Money, political will holding back disabled students

Ahmed Junaid is not learning at the same pace as his course mates at the University of Ilorin (Unilorin) in Kwara State, Nigeria, because of his visual impairment.

As a second-year English education undergraduate, he expends a lot of time, energy and money to keep up with his co-students. But, while most other students start reading almost immediately after getting the books recommended by their lecturers, Junaid must scan and Braille those texts before he can do the same.

There are three clusters of persons with disabilities (PWDs) at Unilorin and it has a support centre – which Junaid describes as “the genesis of his problem”.

“It is called the Centre for Supportive Services for the Deaf,” Junaid told University World News. “This name, itself, is not inclusive, because the university [also] admits students with visual and hearing impairment as well as physically challenged persons.”

Junaid is the president of the Association of Visually Impaired Students.

Unilorin currently has 35 visually impaired students, including those recently admitted, but classes are yet to resume due to the ongoing nationwide strike.

Junaid says the staff at the centre are not specialised in managing visual disability. “We don’t have a Braille embosser, and most reading material in the university’s library is in print only. For visually impaired students, we have to scan the books, and for those without assistive devices to read scanned copies, they still have to Braille. All of these come at additional cost, and it’s stressful.

“Our exams are computer-based tests, but the facility does not accommodate visually impaired persons. So, the university provides people who read questions and options to us.

“In more developed countries where they take the education of persons with disabilities seriously, they have specialised CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] centres. Reading eats into the time specified for exams, and some of the readers have accent issues which can demoralise you if you’re not determined.”

Aside from the academic barrier, the physical structure of the school literally poses a stumbling block to Junaid and several other students, including those in wheelchairs.

“In terms of architectural design, the environment is not accessible to persons living with disabilities. You use the same structures as normal students. PWDs are not considered at all when it comes to structural design,” he says.

Similar concerns

Disabled students face a similar plight at other higher-education institutions across Nigeria. They either lack facilities, particularly for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, or the facilities are grossly insufficient.

Professor Umar Ibrahim, former chief librarian at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in Kaduna State, agrees, saying “generally at Nigeria’s higher institutions, the facilities available for people living with disabilities are highly inadequate”.

“Even at institutions that teach special education, the facilities are not adequate,” he added.

This falls short of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, which seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, especially those in a vulnerable situation. SDG 4 demands special attention to and targeted strategies for PWDs.

Experts have noted that inclusive, quality education is crucial to eradicating poverty and reducing the inequalities that SDG 1 and SDG 10 seek to achieve.

Some African higher-education institutions do better and are scaling up initiatives aimed at inclusive education. For instance, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa helps students with psychiatric disabilities such as anxiety disorder, and learning disabilities, and has developed solutions, including scribes to help disabled students write assignments, tests and exams, University World News has reported.

UKZN has also purchased Braille machines and wheelchairs, as well as offering advocacy services, funding and counselling.

In contrast, Nigeria’s tertiary schools are generally ill-equipped. The quest for funding to revitalise school infrastructure is among the major reasons the academic staff of universities and colleges are currently on strike.

Population of PWDs

About 29 million Nigerians were living with disabilities as of 2018, according to a 2020 study by the World Bank. This represents 14.18% of the country’s estimated population of 195 million.

A 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey estimated that 7% of household members above the age of five have some level of difficulty in at least one disability – seeing, hearing, communication, cognition, walking, or self-care – and 1% either have a lot of difficulty or cannot function at all in at least one domain.

“These estimated rates, while significant, are probably even higher because currently available data likely underestimate the prevalence ... Inclusive policies are either non-existent, weak or inadequately implemented,” the World Bank report commented.

Examining policy, law on inclusive education

Nigerian national policy on inclusive education states that persons with disabilities have the right to qualitative, functional and effective education. In addition, the government enacted the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act and established the National Commission for People with Disabilities to ensure seamless implementation.

The act maintains that all public schools – whether primary, secondary, or tertiary – shall be inclusive and accessible to PWDs and shall have special facilities for their effective education.

But this is not the reality of Junaid and many other disabled students in Nigeria.

“From the date of commencement of this act, there shall be a transitory period of five years within which all public buildings and structures ... which were inaccessible to persons with disabilities shall be modified to be accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs,” the act states.

The law was effective from January 2019 following President Muhammadu Buhari’s assent. By January 2024, the five-year period will have elapsed, yet only a very few schools have been able to partly implement the specifications of the act.

Building on progress

The slow progress notwithstanding, some special facilities at the University of Lagos (Unilag) are making relative differences, said Emeka Okeke, a fourth-year student at the faculty of management science, while admitting that a lot more needs to be done.

He said: “There is a hostel at Unilag that is accessible to visually impaired students. Some sections of the school also have ramps that those in wheelchairs can use. We have a special section in the library for Brailed books, and some of the books are in audio or soft copy”.

But Unilag can’t be used as a yardstick because many higher schools don’t have facilities for PWDs. He said that, in comparison to institutions in developed countries, there is “a huge gap” and a “long way to go”.

Faith Ekinebor, a disability rights advocate, called for more sensitisation to foster inclusive education. She said some visually impaired students exploring learning management system platforms in the wake of COVID-19 have difficulty coping in virtual classes.

“[Students] complain of not having access to learning materials because some lecturers will post videos without considering them. People need to take cognisance of the peculiarities of PWDs and absorb them into the system,” she told University World News.