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Several people walk down a street in Nigeria, a young man, two women side by side, one man has a walking stick and sunglasses.

It’s The Little Things: Life as a visually impaired person in Nigeria

Despite the difficulties Nigerian society imposes on people with visual impairments, many lead everyday lives. But sighted people manage to make life unnerving for them.

Obinna puts on a multicoloured striped shirt in his home office in Abuja as he explains what life as a blind person means to Unbias The News. Video by Muhammed Akinyemi.

Obinna Ekujereonye lives in Life-Camp, the heart of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital fighting for opportunities with three million other residents, most of whom are sighted, unlike Obinna, who navigates the sprawling city with technological —and occasionally human— aid.

Obinna does not like to think of himself as a person with a disability, nor does he want to be treated any differently from other people in public places. He appreciates a little help here and there but would rather be left alone to navigate the city, which he does almost effortlessly. 

This surprises a lot of people, who sometimes want to impose help on him. 

“If you want to help, that is fine. Nigerians are very good people, they want to help, but the situation is that they do not know how to offer help. They just grab you or your cane without even asking to assist,” he tells Unbias The News at his home office, where he often runs Disability Advancement Initiative, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.

It is difficult to ascertain the number of people with visual impairment in Nigeria, as there is no adequate record, even from the National Bureau of Statistics. The faintest idea is from a National Blindness and Visual Impairment survey conducted from 2005 to 2007, which is also quoted on the Nigeria Association of the Blind website: “more than 1.13 million individuals aged 40 years are currently blind, further 2.7 million adults aged 40 years have a moderate visual impairment and additional 400,000 adults are severely visually impaired.” That is about 4.23 million Nigerians with different levels of visual impairment to blindness, out of a 146.3 million populace (2.89 per cent).

Yet, people with disabilities face several forms of exclusion; in banking, employment, health emergencies and pandemics, socio-economic opportunities, and many other ways. Inaccessible cities, buildings, and hostile environments make it very difficult for people with disabilities to be included, causing them to suffer discrimination.

The lack of data on the number of blind citizens in Nigeria, for instance, reflects the nonchalance with which government addresses these citizens. But there is love for them at home.

Family, love, home

Fauziyah Yahaya in a flowing hijab, wears a GoPro camera on her head, showing her POV as she walks around with her cousin, Habiba, also in a hijab, in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Nineteen-year-old Fauziyah Yahaya lives across the city from Obinna. Still, despite the distance in their age, experiences, and status, they are similar in one fundamental way: there is sufficient love for them in their homes.

“My family assists me if I need something because I don’t have a job. So maybe I need to buy data; they assist me to make sure I’m happy,” she tells Unbias The News. Born visually impaired, Fauziyah says she does not feel any different from other children because of the support she gets from her family and friends.

When asked about the ease of navigating the city, she says with a smile, “I get some help from my brother, sister or my friend.”

Sighted people have found a way to pollute this serenity with discrimination.

Obinna says, “some people think that persons with disability cannot be married but don’t know that persons with disability are the most caring people. When you get a partner who understands you, you’ll make the best of couples. But when the mindset is fixed then that becomes a problem.”

When asked what going on dates with his partner is like, he draws a breath and rubs his hand against his striped shirt before continuing, “society will see you going out with your spouse, and they’ll be sending signals of pity to the person’s brain by saying ‘the Lord is your strength’ and other things.” 

Journalists also perpetuate this discrimination, Obinna informs Unbias The News, his frustration visible from the scowl on his face. “Maybe a blind person is marrying someone that is sighted, it becomes the headlines in any newspaper of the day as if that is not obtainable anywhere in the world. All these things that other people can do, persons with disability can also do … they call us persons and this comes before the disability.”

"We are people and Nigerians who can do what others can do.”

Obinna Ekujereonye

When asked about discrimination, Fauziyah responds that “they [the sighted] should know we are one. Because if they come close to us they’ll get to know more things about us. They shouldn’t think someone with visual impairment has a disease. We are all one.”

Erasure, discrimination, and labelling

Most times, I go to the hospital with aid and when I get to the hospital I see questions about my health being directed to my aid and not me. Most times I speak up that I have the body and I know how I feel so every question should be directed to me. The same thing still happens when they want to prescribe drugs, it’s being directed to your aid.

-Okeoghene Jane Akpaeva

Unbias The News visits Okeoghene at her Lokogoma residence in Abuja, where dressed in an orange sleeveless dress, she shares her lived experiences as a visually impaired woman with her braids resting on both sides of her shoulder. Video by Muhammed Akinyemi.

Okeoghene Jane Akpaeva, 28, lost visibility when she was a child. She says of that period that “it [was] very difficult to lose the sense of sight.” Over the years, she has had different levels of education and adaptation aid to help ease her navigation around. With technological advancements, she thinks of herself as just another person, not someone with a disability.

“When you want to snap a picture you get the help of people. Talking about social media experiences, there is something called a talking device: for the iPhone, it’s called the voice-over, for the android phone, it’s called the talkback and for the laptop, it’s called JAWS. That helps a visually impaired person navigate through. It gives us the clarity through speech to know what we’re doing so we’ll be able to navigate through that process. Even with pictures, it can show you what a lady is wearing.”

Obinna corroborates that “there is one we call Be My Eyes. On Be My Eyes you can call a volunteer anywhere in the world who help you find out some certain things you want. It could be the colour of a dress or cloth, or you’re looking for a document … there is another one called TapTapSee. It helps you to find out this is a chair, this is a table etc. 

“Also, you can use Lookout to read large documents if you’re not using your computer. I use my computer mostly to read my documents but if it is a document that is a hard copy, then I can use my lookout to read.”

Despite the winding road taken by people with visual impairment to easily access the world, they still face erasure and discrimination from the sighted.

Nigeria signed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Bill into law in January 2019, penalising discrimination against the estimated 29 million people with disability living in Nigeria. However, this has not stopped Nigerians from discriminating against the visually impaired. 

Idris A. Agboluaje, Safety and Inclusion Officer at International Rescue Committee (IRC) says that the discrimination faced by people with disability in Nigeria is cultural. “A lot of Nigerians think that when you are a PWD you are probably being punished for a crime or an abomination that you or some member of your family or ancestors have committed,” he tells UTN. 

He mentions that the representation of different forms of disability as punishment in the resolution of several Nollywood movies plays into this discrimination. 

Idris laments further that the lack of data on people who are blind makes it difficult to plan for them as Nigerians. “That predisposes them to more exclusion,” he explains.

After her interview, Okeoghene stops midway into our farewell, suddenly remembering something. She says, half excited to remember, and half irritated to have remembered, that the thing that annoys her the most are people who walk up to her and move their hands around her face, asking “do you remember me?” or “can you recognise me?”

The argument of the blind and visually impaired over the course of these interviews reflects the same things: it is the sighted who uphold disability that converts an impairment to an inability to function.

Barriers to education

A montage image showing Obinna, Okeoghene, and Fauziyah, with other objects like guide stick, braille, and PC etched across the screen. Montage by Muhammed Akinyemi.

Save The Children, an international NGO, revealed in February 2022 that 95.5 per cent of children with disability in Nigeria have no access to education. This is due to several factors, including the cost of education, discrimination, accessibility, and availability of aid to the disabled.

While school for the blind and visually impaired is typically free —where it exists— personal equipment is usually costly. Okeoghene says Braille equipment costs about ₦300,000 ($716), a guide cane costs about ₦8,000 ($20) and stylus costs about ₦3,000 ($8). Yet, after schooling, society excludes them from job placements.

“Inculcating the act of inclusion”, Idris explains, is fundamental for workplace participation of blind people. “If a person who is blind is able to access inclusive materials or software, it usually makes it easy.”

The blind also dream

Obinna walks around in his compound at Efab estate, using his guide cane as he demonstrates that he has an impairment and not a disability that prevents him from accessing the world with ease. Video by Muhammed Akinyemi

“Since when I was small, I liked to become a teacher and I want to study special education”, Fauziyah says, smiling. She wants to study at Nasarawa State University, not very far from Abuja, because that is where most of her friends are going. 

On a walk with her, she shares her future optimism and what type of teacher she wants to be. As a Muslim, she says her role model is Khadija, wife of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), who was a merchant. “I will be a teacher, but I will be rich,” she says heartily. “If you are a Muslim, I will pay for your mecca,” nodding her head affirmatively with the assuredness of someone who knows they are being watched.

For Okeoghene, she wants to focus on seeking inclusion through ‘The Inclusive Voice for Women and Youth initiative’, which she founded. However, she confesses that “being an advocate for persons with disability was because of my personal experience. It gave me an insight into what they pass through. If I were not a person with a disability, I don’t think I would have known much and understood this.”

Obinna wants a future where more blind and visually impaired people can access education. “If we have free education for persons with disabilities, a lot of persons with disability will go to school. Society should also lend a helping hand to those persons who cannot do as much as those who are schooled.”

About the author: Muhammed Akinyemi is a multimedia journalist and editor from Nigeria. He currently works as Sub-editor at HumAngle Media. He has covered various issues —usually around development and (space)tech— while advocating for the use of GIS/Space tech in storytelling. You can find his works here.

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