Emmanuel Nweke, a visually impaired 31-year-old that graduated with a first-class degree in Social Works at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Enugu State, tells EMMANUEL OJO how he battled the challenges that came with his disability
Graduating with a first-class degree from a public university in Nigeria is a feat many students desire but do not get. How did you achieve that despite being visually impaired?
Wanting to change the narrative ignited my passion. Naturally, a visually impaired student will be seen by others as someone that won’t do well. I wasn’t born blind, so, facing all manner of stereotyped stigmatisation, I felt that I could as well do it (graduate with a first-class degree) and make people believe that I can do it. Vision is propelled by the heart and not sight. I wanted to just change the narrative and make a new landmark. So, I just wanted to do something remarkable.
You said that you weren’t born blind. At what point did you lose your sight?
I was at Federal Polytechnic, Bida, Niger State. Along the line, I had an issue and couldn’t complete my National Diploma programme. It seemed as if my potential was hindered by the sight problem. It truncated my plans so I left school. You know what it means when a man who is chasing his dreams suddenly loses his sight. The light turns into dark and he can no longer see the sun as it rises. So, I was just left to bear the burden, even when my eyes could no longer control the tears that flowed from them. I asked myself, “What’s next?” Since my sight was gone, I was left with sound. So, that was when I left the polytechnic and eventually was able to attend a special school, take Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, and was offered admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
How long did you spend at the special school?
Well, it was actually meant to be a year’s programme since I was already an adult and I knew the basics of life. I could make use of the computer already but I needed to learn it the other way, performing computer functions. I had to learn the other side of life, then, mobility as the case may be, to navigate here and there. So, I learnt that within that time, then, I took the UTME, got admission, and proceeded to the university.
What was the actual diagnosis made?
I was diagnosed with glaucoma but the whole thing happened at the speed of light. Normally, glaucoma has its modus operandi, such that it takes time to happen but when I was diagnosed, I was placed on medication at St. Mary’s Hospital, Gwagwalada, (Abuja) because I reside in Abuja. But the whole thing happened at the speed of light.
After being diagnosed, how did you receive the news and accepted the new way of life?
I don’t question that, you know. The race is not for the swift nor the strong but for those who can adjust to change when the need arises. It is for those who can adjust to change, it’s not actually for the fit anymore but for those who can adjust to change and change is the only constant thing. It wasn’t like it was easy but the grace of God was sufficient.
I was navigating here and there in hospitals, going to see some people and you know Nigeria is a spiritual country. I went to some spiritual houses within that period but I had to take the bull by the horns because I was bored at home and my mates were doing exploits and all that in their different pursuits.
What were you taught at the special school?
I was taught mobility, how to navigate the road alone as a visually impaired person, and taking precautionary measures while on the road. So, it’s a kind of rehabilitation to reintegrate visually impaired persons into the broader society but you know that the societal acceptance is minimal in this part of the world. We face all forms of stigma and all forms of stereotypes. It’s just being who you are.
What was your experience learning to use Braille?
We were taught Braille, how to read with Braille, taught how to use a (computer) system. We used a regular computer but the difference was that it used an app called JAWS. JAWS is an acronym for Job Access With Speech. It can perform any form of operation within the computer. If you press Ctrl S on the keyboard, it tells you that you have actually saved your work and all that. We also learnt how to use a typewriter. Depending on how you operate intellectually, that depends on what you do. Some people use a typewriter to take exams and some use a computer. It all depends on what you are good at doing. Some like typewriting, Braille, computer operation, and so on. So, that’s it.
How do you live above the stigma that comes with not being sighted?
I will give that to a support system. You know a support system has a way of influencing one’s personality. As it is said, personality is the total of one’s character and sense of reasoning. So, one’s character and sense of reasoning are tied to who they are. If the support system is there, one shouldn’t come to my space and redefine the original me. So, it’s either you take me for who I am or you take a walk. It’s not just being rude but you shouldn’t put it in my face. I’m aware I’m blind, and that’s social awareness but you shouldn’t come and tell me that I am visually impaired either by your action or inaction.
Did you face that?
Yes, people do it, no doubt. Let me give you an instance. I wanted to board a vehicle and there was a particular route I was used to but a man probably thought that I was a novice and he said, “I will help you to get there.” I just laughed and said, “Are you helping me or I am paying for my service?” I don’t think it’s rude but I think it’s knowing my right. There’s a difference between helping one and making them pay for a service and each time I hear that, I just tell the person to his face that they are not helping me, but that I’m paying for the service.
It’s just being strong to myself. Sometimes I go to school and come back with tears in my eyes, no doubt. I face all manner of hurdles, meet people (students) who are 18 just talking to me without regard and I imagine that if it wasn’t for the impairment, I would have been done with school. Sometimes, I went to school, bumped into walls, and fell into gutters. There are challenges, no doubt but you just need to be strong. You need to put on that strong self because no one has got you better than you do. So, it’s just believing in one’s self.
As a student, did you have someone that assisted you to move around the campus?
I lived on selfless individuals who decided to be of help, navigating here and there. Visually impaired people can do a whole lot. Our challenge is just navigation from point A to point B. However, we do other things like laundry and cooking ourselves. I made my meals while at school but it was the aspect of going to the market that I needed the help of a friend. I just made a list of what I wanted and they helped me to get the items while I did the cooking.
What did you study at the university?
I studied social work.
Was that your dream course or was it based on the circumstance?
Let me give you an honest opinion. I was science-inclined and I wanted to study Medicine. The first UTME and post-UTME I took was for the University of Abuja but the issue of quota system (for indigenes) played out because I am from the South-East. So, I could not get Medicine that year. So I never thought I would see myself in the social sciences or the arts but the circumstances made it that way. It wasn’t planned.
What was the biggest hindrance you faced during your stay on campus?
One of the biggest challenges was that as a visually impaired, all I needed was for the lecturers to send me a soft copy (of their lectures) via email but they expected me to record while dictating notes or scan archaic material into soft copies. If the material is not new or not bright enough, the information on it won’t be picked up when scanned. So, that was a challenge. At one point, I had to type my notes in class while a lecturer dictated and with that, I laboured twice as much as those who were not impaired. I appreciate those who gave the soft copies of the materials just to make life easier. Also, to take some exams, I had to climb the stairs of two or three-storey buildings. You know how it is to climb stairs to go and take exams.
Lack of access to resources is one of those things (challenges) because if you do not do them as a blind person, you know it won’t be easy. At every point, a blind person needs to appreciate (gift) friends else you’ll be seen as a burden and people won’t come close to you. You know as it’s said, the left hand washes the right and the right washes the left. So, you need to appreciate your friends either by words or by gifting them, making them feel at home.
I had a financial challenge. I needed money to take care of myself so that I would not be seen as a random blind person out there begging for alms. I also needed money to get study materials like a laptop, a digital scanner, a recorder, and a good phone.
Did you receive special treatment from some of your lecturers?
I submitted my answer sheets during exams like other students did. It was difficult typing without seeing what was being typed. So, I had to advocate. I led a group and we advocated for extra time during exams. Some lecturers frowned at it but we had to step on toes to get it done. Life, they say, is a game of interest, so, we had to get it done and with the help of Prof Uzoma Okoye, we achieved that. We were given 30 extra minutes. I took my exams with my laptop and had to proofread, which took a lot of time. The only thing was that I was allowed to enter the class when I arrived late; you know the Nigerian system of sympathy. They let me in because I am blind but I don’t like it. I believe whatever is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Treat everybody equally and let people just feel accepted.
What kind of social life did you have as an undergraduate?
I am quite a disciplined person. I know I’m principled to an extent. In my class, most people knew me as a jolly fellow. So, time management is one of those key things in managing myself. I went to the stadium on Saturday to jog to keep myself fit. I went to the library when I ought to, and went to church when I ought to. When it was time for social things, I did social things. I got different awards and so on. I attended events, as long as they didn’t affect me or my academic pursuits.
Did you have fewer distractions at school?
I actually made a tweet on that. The truth is that it boils down to individuals. Let me give you an instance. I am a good-looking guy. Do you know ladies flock around me? Even during exams, ladies called me at about 8 or 9pm asking whether I was in my room so they could come and say hello. The truth is that everybody has some form of distraction. It’s not outright correct that we (visually impaired people) don’t get distracted.
Did you have a relationship at the university?
I was in a relationship while in school.
How did you identify your friends and acquaintances while on campus?
For some of my friends, when I gave them a handshake, from their palms, I could identify them. The most important one is the voice. I was able to identify them through their voices.
How did you feel when you found out you were graduating with a first-class degree?
I felt fulfilled. I felt I had laid the foundation for any other visually impaired person coming to Social Work. I know it’s a legacy that I have left at UNN.
On the flip side, in the Nigerian system, people don’t appreciate bright and intelligent minds. So, the question that pops up in my head is, “What’s next?” I was happy and grateful to God for making it a reality but the phobia of the larger society on how to pay my bills and all that is the situation for me.