Ending the isolation of People with disabilities: speech delivered at the Focus on Disability Foundation event on 5 December 2015

December 5, 2016

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to speak at this event in London to mark the International Day of Persons With Disabilities which is celebrated on 3rd December.  After giving my address, I had to race back to Lancaster, because reports were coming out that the city was flooded.  I managed to kame it with great difficulty, to find out that the city was plunged into darkness.  It took about three or four days for Lancaster to get back to normal and by then, there was just so much to catch up on.  Now, one year on, I present an account of what I said on that day.

 

First, let me thank this isolated group for inviting me to share thoughts on how to end the isolation of disabled people.  I say we are an isolated group, because the small number of us gathered here could have joined the large crowds at one of the many football matches taking place today.  The great thing is that we all live in the UK, even if a sizeable proportion of us were not born here.  Which means that we have a broad perspective on the issues under discussion.

 

Which is also why the first question is actually to what extent are disabled people isolated.  After all, there are international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Conventions on Human Rights.  There is also the Marakesh treaty on international copyright which means that books produced in an accessible format in one country can be used by those in other signatory states.  In the United Kingdom, there is the Equality Act, and in the US the Americans with Disabilities act.  Many in these countries would point to these legislations and say how much disabled people are being brought into the mainstream.  We have computers that have been adapted, as well as other digital and electronic aides for people with all manner of disabilities.  In fact, accessibility is so mainstream that roads, buildings, parking spaces, … even medicine packages which have Braille instructions are routinely adapted for disabled people.  People would point to Stevie Wonder, David Blunket and even the disgraced Oscar Pistorius as evidence that disabled people are taking advantage of these and entering mainstream society.

 

But consider this. In most countries, about 15% of citizens are registered disabled; yet, in the UK, recent figures suggest that about 60% of disabled people of working age are not in employment.  How does this compare to the national employment statistics?  Despite all these laws, only about 5% of all books produced in the United Kingdom are in a format that is accessible to people with a print disability.  Why have we stopped at enacting our good intentions?

 

First, people don’t realise that disability affects them.  If we did an unofficial poll, we’d probably find that most people here have relatives who are disabled; or a sizeable number of us are ourselves disabled.  Others who should be here do not admit to or see themselves as disabled.

 

Growing up as a Nigerian teenager, there were some books that were all the rage; they were called pace setters.  I recall a friend reading a pace setter to me.  It told the story of a village chief who was being accused of something, I can’t remember what.  By all accounts, he was such a kind and noble man.  One of the character witnesses at his trial made the point that as an important chief, he had many wives.  It was generally assumed that he had 31 wives, but he actually had 32.  The reason why nobody knew of the 32nd wife was that she was blind and nobody would marry her, so this noble chief married the girl and shut her away in his big house.  Even as a teenager, I felt uncomfortable about the imagery here, and it was not only the polygamy portrayed that worried me.  First, why should this disabled lady be so hidden that nobody even knew her as one of the wives of this great chief?  And why was it considered a kindness to her to do this?

 

In Nigeria (and perhaps in the UK as well) other disabled people have been recategorised as elderly and therefore their needs are different.  Age is a major cause of disability, but also the most unrecognised one.  Many elderly people walk about with hearing aids but do not consider themselves disabled.  They believe they have lived a full life and their hearing aids are a sign of their age.  Others cannot even face the fact that they now need hearing aids.  Some use walking aids, others can no longer read; but they are not disabled, just elderly.  Even as they play less part in society, they are revered for their age.  But society is doing nothing about their real need to still be relevant.

 

Why?  Because in our culture, nobody is permitted to be less able than others.  If I admit that I cannot see you, something is missing … incomplete.  But it was ever thus.  As a Christian, I’m familiar with the story of the paralyzed man who was healed by Jesus after staying by a pool with other disabled people for several years.  The reason he did not get his healing earlier? No one was available to take him to the pool when the angel stirred the waters.  What isolation! People crowded into a place only because they’re disabled; All waiting for their healing.

 

I believed Jesus healed that man as a commentary on the society which did not accept him or provide a means for his acceess to other forms of healing.  I’m not so sure it was because he was disabled, because there were many others by the pool and we only have the record of one healing.  The Bible also says that when God had made everything, He looked at His creation and it was very good.  According to the Bible, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.  It is humans who see imperfections, not God.  He picked the most isolated one to demonstrate that God does not isolate us, we isolate each other.

 

So, for the 4th time, it is hoped that the disability bill will pass the legislative stage and be presented to the president of Nigeria; and that after three such presentations before past presidents, this one will receive assent and become law in Nigeria.  But is it really about the law?  Laws, technology, … all these things are the logical products, the progression of a liberal mind.  They’re there because we say that we cannot be advanced and still lack these laws or facilities.  But it is time to progress from logical concepts of equality to emotional compassion.  It is time to look at disabled people as humans, not consider the theoretical framework of disability and practical implementation of objectives.

 

The real question isn’t why disabled people are isolated, it’s “how will I feel if I am disabled? How will I want to live? And if I’m not disabled, can I give that kind of lifestyle to those who are “? Remember Jesus healing that paralized man.  It was about enabling, raising him from what we call the medical (or even the rehabilitation) model to the social model of disability.  The experts say that the social model is about looking at the person and providing what can enable him or her.  In the end, it’s not about cold facts, statistics, figures, logical conclusions.  It’s about warm feelings, compassion, neighbourliness and inclusiveness.

Advertisements

The Anatomy of an Unsolved Crime

December 16, 2015

I was standing at the top of the stairs, leaning against the stair rail when I heard it. It was breaking glass … it went on and on, perhaps for a minute or two … it sounded like breaking glass falling on marble. I now had two choices. I could go back to the bed where my phones lay, or come downstairs and confront the intruder. To pick my phone, I would have to be real quiet getting to it and calling 999. In my small house, I’d certainly be heard. But to confront the intruder? Surely that was suicide if I had no weapon and no sight. I was still pondering these when I woke up.

 

In truth, there were many differences between the dream and the events of a few days before. I was lying in bed, lazily drifting off to sleep. It was after midnight, so it would have been Saturday morning, 17 January 2015. I heard a ‘woooosh’ sound, as though something had dropped from some height onto my living room floor. My bedroom is above my living room. I was too sleepy to get up to investigate and to my mind, it couldn’t be anything major anyway. I’d completely forgotten the incident when I woke up in the morning, but when I went downstairs, there was something crunchy underfoot. It didn’t take long to establish it was glass, but where had it come from. And then I saw a stone at the foot of my settee. And why, when the central heating had kicked in, was the living room so cold?

 

This was obviously beyond me, so I made two calls. One was to a Nigerian couple who lived two doors away, Michael and Gbemi; the other was to Brian. Brian is my go-to person for anything from reading mail to fixing my printer. If he can’t find an immediate answer, he’ll always think of an alternative while working out the solution. But he’s more than that, he’s a rock, a solid friend. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone in church. He was round, in as long as it would take to sprint from his house. My neighbours were here too. I can still hear Gbemi’s voice as she approached the house. I knew there was trouble because she was just going “oh no! Oh no!”

 

It was only after my initial observers had described the scene and explained which window had been damaged that I called the police; they said they’d show up about lunchtime.   I knew from all the crime stories I’d read and watched that I shouldn’t disturb the scene of the crime. This worried Brian who wondered how I’d survive till the police came; I simply retired upstairs to wait..

 

I had called the police before and thought I knew what would happen. They usually came in pairs, but to my shock, only one gentleman visited me this time. He said there was no need for a scene of crimes investigation because the stone that hit my window was thrown with such force that it had broken in two. According to him, as it was a stone, they couldn’t get any fingerprint or other evidence. anyway.

 

Now, you probably don’t know this and I shouldn’t be saying it loud; but when I don’t like what I’m hearing, I argue and fight back. This time, I was so desperate that I even played the blind man card. I told him that in my view, this had to have some foreknowledge, as most people here actually know where I live. On several occasions, I’d be walking and someone would stop me, perhaps asking if he could help me cross the road or something. Then he’d say “I know you, you’re the one who lives …”. And he’d be right! I’m recognizable as one of only two black visually impaired people in this town. I told him that in my view, this could be either a hate crime or a crime against a vulnerable person.

 

I fought hard because all the time, there was a picture in my mind. Just three days earlier, on Wednesday 14th, I’d had a really long day. I’d gone to London on a very early train and had returned just in time to head for church and worship group. When I finally got home, at just before 10 PM, I was so tired that I just sat on the settee till I woke up at about 1 O’clock. What if that had been the night he’d struck? The sound would have been much clearer then, I’d have been directly facing that window. The stone might even have struck me on its way down to rest on the carpet. And if the guy had realised he’d startled me awake, his reaction would have been either fight or flight. and if as I suspected, he knew I couldn’t see him, would he have fled? Or fought? And if he had other stones with him?

 

But my policeman wasn’t budging on this one. He made only one concession, that he would ask for increased patrols around my house and that when doing their rounds, some police people would call on me to reassure me. I did get a crime report number, but I’m afraid that was the last time I saw any police man or woman. I cannot confirm that patrols were increased because nobody came to reassure me on the point.

 

So now I know, if a stone is thrown through my window, no need to keep away from the scene of crime, as the police can do nothing to trace the criminal. I could go about my life, which I did by calling my friends to help me clean up. Two sisters, Ola and Yinka, came from the other side of town and joined Michael and Gbemi. When she’s not cleaning vandalised houses, Yinka is a network administrator. She agreed with my brother who moonlights as my long distance security adviser, that I need some surveillance equipment, cameras, CCTVs, etc. She was so disgusted that she took photos before the clean up began.

 

Later on, Ola’s husband, Ayo came around to board up the window as a temporary measure. He showed me the torn curtain, and suggested that the guy with the stone might alsohave wanted to get into the house. Apparently, he’d tried to use the curtain to hold the window, near the break, to see if he could get to the latch and open it. And I didn’t think there was anything to worry about when I heard the sound?

 

I have moved on since that day. So many personal triumphs and some difficulties. I thank God for so much in 2015. The rest of the world has moved on too. Other crimes have been committed, even our church was broken into. And there have been floods, wars, terrorism; yesterday, as my sister celebrated her birthday, three people were climbing onto a rocket and heading for the international space station. In the light of all this, the incident was just another unsolved crime; after all, nobody got physically hurt and nothing was taken. The house was cleaned free of charge, it was probably tidier than the night before. All it cost was fixing the glass that was broken.

 

Even though I’ve moved on too (I haven’t had that dream since) I remember the day because tomorrow, it would be exactly 11 months since I woke up to crunching glass on my carpet floor. As I’ve already written here, the police seem to have forgotten the incident; but that’s because it didn’t personally affect them, they don’t see it from my perspective. You see, I know just how vulnerable I am. Most people say how wonderful it is that I’m always on the move; London today, Manchester tomorrow, the States, Nigeria, everywhere. But nobody knows of the times when people have walked up to me and shouted right in front of me to see if I’d flinch. About 20 years ago, some children were throwing stones at me; when I didn’t respond, one got so angry that he (or she, let’s not be sexist here) picked up several stones and flung them at me. In one sense, you could say this was just the sinister end of bullying the vulnerable. But it could be worse than that; it could have developed into a real attempt to exploit the vulnerable for advantage. I know there are limited resources, but I was still left asking myself exactly what would make the police take my case seriously.

 

Again, I must point out that this is really about me, just one person among 6 billion. So maybe I should say I learned something really wonderful. I learned about people caring for one another, naturally and without fuss. While taking the photos, Yinka was evidently upset, but we were laughing through it. Ola saw this as an excellent opportunity to upbraid me for my untidiness and introduce some form of order into my living room. On the next Tuesday morning, I was in church for GUGU (grown ups and growing ups).   I sometimes play nursery rhymes when I’m in town. Several of the parents had walked past my house, further confirmation that many know where I live. All were concerned to see that I was fine. In the end, for just one person out of 6 billion, how much does it matter what the police do or do not, when there are people who love and care so much? Thank you all, thank God for you.


vote a president that supports the rights of 25 million Nigerians

March 25, 2015

Here is the reproduction of a message I received. Please contact info@equalrightsnigeria.org.uk for more information.
Of the estimated 170 million Nigerians, the most educated guess is that
about 25.5 million people have one disability or other. This is a
staggering population, which matches that of several African countries put
together. But that is not surprising, giving the size of the country,
poor state of healthcare and other facilities and growing insurgency in
several parts of the country. What is most disconcerting is the attitude
of the presidency to the plight of such a large population.

Organisations representing people with disabilities have constantly
campaigned to have legislation to protect the rights of this large number
of people. In fact, three times, the Disability Rights bill has been
passed by the National Assembly, in 2003, 2010, and 2014. This means that
2 of the 3 presidents since 1999 have had the chance to put their assent
to this bill (President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, President Goodluck
Jonathan in 2010 and 2014). Sadly, none of them have, but more worryingly,
none has given any reason why. It is as if 25.5 million people are so
insignificant that our presidents cannot be bothered to even explain why
their rights are not important. All we have ever wanted through the bill
is:
1.Guarantee that people with disabilities have equal rights to jobs,
voting, education and other amenities which others take for granted;
2.Ensure that governments and citizens recognize and respect disabled
people;
3.Give disabled people the confidence to participate in national and
community life;
4.Allow Nigeria to stand tall among other nations who have already
adopted these provisions and to nationalise its international
obligations entered into when it signed the United Nations Convention on
Rights of Disabled People (UNCRDP) and the Marakesh Treaty.

Let us try to put this in perspective:
The population of disabled people represents nearly 15 % of Nigerians!
Disability is not indiscriminate, especially with growing insurgency and
poor facilities; it can strike anyone at any time, regardless of status,
tribe, effort or faith (Bible characters such as Jacob, Samson and Paul
were disabled)!
Some disabled people do not admit to their disability for many reasons,
but it does not mean they can live fully independent lives; some have
very poor vision, serious back strain or even arthritis which makes
movement difficult, but is not observed by others!
In Nigeria, you cannot discriminate against a person on grounds of
tribe, gender or religion, but there must be several tribes with less
than 25.5 million people!
As individuals, Nigerians are known to be very compassionate people, but
our president has not displayed a similar attitude!
In other parts of the world, people with disabilities are making great
contributions to their country in sports, music, politics, science and
technology, etc, but not in Nigeria where they either do not have the
rights to enable them do so or are prevented by structural problems with
this bill could have addressed!
Disabled people are actually frustrated by all the skills and talents
hidden inside them which they want to bring out for the national good!
The rest of the world has now recognized that if one part of the body is
impaired, the rest can function very well indeed, and encouraging this
functionality can bring great good to the disabled person, their
community and even the world at large!

So as we prepare for elections, ask?
Is it right to disenfranchise nearly 15 % of the population of Nigeria?
Is it right for our president to consider such a large number of people
so insignificant as not to even offer a good reason why he does not
intend to sign a bill which has already been passed by the national
assembly?
What would Nigeria gain if such hidden talent and enthusiasm is released?

Please ask your candidates about their attitude to 25.5 million people,
please vote empowerment, enfranchisement, rights, growth, freedom!!!

(Please email this to people you know.)
Thank you,

Seun Peters


Let’s talk about Oscar

February 25, 2013

Last year, hee was a hero in South Africa and the rest of the world; he was hailed for medalling in the Olympics, despite being a double amputee. Now, he stands accused of premeditated murder, his sponsors have abandoned him, and he has only his family to comfort him when he sobs uncontrollably in court. But let’s talk about Oscar Pistorius. Who’s this guy?

Before you read on, I must warn that my views here are my own alone, I don’t know of anyone who shares them, so don’t blame anyone else. I should also state from the beginning that this is a very difficult subject and it should be handled delicately. If I fail to do so, I apologise in advance. I realise that there is a family, (probably two) hurting at the death of Reeva Steenkamp. Her family can’t explaine it, they knew Oscar, probably liked him before this time. His family also knew her and it is hoped that they liked her enough to mourn her loss, even if it’s overshadowed by what they feel for their own flesh and blood.

What most people have done is speak their minds, without recognizing how difficult it must be for all concerned. So, before I say anything else, I want to say straightaway that I wish I didn’t have to write this and add to the horrible publicity around both families. Both Oscar and Reeva Steenkampwere in the limelight before the shocking incident that we’re all talking about. Now, misery is heaped on publicity.

But I want to add a little to the great debate of whose fault is it that Oscar shot Reeva Steenkamp. Of course I don’t know either of them, all my conclusions are drawn from what I’ve read or heard and how I’ve applied them to what I know. Who is Oscar? We all know he’s a disabled athlete. Let me add that I think he’s a very driven person, driven more than most others by the need to succeed. He needs to prove something to people. He didn’t want to compete as a disabled athlete, so he decided to compete with nondisabled athletes; and he did well.

Why did he do that? Because many disabled people feel that they’re hidden in a corner, treated as though they lived in a ghetto. Oscar wanted to tell everyone that he should not be regarded first as disabled, then as a human. He wanted us all to know that it’s the other way around. He’s first and foremost a human being who just happens to have a disability.

I know that feeling too. I have emailed several people, (or spoken to them on the telephone), who didn’t know I was blind until the met me. I’ve observed their reaction on finding out that I’m blind. I secretly laughed, because I won the argument. They first saw me as a human when we spoke on the phone, then they realised that I’m blind. Suddenly, that took over all their considerations, but before then, I was just another person.

But this is a hard place, because it means that in their public and private lives, some disabled people constantly having to prove to others that they’re human first. I don’t know how it is in South Africa, but I know of Nigeria. Some of my blind friends are doing this all the time, even with their in-laws. I know of someone in particular who told me that his in-laws don’t think he’s capable of doing several of the cultural things that others are doing. He’s having to just do them, despite what they say, like “don’t worry, we’ll get (someone else) to do it”.
If I have to be honest, I’ll admit that there are things I cannot do as a blind person, but I hate to admit it, because of what it means to others. So, I fight harder to prove this to others. One of my greatest problems is reading printed information. In the UK, they come at you like missiles. If I hold a piece of paper, I don’t know if it’s a cheque for £1000 or a bill for £2000. How do I find out? Do I take the pile of letters to a friend, who’s busy sorting through his own papers? Do I keep them until the bailiffs come and seize my possessions, or until the cheque is no longer valid? One day, my pastor’s wife challenged me. She said everyone in my church longs to help me sort these problems, if only I’d tell them. So, I’m trying, but I still feel I’m imposing on them.

Tackling visual information makes me feel vulnerable, so I understood Oscar’s testimony, when he kept stressing that without his prosthetic limbs, he feels insecure. But let’s take this argument further. It’s unpleasant but true; some people take advantage of disability to hurt the vulnerable. I have a blind friend who was set upon by a group of people. They knew he couldn’t see them, so they’d silently approach him and hit him hard, then silently disappear. They did this for a while. Since I know this is possible, I’m careful when I move around, because I know I’m equally vulnerable to such an attack. I’m glad that I don’t have a gun, but if I sense that sort of danger, I do wave my stick in a menacing way. And would you blame me? Perhaps, some of the times I’ve felt insecure, nothing at all was going to happen to me. Would I take the risk though?

And if I felt so vulnerable about myself, what about if I felt responsible for someone else. I just explained that disabled people feel they have to prove that they can be responsible, even for members of their own family. If he feels that he has a duty as a man to be responsible for the girl he claims to love, how would he react if he perceives danger? If he failed to protect her, someone is bound to say that it was his disability that prevented him from fully protecting and defending her. I presume Reeva Steenkamp herself would not have thought that, when people are in love, there’s a bit of understanding, and sometimes, an appreciation of each other’s limitation. But others?

I’ve seen how this can affect actions. I once made my sister cry by accusing her of not trusting me to look after her daughter. Anyone who’s seen me and K girl, or even seen how my sister trusts me with her would know the cruelty of that accusation. She’s been visiting me alone since she was 5 years old. It was a rare error on my part, for which I’m still sorry. After she’d explained the facts to me, it became clear that she was reacting to circumstances that I wasn’t aware of, and that her actions were honest, probably even correct. But my reactions? Before and after that incident, K girl and I faced the bustle of UK cities together, hefting heavy suitcases, negotiating the journey from Lancaster to Manchester, Heathrow, or to some friends in East London. My sister never dreamt of saying someone else could handle her daughter through those situations. If after having my niece visit for that many years, I still felt the need to ask the question, what does that say of me?

In the light ofy own experiences, I interpreted Oscar Pistorius’ statements differently from the prosecution. He says he and his girlfriend love each other. I hope that is true. He says that they’d had a great evening, Again, I hope that is true. Then, as she slept, he left the room for the balcony, without his prosthetic limbs. I think that if he felthe’d disturb her by putting them on, nd if he only wanted to enjoy some fresh air, he’s entitled to leave his guard down sometimes. I’ve done it several times, though I won’t tell you how. He didn’t hear her leave the bed, it is possible that she woke up when he left the bedroom. He hears sounds in the bathroom, which he knows is not very secure because workmen have been there with a ladder. He’s thinking fast, probably not considering everything at this point. He knows he has to protect his girlfriend, and he’s not very mobile … That’s where the vulnerability kicks in. What happens after that is pretty confusing, even for Oscar. At this point, he says he called out to her but got no answer, but remember, he’s focussed, like any driven person on something. He knows how to focus and sometimes, that can block outside factors, or he wouldn’t have got those medals. He silently picks up his gun and heads for the locked bathroom. I’m not going to attempt to describe what happens next, but honestly, I’m glad I don’t have a gun, and I’m not placed in that situation.

The sad truth is that we can’t get Reeva Steenkamp’s version. For me, that’s more important than the prosecution’s views. They’re only working from clues, preconceptions of crime and duty to the state. Outside of those things, these are humans, and they react like humans do. Human emotion is difficult enough to decipher, because each person has an individual makeup which affects their own reactions. The prosecution does have to prove a case though, and having said my piece, I intend to remain silent until we hear the court’s verdict.

However, I can imagine that whatever the results, Oscar Pistorius will leave with his actions all the rest of his life. It’s not about the charge of premeditated murder or loss of sponsorships, it’s about the girlfriend he killed. Nobody is saying he’s killed before, so it’s safe to conclude he’s not a natural murderer. That means that taking another life will sit on his conscience, whether it was accidental or by design, and if it’s the life of the one you love? …


The Highway code: In Braille?

April 16, 2012

The March 2012 RNIB catalogue of new braille books contains an entry titled “The Official Highway Code” published by Driving standards agency. You don’t believe me? It’s in 3 braille volumes and the RNIB order number is 22805802. I would have missed this entry; when I get the catalogue, I usually look out for works of fiction. But I’m glad I explored the catalogue this time. It provided me one opportunity for uproarious laughter. The Highway code … in Braille?

But wait! Before you decide they’ve totally gone mad. On reflection, it’s probably a good idea to give blind people their own copy of the highway code. It must have been a very hard decision, for as the catalogue informs me, it was printed in 2007, and it’s just been produced in braille this year. There are books printed in 2012 that are already in braille.

Maybe this book will help me sort out the facts from rumours. For example, I used to think that the pedestrian had the right of way on a zebra crossing. Some people told me, but I’m not sure all drivers agree. Judging by the number of cars that have whizzed past my ankle as I tentatively stepped on the crossing, perhaps it’s not in the highway code … time to find out. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure that the code has any guidance for drivers at night. Should they wait at trafic lights when the green man shows up? I remember one morning a few years ago. It was about 5:30 and I was racing to the station to catch a train for the airport, so I could meet my dad. As I approached the lights, it started to beep. During the day, I had crossed this light so often that I knew that when it beeped, cars would normally stop and I could step across. But this morning, there was a car speeding towards me, and some commonsense prevailed on me to wait. I figured it was not the time to quote the law. While the light was still beeping, the car sped off, leaving me to wonder what could have happened if I believed the rumours that cars stop when the lights beep.

Many a time, I’ve been stepping across the road when the lights had supposedly permitted me. I would bump into a car that had crossed the line and just stopped. Maybe the driver saw the lights late, or maybe the sudden realisation that disobeying the lights this time might lead him/her onto the path of an oncoming bus affected the decisionmaking

To tell the truth, I’m not sure what to do with the lights. As I raced to church yesterday, late as usual, I approached another set of lights. I waited, but noticed that the cars had stopped. I wondered why, because I was sure the green man hadn’t come up, and I dared not cross the road. But the lead driver touched his car horn and I got the message. I rushed across the street shouting my thanks.

Someone once told me that cyclists are not supposed to cycle on the pavement, but on the road. So why is it that the one way bridge near my house is so full of cyclists, on the pavement, going against the trafic? The pavement is already so full , with other pedestrians, prams, wheelchairs, scooters, and lots more … and I’m usually late for something, or laden with shopping. What’s more, they expect me to stand aside while they break the law. Or perhaps that was a rumour too, and cyclists can do anything they like.

Next time you see me, I’ll probably be carrying a heavy rucksack containing all 3 volumes of the Highway Code. I’ll be ready to whip out the right volume, wave it at the offending driver or cyclist and say “you’re breaking the law, read this … oh you can’t, so I’ll read it to you”. Then again, I might discover that I’d been fed all these rumours, and drivers are not meant to obey lights, cyclists can do whatever they like and pedestrians take the law into their hands when they step onto the street.


Being interviewed by Aloted

December 7, 2011

I have a good friend, Victoria Oruwari, who is visually impaired. She is very unhappy about an interview that was posted in a Lagos newspaper, which portrayed her in a light she didn’t really like. What can she do? Especially as she typed her name in Google recently and found that the interview had moved to 7th place on the entries under her name. It used to be in 10th place. She says it means more people are reading it.

I realise that by writing this, I may be persuading more people to read the interview, pushing it even higher up, … that is if it is true that the more people read a story, the more popular it is. However, I write this because of my perception of journalists who interview people. I look at it as a game, the journalist is trying to sell a newspaper and the interviewee is trying to sell his/her image. Sometimes, (but very rarely) their interests coincide, but only sometimes. I haven’t seen a newspaper hurt by an interview, except in the libel courts. But I have heard of many complaining interviewees.

I suppose Itoo have suffered a little in this game. On 15 May, 1987, a Nigerian newspaper published an interview with 5 visually impaired students of the University of Lagos. I was one of the interviewees; I remember wondering how all 5 of us said the same things, yet the newspaper managed to find a different angle for each of us. I was portrayed as the cultured one, dressed in branded clothes. I recall that one of the most importantthings I said from the angle of the interviewee was that I had a girlfriend. Another friend of mine was portrayed as the troublemaker and his observations on the inaccessible entrance to Mariere hall was prominent. I too had noted this point, but my own observations received less coverage.

I don’t know how this interview affected the sales of the Sunday Concord, but it had two effects on the visually impaired community of Unilag. First, we were all called to meet some senior officials of the university and warned not to bring the name of the university into disrepute. The open ditch outside the entrance to Mariere hall remained till I left, I still encountered it while visiting some friends in the mid1990s.

On a positive note, a lecturer set up a fund which procured equipment for some visually impaired students. Professor Abiola Ojo died suddenly a few years ago, and I wrote a short post about his good works. https://notion.wordpress.com/2009/01/17/104/

I write all this because I’ve been interviewed again. Actually, this was very different. You can read all about it at http://alotedbabe.blogspot.com and this time, I hope you enjoy it. Aloted has done what all journalists should do, put down word for word what the interviewee has said. That way, she doesn’t get accused of manipulating my words. Of course, it helps that she’s a really good friend and wouldn’t want to distort anything I say, just to achieve increased readership of her blog. To tell the truth, she made no claims of being a journalist, which is a good thing. For that reason, if you don’t like the piece, blame me, I confess they’re all my words, except for the questions and the title.

I’m not sure this was planned, but Aloted’s blogpost came out a day before the international day for disabled people. In your own way, you increased awareness of disability, thanks Aloted.

But even with full responsibility, do I feel better about the interview? First, I feel really humbled and honoured that Aloted (and now her readers who have commented on the story) think I have something to say. At the same time, I’m not really sure I said it as well as I should. Maybe I sounded like one of those pompous ones who think they have a philosophy to spread. Maybe I went on for much too long (like I’m doing now). Maybe a more critical reader than myself would come up with some analysis that doesn’t put me in such a good light after all.

First confession, Although I agreed readily to the interview, I sat on it for a while. I suppose I was a little ambivalent, but here’s the second confession, having answered the questions, I’m curious for reaction.

For all that she’s not a professional journalist, Aloted asks searching questions. She made me really consider what I was saying. Maybe this is the way a real professional should go about it, put the actual views of the interviewee. I still don’t want to give the wrong impression about myself. Maybe responding to interview questions is like dressing up. You know when you’re leaving the house that people are looking at you. You may want to create the impression of a sharp dresser, a cool dude, an area boy or just your ordinary inconspicuous citizen. Whatever you put on, you do it consciously, or at least subconsciously, second guessing what the man on the street is seeing.

I don’t think it’s supersensitive or vain to wonder what you’re thinking after you’ve read Aloted’s piece. If I didn’t say it very well there, here’s all I really wanted to communicate. I’m visually impaired, but I have faith and hope. There’s a lot to learn about visual impairment, but there’s also a lot for visually impaired people to learn about sighted people. Understanding each other is the key to all the improvements we desire. I want to, and I can live a full life, and I’d love you all to join me in it. I know there’s much more, because each person is so multidimensional, a few words can’t do sufficient justice. So perhaps I shouldn’t bother trying to explain myself to you, I just can’t manage it after all. But if you don’t think it strange, let me know what you think of the interview.

God bless.


Mum Heath

October 9, 2009

When I was in primary school in Nigeria, I used to read a bi-monthly magazine for young christians, called “The Torch”. Another was called “Flash” and yet another “Searchlight”. These were produced in braille by the Torch Trust for the Blind, and mostly contained articles which first appeared in other print magazines. But there was always an editorial, usually by someone who called herself Mum Heath.

Much later, I discovered that this lady was called Stella Heath. When I got to England, I even got to meet her. I went with a friend to what was then called Torch House in Hallaton Hall, just outside MarketHarborough. This was in 1993 I think. Her husband Ron was still alive then, and they took some time to talk to me. I was awestruck by their simple faith. They said how they’d pray for something, and someone would just donate it. I don’t mean £100, I mean braille presses, buildings, etc. And for them, it was just natural, just quitely calling on God.

I remember spending a day in the Torch library. I love to read. I found a book which had been out for a while, telling the history of Torch. I believe the first lines were “it all started with …” and the mention of a girl. Can’t remember her name now. Apparently dad Heath was a bank manager and they lived in Sussex, where they ran a home group. There was this girl who had not yet become a Christian, but had started to attend the group. That was when they discovered there was no literature in braille for her.

And that was how Mum Heath and friends began to produce braille material for this girl. When they discovered that the whole house was full of braille, it occurred to them that they needed a bigger place. God provided Hallaton House. When I visited, they’d used up most of the house for braille production, had converted some of the sheds, etc. Even that place couldn’t hold Torch activities. It was really interesting how many people would come in as volunteers, stay in some of the rooms provided, get fed, work all day and return to their homes, feeling most fulfilled. I remember the staff taking me on walks through the village. It was for me a most wonderful time.

The purpose of the visit was to explore setting up a Torch Fellowship group in Morecambe. It happened for a few years, then stopped, but my impression of Mum and Dad Heath lasted. I believe there’s a photo of me reading a book in the old Torch House. Or maybe it’s lost now. When I was in Nigeria, all the blind people knew three British institutions: the Royal National Institute for the Blind, (or as it is now known, the Royal National Institute of Blind People), the National Library for the Blind (now merged with the RNIB), and Torch. It was only when I got to the UK that I found out about such charities as Guide Dogs for the Blind, Action for Blind People, etc. To think that one of those organisations was a specifically Christian charity. When I visited in 1993, they even had a project for transcribing Russian Bibles. They had, )and still have) projects in Malawi, and sent books all over the world. I know that from the letters in the penfriend pages, and from those who had passed their beginners Christian courses.

I write all these because I heard that last week, Mrs Stella Heath went to be with the Lord. By the time I started to visit Torch House again, she was no longer there. And things had changed too. Torch had moved to a purpose built place in the middle of MarketHarborough, all office space. Accommodation was moved somewhere else. The chief executive is now a lovely man called Dr Gordon Temple. It looked and felt more like a modern charity, and to tell the truth, I missed the old one. Indeed, I first visited the new building as a member of a project to present a programme about disability on Premier Christian Radio.

Though it faces the challenges of modern charities, it is still a Christian institution. Every morning at 9, all the staff gather in the chapel for a time of devotion. They sing from hymn books which have been transcribed in Torch House, read from a daily devotional, also produced there and commit the items on the calendar to God. The first time, it felt strange leaving the building for their guesthouse. But it’s run by a lovely couple who have been round the world on mission.

It turns out that Torch is 50 years this year. It’s amazing, it all started with a girl who did not have Christian literature in braille. Thank God for the excellent work that Torch is doing all over the world. And thank God for Stella and Ron Heath, who I still call Mum and Dad Heath, because they responded to a need and filled the life of a 7 year old in far away Nigeria, (who was in a boarding school far from home) with books about Christ. I took the decision to be a Christian much later, but those books certainly helped.