By Johnstone Kpilaakaa
July 2020 was the first time Keturah Bitrus*—who was 16 years at the time ever used a computer; she was in junior secondary school three (JSS3) at Abuja School for the Deaf. During a holiday that year, her friend invited her to attend a weekend digital skills class for deaf kids in Jos, a city in North Central Nigeria.
“It was my first time in a practical computer science class,” Keturah narrated to Social Voices in sign language. She was born with speech and hearing impairment. “It was exciting to see other people—like me—using the computer,” she added. Three years later, Keturah is proficient in programming; building mobile games and animations.
“Having these skills has given me an edge over my mates in school, and even others in society,” she added.
At least one in every eight Nigerians lives with one form of disability. The most common of these disabilities are visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, intellectual impairment, and communication impairment, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Although Nigerian laws prescribe six months imprisonment and fines for all forms of discrimination by individual and corporate bodies against persons with disability (PWDs), a popular perception is that the social protection for PWDs in Nigeria is still relatively weak, they still face discrimination across the country, sometimes in their families.
This leads to the exclusion of PWDs in education and employment. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) states that disability is one of the serious barriers to education across the globe. “Like all children, children with disabilities have ambitions and dreams for their futures. Like all children, they need quality education to develop their skills and realise their full potential,” UNICEF says in a document on inclusive education. “Yet, children with disabilities are often overlooked in policymaking, limiting their access to education and their ability to participate in social, economic and political life.”
Building a tech foundation for deaf kids
In 2017, Wuni Bitrus and his friend, Pantong Dashwet started Deaf Technology Foundation (DTF) in Jos, Plateau State to provide weekly digital skills training in programming and robotics for deaf children, from primary to secondary school ages.
With one computer set and a volunteer on the team, the duo started teaching the basics of computer science to about 20 deaf children who were mostly out-of-school. “We started to reach out to deaf communities around Jos metropolis to bring their kids to learn how to use the computer and other tech skills,” Wuni told Social Voices.
After the children have understood the basics, the next lesson—which is also theoretical and practical—on the DTF curriculum is focused on programming and/or robotics, this depends on the interest of the learner. In the course of every stage, the students are mentored on how to solve real-life problems.
Innovating amidst barriers
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mercy Samson, who was 17 years old at the time, built an automatic hand sanitiser and dispenser using an ultra-sonic sensor to detect the distance between the hand and the sanitiser. The device was stationed at the deaf children community where DTF weekly classes hold.
Like Keturah, Mercy did not know so much about computers until 2017 when she started attending DTF classes. She is part of the 1600 students that have been trained by the foundation since its launch—seven years ago. Beneficiaries of the initiative have participated and excelled at several local and international competitions including the Global Indigitous Hackathonin in 2018 where the students developed a Bible Study App and game. “One of our students is currently an assistant robotics instructor at a computer institution for non-PWDs,” Wuni said.
Aside from the weekly classes, the foundation holds an annual event tagged “the Week of Code”; the event holds at a selected special school in Plateau State. During the week students of these schools are exposed to the DTF curriculum; the use of computer, programming and robotics.
“After the ‘week of code’, we usually establish a programming club and train a volunteer teacher to assist the students,” he added. “Students from the school(s) who are interested in our weekend clubs can now join us at a central location-our centre where they’ll continue learning and collaborating with students from other schools and even out-of-school deaf children.”
Due to the lack of technological equipment and facilities in most of these schools, even though the teachers are trained they are unable to guide the children. “Unavailability of learning materials makes it difficult to sustain the school clubs,” Wuni added.
All DTF classes are taught using sign language. “Globally, communication is a major factor that is affecting the implementation of inclusive education,” according to Emeka Ozorji, a Professor of Special Needs Education at the University of Jos.
“We want to ensure that they get skills that will create jobs for them,” Wuni said. However, most of the children do not have personal computers to practice after classes. This also limits their access to job opportunities.
Also, due to limited funds, the kits used for robotics are also not enough thereby slowing down innovation. “We have to dismantle the prototypes when they are done building so that we can move on to other projects,” Nenmeemwa Goshit, DTF’s Head of Inclusive Design and Interpreters added.
Nenmeemwa is one of the about 30 individuals that currently volunteer as tutors, curriculum developers and interpreters.
“Collaboration will drive special needs education”
Although, the Federal Ministry of Education is required by the National Special Needs Policy to provide adequate and standard facilities for PWDs, especially children, most government-funded special schools across the country remain dilapidated—this includes the FCT-based, Abuja School for the Deaf, where Keturah, a DTF trainee is schooling.
In fact, In 2022, the Nigerian government deployed over ₦4.3 billion to all 36 states and the FCT to fund over 1177 special education schools and inclusive schools—all categories of students, including those with special needs—across the country but the implementation has been slow.
According to Professor Ozorji, “Although efforts are being made to enable inclusive education in Nigeria, like most government-funded projects it will take time before it will materialise.”
However, Professor Ozorji said with initiatives like DTF, the government can explore collaboration to enable quicker access to quality education and increased employability of PWDs. “Anything that is of value in driving inclusion should be adopted,” he told Social Voices.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Editor’s note: The interview with Keturah* and Fatima* was conducted in sign language and interpreted to Social Voices, we edited it for clarity.
*The real names of the individuals were withheld to protect their identities.