By Tajudeen Suleiman
He stood up as soon as the Friday prayer ended at a Gwarimpa Estate, Abuja Central Mosque. Clutching a walking stick and a braille hand frame, the teenager announced his mission to the congregation. He was a student of the Government School for the Blind, Katsina who couldn’t buy his learning materials and had come to seek help, he said, displaying a student identity card, which gave his name as Aliyu Ibrahim, to support his claim.
After speaking in Hausa briefly, he translated himself in smattering English. He asked the congregation to help him so he could go back to school and learn. When this writer spoke with him, he swore that his school authorities in Katsina make them pay for learning materials even though most of them came from poor homes.
The spectacle of the blind and visually impaired teenagers begging for alms to return to school is common in worship centres across the Nation’s capital, Abuja. Every Friday in virtually all the major mosques in the city, these boys tell pathetic stories of how they are forced to buy their own school items, and how they’re so poor that they had to beg for alms to get an education.
Some teachers I spoke to on the plight of this category of students confirmed that many of the government-owned schools for the blind suffer from the dearth of teaching materials and quality teachers. It is unarguable that the largest number of blind school-age teenagers would be found in the North since conditions for blindness are most prominent in the region.
The Nigeria National Blindness and Visual Impairment Survey 2005-2007 shows the North West region has the highest prevalence of blindness, with 28.6 per cent of the estimated 4.25 million visually impaired or blind adults from age 40. This statistic obviously excludes blind school age teenagers, who may even be more in number. It was also found that blindness is highest in the Sahel region and lowest in the Niger Delta.
Ironically, schools for the physically challenged, including the blind are found more in the Southern parts of the country than the North. Whether government, missionary or charity funded, the quality schools for the blind are to be found in the South. Children with disabilities, especially the visually impaired have special learning needs that most traditional schools may not be able to offer. This is why experts recommend that parents send their children to schools specifically designed to address the needs of children with special needs.
The specializations of teaching the blind and the deaf can be especially challenging because of their needs, therefore it is even more important to staff their schools with special and committed teachers who find it rewarding teaching this category of persons. But more importantly, teachers of the blind and deaf have the huge task of not just teaching the curriculum but teaching their students to become independent and motivating them to keep trying regardless of setbacks.
It is precisely because of the need to make the students independent and motivated that I believe special education, especially for the blind, has failed in the Northern Nigeria. I consider it a huge source of embarrassment that a region that has a sizeable chunk of the country’s billionaires and Islamic missionaries cannot help the physically challenged to get good education for a decent living.
What are the learning materials needed in a secondary school for the blind? 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. Are these the items that cannot be provided by government schools?
But we all know how bad government schools are run in this country. That is why I am not concerned about what the government can do. I am more interested in what billionaires and Islamic missionaries in the North can do to help.
Instead of donating money to state governments in the north, charities like the T.Y. Danjuma Foundation and the Dangote Foundation, among others should consider funding charity groups interested in delivering special education to the blind school age children in the north. Rich people do not only spend and invest money but try to help others to become a better version of themselves.
The T.Y. Danjuma Foundation has disbursed over $100million to charities and groups as interventions in health and women empowerment. Same for the Dangote Foundation, which had directly disbursed billions of Naira to state governments in the north as interventions in health, empowerment and emergencies. A fraction of this amounts can very well transform the lives of youths like Ibrahim who desire education but are unable to fund themselves.
In my opinion, the way to help is not to channel the funds to the state governments but to commission specialists, charity groups and interested individuals to build and manage such schools. There are very good examples of this kind of ventures in the southern parts, especially Lagos State where the Pacelli School for the Blind stand out.
Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted, is an initiative of the then Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Leo Hale Taylor and was officially opened on June 16, 1962, following a permission granted on April 26 of same year by the Nigerian Government for the establishment of a special school for the education of the visually impaired. It is reputed as the most qualitative school for the blind in the country.
When the government took over all schools in the 80s, the school was placed under the Lagos State Government. But with the takeover, the quality of education, welfare of students and maintenance of the structures deteriorated.
The former Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, requested for the return of the school to the Catholic mission in 1997, and since then the maintenance and education of this category of persons has been the sole responsibility of the Catholic mission, supported by kind-hearted individuals, religious groups and corporate organizations.
There is no reason why the Pacelli story cannot be replicated in the north. We need to give the physically challenged, especially the blind quality education and care that will transform them to productive Nigerians. They need an education that will improve their self-worth and independence and prevent them from becoming a social nuisance and economic parasites.
The affluent, influential and the charity-minded prominent sons of daughters of the north must come together to save the children of the future. Luckily, the Nigeria Association of the Blind (NAB) is having its 2019 National Convention in Katsina. This is the time to focus not just on promoting the rights of the blind in the country, but a time to start taking seriously the education for the blind.
Tajuden Suleiman could be reached at: [email protected]