Nigeria’s first deaf female lawyer, Catherine Chinyere Edeh-Nnadi is a study in courage. An alumnus of University of Ilorin, Kwara state and Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, USA, the Enugu state-born advocate of inclusive education is also a disability rights campaigner, social entrepreneur and motivational speaker.
The founder/coordinator, Voice of Disability Initiative (VDI) spoke to Saturday Sun through a sign language interpreter on the challenges faced by deaf students in pursuit of tertiary education, gender violence and other issues. MAGNUS EZE conducted the interview in Enugu.
Why are you pushing for inclusive education in Enugu State University of Science and Technology?
My sole aim is to give back to the society and because there was no such facility in the whole of South East, I had to travel all the way to University of Ilorin, so I decided to bring this to the South East because many deaf people abandoned their education at secondary level. That’s why I initiated the project of floating the deaf resource centre in Enugu State University of Science and Technology. Luckily for me, the good people of Enugu state were interested; the Vice Chancellor of ESUT, the registrar, Speaker of Enugu State House of Assembly and many others liked the idea. We wrote proposal to ESUT and it was approved; we’ve also sourced for a professional sign language interpreter to become the pioneer sign language interpreter there. She was the best graduating student of sign language in the University of Jos and hails from Enugu state. ESUT recently appointed her and she is undergoing training, very soon she would occupy her position.
But the challenge now is how to get deaf students to enroll in ESUT; many are frightened that ESUT fees are high and that they don’t have the facility to manage deaf students, they are still having the erroneous feeling that it’s waste of resources, how do we engage sign interpreters without having deaf students get admission. That’s why we have decided to step up the advocacy to let Nigerians know that a deaf resource centre has been established in ESUT and encourage parents of deaf children who have finished secondary school to allow them seek admission in ESUT.
We also have the plan that certain number of deaf students that will be the first to get admission will be tuition free till graduation as a way of encouraging others.
What was your experience as a deaf student pursing education in University of Ilorin and even in the United States of America?
Before you get admission in University of Ilorin, you will visit the deaf resource centre in the university; they will discuss with you and it’s the centre that will decide whether you’ll be admitted or not after going through your records. So, after securing the admission, as a student, you will go to your department, copy the timetable and submit to the deaf resource centre. It’s the centre that will take the responsibility of sharing you among the interpreters using the timetables submitted by the various deaf students. You don’t need to run to the centre to remind them anytime you have lecture as the sign language interpreter assigned to you will always use the timetable to be in the class even ahead of you.
How many deaf students were in your class both at Unilorin and the law school?
I was the only deaf law student in my class but before me, the institution had produced a deaf lawyer and the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife was the first to produce deaf lawyer. But I am the first deaf female lawyer in the country.
I must confess that there were challenges and frustrations but I didn’t give up. I was encouraged by the kind of assistance I received from especially the law faculty in Unilorin. In fact, once the lecture is over, my interpreter will return to the centre and I will remain in the faculty; so, whenever I missed lectures, my lecturers and classmates usually assist by providing me with the lecture notes to to copy.
But my greatest challenge was in the law school because there was neither sign language interpreter nor deaf resource centre there. I had to start from the scratch. When I applied for law school admission, I had to go to the headquarters in Bwari Abuja. I learnt that they have what they called special centre for special students, but they had not handled my kind of case. The first deaf person that was called to bar finished from the Lagos campus and used to hide his disability but I don’t hide my disability. So, I came to sensitise them that I was a deaf student and there was serious argument as to my eligibility. The Head of Department, Academics then, suggested that he will take me to the National Hospital, Abuja for cochlear implant so that I will be fit to study at the law school but I turned down the offer because I came for my studies not for cochlear implant. After much argument, I was privileged to have a course mate who studied abroad and knew how they handle special students abroad. The person accompanied me and we approached the school management and asked them to provide me with sign language interpreter, that it’s my right. It was then that the management of the law school employed sign language interpreter.
What do you tell the government about people with special case like you?
I am telling them to stop playing politics with us. Every administration that comes will start afresh to push for the disability bill in the National Assembly; the bill will pass all the legislative stages but they will keep dribbling us. When it gets to the President for assent, we will hear one story or the other until that administration goes, then when another comes, they will begin again to waste resources without achieving anything. There is so much discrimination against people with disability in Nigeria, the educational system is not inclusive. Some schools on their own decided to be inclusive and not through the effort of government but thank God that President Muhammadu Buhari recently assented to the disability rights bill. I believe with this national law protecting the disabled in Nigeria, it will be compulsory for all the schools to upgrade to inclusive education in the country. And when the disabled people graduate, there should be jobs for them and not the kind of frustration that all of us are facing today.
What has the Enugu state government done to help inclusive education?
Through relentless effort, a lot of graduates were employed into the state service during the recent employment exercise. Besides, this effort to make ESUT inclusive is also with the moral support of the Enugu state government. Also, we are working on producing the disability rights bill which was earlier abandoned; we want to reintroduce it in the state House of Assembly and seek the governor’s assent.
What’s your take on disability-based gender violence?
I decided that I must marry a deaf person like me because I didn’t want for instance where the family of my husband will be a challenge to me, maltreat me and gossip about my disability. They can also influence their son to maltreat me; I know the society we live in and how it views physically challenged people, the discrimination. That’s why I decided to marry somebody like me. But since I got married, my husband is from Enugu state too, not that we’ve not had differences, but we sort them out by ourselves. We’re living happily and promoting each other. But if a woman with disability marries a man without disability, no matter how they love each other, it will get to a point that the man will start maltreating her because he will say that she has become some form of obstacle to his success or other things. It will take much to keep that marriage; the lady will have to endure so much and with time, he will turn her into a punching bag.
Even in government, a lot is against girls and women with disability. They know me and how stubborn I am in the Enugu Government House; I don’t just take nonsense. Women with disabilities suffer a lot even in the hospital especially the pregnant ones. The case is worse if you are pregnant and on wheel chair. They will say look at, this one is pregnant as if it is a sin for somebody on wheel chair to get pregnant. Then when the person is deaf, it becomes another matter altogether if there is no interpreter. Even in an emergency, when they hear that the person is deaf, they will say please stay aside that they have people to attend to. All these increase the mortality of women with disabilities; so much challenge, so much discrimination that we must all join hands to fight.