President Muhammadu Buhari in a handshake with the SGF Mr. Boss Mustapha during an audience with Founder of Dana Air the State House, Abuja. PHOTO; SUNDAY AGHAEZE. JULY 3 2019.
Exclusive interview with PUNCH.
Provost, Federal College of Education (Special), Oyo, Prof. Kamoru Usman, calls for improvement of facilities for people with special needs, increased funding for special education, and attitudinal change towards special people, in this interview with WALE OYEWALE
What is your assessment of the education sector in the country?
The problem we are facing in the education sector did not just start today; it is the cumulative effect of how the sector was run in past years. But to me, we are not doing badly. When some of our products leave this country, they perform wonders. That is to say our education sector is still doing fine. What I have a problem with is that there are no special funds for scholarships to encourage those that are endowed with special talents.
Do you think this is partly responsible for brain drain?
Yes. Those that are good perform wonders outside the country. I read about a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, who read law and went to Oxford University, England, UK to win their best prize. He was groomed here, went for PhD and became a star.
Would you say the country is also doing well in providing education for special people?
We are not doing enough. The President has assented to the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act since January 2019 but it was just on August 21, 2020 that they inaugurated the commission that will implement the law. The law was dormant; it has been reactivated but implementation has always been our problem. For your information, it takes three times the cost of training someone without physical disabilities to train someone with special needs. If you are not living with a disability, you don’t need any assistance to go about but they need assistance.
Again, we don’t have enough schools for people with special needs. This is the only school training teachers for people with special needs. We have 21 federal colleges of education in Nigeria; eight are technical schools, 12 are conventional schools, while one is a special school and they treat us alike. They are not giving us special funding. But, with the support of some foundations and organisations that grant our students scholarships, we are coping but we are not getting enough. With the resources available, we are trying our best. We give credit to Tertiary Education Trust Fund; it has been very supportive. We are trying our best with the little that is given to us.
We have an average of 5,000 students. About 2,000 of them live with disabilities. Our focus is not only to help people with special needs alone but to help the people who would help them. Let’s take the case of deaf persons, for instance; if we are to train only them alone, who will interpret? So, we train sign language interpreters to help to communicate with people that are hearing impaired. At times we need more people without disabilities to help those with special needs. I think it is a ratio of three to two; that is why we have about 3,000 students without physical disabilities and 2,000 students with special needs. For instance, we have the highest concentration of people with disabilities – staff and students – in any institution in Nigeria.
Despite having special schools for people living with disabilities, we still have a high number of them begging for alms on the streets; where did the country get it wrong?
In the past, people locked their loved ones who had disabilities in the house. We are just trying to make them realise that there is ability in disability. But as I said earlier, the number of schools for the physically challenged is not enough. With enough schools for those with special needs at the primary and secondary school levels, it will be easy to get enough students at the tertiary level. The mandate of our college is to train teachers that would teach in primary and secondary schools. Invariably, we need enough schools to absorb our products. Unfortunately, most of our products are jobless.
The society still regards people with special needs as objects of pity, how wrong is this?
They are very wrong. Sincerely, this set of people is highly intelligent. Given equal opportunity others have, they would excel. So, they prefer empathy to sympathy. I had a blind student from Iwo (in Oyo State) back at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. On one occasion, I was coming to the South-West so I picked him up. He told me that he wanted to go to Ilorin from Oyo and I should take him to the park. He said he would find his way from there but I said no. He said I was insulting him and that he would find his way. With little training, if a blind student of this college wants to go to the medical centre from my office, he will not miss his way and same for the deaf. They are very interesting. They are better than what many people perceive them to be and that is to say there is ability in disability.
COVID-19 has affected different institutions differently, how has it affected the Federal College of Education (Special), Oyo?
People are talking about e-learning, but a significant number of our students would not be able to partake, especially the deaf community. If you are teaching online without an interpreter, it would be fruitless. Audio teaching alone without the video won’t work because they should be able to see. That also applies to blind students and students with other forms of disabilities. But we can do it provided we have the gadgets. All this is capital intensive. The COVID-19 pandemic was an emergency that nobody prepared for. We need to think out of the box. We need money to implement good ideas.
What would you do as an institution to ensure you are not helpless?
With lack of facilities, I am afraid there is little we can do. Even if you are ready to teach online, how many locations in Nigeria have good Internet facilities? Then think of the cost of buying data for students. The Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy needs to do more. We need to spend more on digital infrastructure. Already in the college, we have two highly powered ICT units and the third one is under construction to enable us broadcast our lectures but the system may not work where the receivers are away from the college. Not every student has the opportunity of using a smart phone. Even if we broadcast, if a deaf person is somewhere far off, they have to get an interpreter.
It appears that legislation alone is not the solution to the problem. People with special needs find it difficult to move from place to place; what must be done differently to make life easier for them?
One of the benefits that this college derived from the COVID-19 pandemic was realising that the public lacked information on what to do to help people with special needs. We recently perfected an agreement with a school called Royal Academy in Abuja to train citizens on how to relate with persons living with disabilities. It will enable us to touch so many communities. We are not talking about giving alms. Many parents cannot effectively handle their children living with disabilities. This would help in getting more help for this category of people. If every member of the society knows what to do, the problem would reduce drastically.
What are the immediate needs of the school?
In order to sustain the growth of the school, we want it to become a university of education because that is what the people want. Where others take 26 units courses, we take 30 in other to accommodate special needs. We want to become a university and then, we want perimeter fencing for security purposes.
University lecturers often embark on strike as being witnessed currently; what do you think should be done about it?
I think something is wrong with our system. We are professionals, but we argue that if politicians are earning so much, we must also earn as much, not realising the fact that ours is a calling. I think what would stop incessant strike is for government to be more realistic. They should not promise what is unachievable. Also, those in leadership positions and lecturers should ensure that their children study in Nigeria. Incessant strike actions are injurious to our educational life as a nation.