy and insensitivity, he told the reporter, who presented himself as a blind citizen seeking sponsorship from the state.

We got the letter informing us of the new tuition fee at the NFCB late, but even after treating the request and sending it out for approval, the file never came back again because the government in power then was more concerned about the elections than anything else.

Even as I speak, the file is yet to come back to the ministry. But I am optimistic something positive will happen next session, and you may be one of the lucky candidates to be selected,especially now that we have an Executive Assistant on Disability in the Governors Office.

The same reception of shock was awaiting the reporter when he arrived at the Blind Centre in Ogbomosho, also in Oyo State, the following day. The school has no facility in place to teach computer skills, or the technology needed to make the blind navigate a computer independently, the instructors explained.

We cant teach you what you want to learn here, because there is no facility for that in the school. But you can learn how to Braille and use the typewriter.

In fact, we dont even admit older candidates like you, but because of the person that brought you, we may admit you into Primary 2, so you can learn any vocation that you like and still go ahead to do common entrance later," the headteacher assured the reporter out of pity.

The vocational trainings on offer at the school are as odd as the proposal made to the reporter. They include weaving, both of chairs and ropes for tethering livestock, as well as bead making.

But they are not too offensive to dissuade Ibukun Ogundijo from getting registered at the Blind Centre after all.

Ogundijo is one perfect example of the setback that inadequate infrastructure can cause in schools for the blind in Nigeria.

Now 20, the young man lost his sight while preparing to graduate into the junior secondary school in 2008. In search of a panacea, his family rushed him to the Blind Centre in Ogbomosho, after an initial desperate move to have his sight restored in hospitals and spiritual homes failed.

Another shocker was waiting for the blind lad instead. Ibukun was made to start all over again from Primary 1.

But when the school began to notice my performance, they offered me double promotion twice, he narrated to the reporter.

ALL TALK BUT SLOW INCLUSION IN LAGOS

In spite of the disability friendly initiatives and inclusive education policy in Lagos State, blind students are not learning anything in those inclusive schools, Adebayo insists.

Lagos is not implementing inclusive education yet, griped the JONAPWD chairman, adding, "so I cant score the government high. In fact it will be unfair on PLWDs living in Lagos to score the government 40 per cent for their effort so far.

It is one thing to have an inclusive education policy, it is another thing entirely to make it work. And thats why we continue to insist government must design an operational guide for implementing inclusive education in Nigeria, in addition to supporting schools with the teachers, instructional materials and equipment needed to make disabled students learn.

Those who lost their sight as adults are not learning anything in Lagos either. There are only just four rehabilitation centers that can provide training and assistive devices for the crowd of visually impaired in the state for instance, and all of these institutions are either private initiatives or run by civil society organizations.

The only state-controlled institution, the Lagos State Vocational Rehabilitation Centre for Persons With Disabilities in Owutu, Ikoroduis anything but a rehabilitation centre for persons with disabilities, if you compare it with international globa best practice, Adebayo told the reporter.

He is right after all. The centre merely exists in structure and not in equipment and devices needed to effectively address the special needs of blind students especially,the reporter found out on his visit.

EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE

From the schools for the blind in Lagos to Ibadan, down to Ogbomosho and back to Ijebu-Igbo where the reporter presented himself as a prospective student, the blind have an option though: to shun the empty and dysfunctional state-controlled special schools and patronize private institutions. Thats if they will ever be able to afford the cost.

According to Obot of the Vocational Training Centre for the Blind, it costs nothing less than N750,000 [about $2,100] to take a visually impaired through complete rehabilitation, and that includes rehabilitation fee, laptop and JAWS, typewriter, stylus and guide cane.

The bargain is no less expensive at the Anglo-Nigerian Welfare Association for the Blind [ANWAB], another rehabilitation centre for the blind in Yaba, Lagos, the reporter discovered.

According to CajetanDuru, an instructor in the school, Job Access With Speech [JAWS], the software that enables a visually impaired navigate the computer and Internet, costs N300,000, while the market price of a new laptop computer varies between N180,000 and N250,000.

Other than that, you will need a Android phone which can help you do the same thing a JAWS will enable you do on the laptop, and that will cost at least N50,000. However, we can allow you pay your rehabilitation fee in installments since the training is in three phases, beginning with mobility and typing training, Duru explained.

The rich and willing visually impaired also have an option of patronizing private home bound rehabilitation services, revealed Sunday Badejo, a visually challenged expert in education for the blind. At a more expensive charges, though.

"The least I charge is 100,000 and that is for a professional who suddenly lost his sight and requires an accelerated rehabilitation to go back to work in just six weeks, Badejo told the reporter, adding,but my professional fee can be more than that, depending on a number of considerations such as location, distance and length of training required by the client.

Badejo has travelled across several states in Nigeria, including in Kano, Niger and Jigawa, providing home-bound rehabilitation services to visually challenged persons who can pay his bill, but its alright if the person wants to come and meet me in Lagos, he said.

I can help negotiate accommodation and factor the logistics into my final charges. Thats why I told you initially it depends on location, duration and such other factors, the graduate of Federal College of Education [Special] in Oyo explained.

One scary consideration is the cost of the devices a visually impaired would have to procure to live a normal productive life again, he said. According to Badejo, aside from rehabilitation fees which can run into hundreds of thousand, students will be required to buy JAWS, Braille machine, Pearl scanner, typewriter, embosser, guide cane as well as stylus and mabourg.

Now, a JAWS software is around N500,000, Braille machine is N300,000, Pearl scanner is N469,000, typewriter is N10,000, the least cane is N15,000 while stylus and slate cost N7000. So you are looking at well over one million naira as cost of devices needed to give you independence as a visually impaired person, aside from my own professional fee as a private instructor.

For a disadvantaged community constantly frustrated by employment inequalities and other forms of negative stereotypes, raising no less than N1m to enable them go through coordinated rehabilitation programs has become a huge incentive for flushing on to the streets to beg for alms, lamented Mohammed.

"You can call them names for causing a nuisance on the streets if you want,

Muhammed griped, but the truth is that government institutions that should ordinarily rehabilitate them at little or no cost are dysfunctional, and that leaves them with no alternatives other than the few private rehabilitation centres which are expensive to attend already.

GATEWAY TO INCLUSION, EQUALITY

Inside the Enabling Technology Room at the Southwest Resource Centre in Abeokuta, Ogun State, a revolution similar to the community-based rehabilitation strategy recommended by the World Blind Union (WBU) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking a steady foothold.

Sired in the twilight of the President Bill Clinton administration in 2004, narrated Emmanuel Akinola, the centre is an innovative ICT hub designed by the Americans to accelerate the globalization process in Nigeria through building the capacity of citizens in Information Communication Technology.

And, to give that intervention a fillip, similar centres were erected in other geopolitical zones, including Bauchi, Cross River, Enugu, Kaduna, Ogun and the FCT.

That was how we got the idea of including persons living with disabilities in the wider program, Akinola, also a blind lawyer, and Consultant instructor in Basic ICT Education for the blind, explained.

Attendance is tuition-free for the blind here, the reporter found out after registering and attending classes as a blind in need of rehabilitation at the centre.

Thats why this room is called the Enabling Technology Room, because its meant for PLWDs generally. The reason why only persons with visual disabilities are here now is because others can still see and read printed matter, unlike the blind who requires special skills in ICT to navigate the computer and internet," said Akinola.

AGAIN THE CRIPPLING NIGERIAN FACTOR

That is some huge breather for inclusive education advocates like Adebayo and Mohammed really. But the excitement is not going to last long. For one, acceptance for blind trainees at the Southwest Resource Centre is difficult and low compared to the huge number of blind persons who need rehabilitation to enable them participate fully in public life again.

Blame the sustained employment inequality and harsh economic condition that frustrate the bid of many of them who indeed registered their interest in the training but could not make it to Abeokuta in the end.

The three weeks course is free written off by the Ogun State Government. But not transportation logistics, accommodation and feeding.

Governors of other southwest states deserve much of the flak afterall, groaned Akinola. Even though the Southwest Resource Centre is designed to serve all the states in the region, these governors just carry on as if they are not concerned", the blind lawyer and rehabilitation expert lamented.

The low attendance could not have been otherwise then. More so that public enlightenment about the centre, and deliberate mobilization of blind persons, are not on the priority list of the governors. And thats a violation of Article 26 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) to which Nigeria is a signatory.

The law imposes obligation on state parties to take effective and appropriate measures to provide comprehensive habilitation and rehabilitation services and programmes, particularly in the areas of health, employment, education and social services for their citizens with disabilities.

The blind have little or no choice here really. Not even in a stranded economy where more than half of the population survive on less than $2 a day.

* This report was done with the support of Ford Foundation and International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR