(Originally published in Vanguard newspapers on December 7, 2013)
BY LAJU ARENYEKA (now IREN)
‘Two little black birds’ is a popular poem. At age four, practically any child can recite it. But Kayode is not just any child; born with Down’s syndrome, the 12 year old beams with pride as his teacher calls on him to recite the poem for this reporter. His voice is low, but his confidence high.
Eight year old Precious Oydeokun has the loudest voice in her class. Her fingers graze through the Braille version of the Primary one English textbook: “A for apple, B for ball…” her voice makes up for what her eyes cannot see. The primary four pupils at a premiere school for the hearing impaired in Lagos also have a voice; it is in the moving of their hands and the expression on their faces. These children are only a small fraction of the 150 million in the world living with disabilities, 80 per cent of which are in developing countries.
Not cursed, but special
Some children look and act differently due to one form of disability or the other. Ile Anu School for the physically challenged in Lagos has a variety of these children. With conditions ranging from Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy, among other physical and mental challenges, it might seem ironic to some that the name of the school means “House of Joy.” But school principal, Mrs. Valentina Okoro, has a different point of view: “Some parents see such children as a curse, they ask God all kinds of questions and wonder what sin they must have committed to have such a child. But these children are a blessing in disguise, and with the right training and a whole lot of faith, we can ensure that their lives count for something.”
About 20 children, who would otherwise be locked up at home by their parents for fear of embarrassment, now come to school for free at Ile-Anu every weekday. “Our school is run solely on donations; many of these children are from really poor homes and can’t afford to make it to school if the school bus does take them to and fro everyday. We also have children who are simply physically challenged with no damage to the brain. Children like that can study even to the university level. We had one of such students who had only one functioning lower limb. He has no hands, just that leg. He would use the leg to eat, write, move about; do practically anything that any normal person can do.”
It is a more difficult however, for other children who have some form of intellectual disability. But Okoro argues that these children can be taught to do simple tasks such as cooking, cleaning and using the toilet as well as imbibe social skills to help build relationships with others. Remember Kayode, the ‘Two little black birds’ singer? He could not even speak when he first arrived at Ile Anu a few years ago. Amina is another example; a 10 year old with Down syndrome, Amina could not respond when someone called her name a few years ago. Now, she is the lead singer of “welcome to Ile Anu school.”
Sight that redefines blindness
Someone who is used to reading words with his eyes alone is bound to feel quite blind staring at the Braille version of a primary one English text book. At Pacelli School for for the blind, the children carry on unperturbed, quite skilled in ascertaining with their sense of feeling, what their sense of sight would not allow. This is Mrs. Bolanle Okunola’s class. Speaking to Vanguard Learning, she says: “A lot of the students are really brilliant, even more than their sighted counterparts. Parents of special children must support them and ensure that these kids have good education which is the best legacy that we can give to them. We have a lot of blind people that are professionals in different fields of life and are doing really well. They can be self reliant and independent with the right kind of education.”Precious Oyedokun’s mindset mirrors her teacher’s mindset. “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor,” she says “and I would like to advise children who are blind to attend a school for the blind, and get better educated.”
The Principal of Pacelli School for the Blind and partially sighted children, Sister Jane Onyeneri, speaking on the peculiarity of teaching tells Vanguard Learning: There is ability in disability. Even though some have delayed learning, with time they pick up. “The difference between they and sighted children is that it is easier to teach sighted children how to read. But the blind have to learn Braille reading and writing. They are however, beginning to challenge sighted students. For example, about five of our kids are in Jesuit Loyola College, Abuja. They got scholarships to go there.” The learning language of the deaf One would think that a school for the hearing impaired would be as silent as a graveyard. Such a person would be shocked to find children behaving exactly like normal children; arguing amongst themselves, exasperating their teachers and in a hurry to answer questions in class. A teacher who did not want his name in print gave Vanguard Learning an insight into learning for the hearing impaired “Deaf children have lost their sense of hearing and with this comes an additional disability of speech and language development. Language is not an innate capability; we are not born with it, it is acquired. The basic requirement of language is a sense of hearing, as well as growing up in a talking community. The average child acquires knowledge spontaneously. Nobody sits a child down and teaches him talk. The deaf child can’t acquire language like that and this affects the child’s development in various ways. The child can’t learn accidentally, efforts have to made to teach him practically everything, because he can’t learn by observing the conversations of others. There must be a special way of teaching this child; we use all the other modalities available to us especially sight. We use hearing aid, lip reading, sign language and finger spelling; the combination of all these is referred to as total communication.”
Comrade Macauley Shogunle, the Assistant Secretary of Nigeria Association of Special Education Teachers, said “We learn to restructure their learning here so we can pass across the concept. If parents are ready to accept their children and their disabilities, then the problem is half solved. Parents must learn the child’s language. Low parental involvement in educating children stunts the educational progress. When parents are totally involved, it increases the chances for the child’s future. ”
Without a doubt, success stories abound from educating children with special needs. But there are still a lot of challenges facing the special education sector. Funding is one of such, Shogunle, speaking on the situation at his place of employ says: “In recent times, there has been a lot of awareness for special children. “Our school was meant for the capacity of 80 children, and when it was first built in the 1980s, we could not reach the capacity. Now the story is different, we are stretched thin. At a point we had about 400 students, but at the moment we have 300. So we need much more resources.” Onyeneri argues that the materials needed to teach special children are quite expensive. “The greatest challenge we have as special educators is their materials which are very expensive,” she says, “the Braille machine, the mabbok, stylus, cane etc are all imported. Pacelli is a no fee paying institution; it is our donors that cater for these materials as well as staff salary. We also have flooding issue here, we have to constantly trust God for upkeep and maintenance.”
Okoro is an advocate against the stigmatization of the special child. She says: “Some people do not have an iota of awareness about the existence of such children, or do not know how to treat them. Some parents are not aware that there are special schools like ours. “Some others are aware, but do not want people to know that they have such kids, and would rather keep them locked away. Even the seemingly enlightened people in society are not enlightened in areas like this. “We once had an incident with the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority, LASTMA, when some official stopped us, but as soon as they were told that there were disabled children in the vehicle, they started running. There is so much stigma attached to these children, and it not ought to be.”