I have been wanting to blog about my dear friend for a while now but didn't know where to start as there is so much to write about him so I decided to interview him. I was chuffed when he agreed to let us into his world. Thank you Ife!!!!
A bit of warning- this is a long read but I assure you totally worth it.
Ok let me not make this post any longer. Enjoy the interview.
|Dr Ifeolu Akintunde|
I was born in Nigeria, on 10 November 1967. Shortly after birth, it was discovered that my eyesight was not as good as expected. From then, my parents began the search, through ophthalmologists, educational institutions and friends, to ensure that I received the best education and care possible. I attended the Pacelli School for blind children in Lagos, King's College, also in Lagos, and after spending the 1984-1985 session at the University of Jos, resumed as a direct entry law student at the University of Lagos. I graduated in 1988, then went to the law school. After being called to the bar, and serving, I came to do a masters in international relations and strategic studies at Lancaster university. It was here that I first discovered the difference IT can make to the education and employability of blind people. I stayed on, did a few computer related and disability courses at Lancaster and Morecambe college and then began my doctorate at Lancaster university. I finished that in 2001. Having searched for work over a period of several years, it occurred to me that I might perhaps consider self-employment, so I set up IOA Consults in 2007.
How and when did you become visual impaired (VI)?
I was born with a medical condition which meant that my eyesight was not good. Gradually it began to worsen, though to someone who was used to living life in a school for blind people, that deterioration was imperceptible. My family observed sometimes that the things I could see at one time, I could no longer see later. I also have cataracts, which the doctors in Lancaster advice I should not remove, because it would make no material difference. Let us say that we are in disagreement on this point.
I am aware that some VI people have some degree of sight does this apply to you?
In fact, this is a difficult question to answer, because I never knew how much sight I had, relative to other people. But I can say categorically that my eyesight has worsened, because there was a time I could read the bold newspaper headlines. Sometimes, I believe I can see things, not just shadows. I may be walking fast, and just notice something in my way. I try to clarify whether it is a shadow or not, and sometimes, I can plainly see that I see more than the shadow. At other times, I'm not so sure.
What are the day to day challenges of being visually impaired and how do you survive?
There are many, such as reading letters, asking for assistance, etc. There is now technology that can assist in many of these things. A good optical character recognition software can help read letters, but they're expensive. So, I often have lots of letters piled up on my frontdoor. Other times, there's a psychological need to know what's happening around you. I once spoke to a girl, who spent the entire period exchanging written notes with her companion. It felt to me that those notes were about me. Sometimes, people are a little apprehensive about talking to me, which worries me, because I want to shout that I'm no different from others. On one occasion, I was being guided in Lagos and fell into a gutter. I got up quickly to reassure my guide, but she was so upset that she talked to God instead. She'd been telling me about a healing meeting and what she said was "God, and you know I was only trying to tell him about your meeting". On another day, here in Lancaster, I went out with a friend. I was looking for a house to move to and just as I approached an estate agent, I met my friend and she walked me into the agency. The lady who answered us simply presumed that my friend was actually my carer and proceeded to explain to "my carer" all about the houses on offer. Interestingly, my friend had no clue about my housing needs and kept pointing out that she'd only met me outside the estate agents. On the whole, I suspect that too many people are uncomfortable about meeting visually impaired people, and that makes us really lonely for the people who can treat us as normal. How do I cope? The most important thing is my faith. I once spoke to a group of 12 year olds and someone asked me why I'm still a Christian, despite being blind. So, after giving the glib answer, I went home and asked God, and He showed me so much. He showed me that what I've learned as a blind person, I couldn't have learned any other way. Like the fact that there are so many different types of people in the world, like empathy, like the need to be outgoing and friendly, even the independence of recognizing that I can't always expect someone to be there for me.
How do you respond to negative reaction to your visual impairment?
I believe that negative reaction is two way. It's also a result of ignorance. Not many blind people really know how sighted people are, and there is a lot of stereotyping both ways. I like to tell people about visual impairment and to encourage them to explore my world. I also try to be as independent as possible. This worries my family, but I have to keep reminding them that if I asked people to do everything for me, they'll get tired. I have so many letters on my frontdoor, crying to be read. Fortunately, offices can now provide me with copies in Braille or via email. Friends can also send emails, so I act on the presumption that any letters on my door has either been sent to me in another format already, or is unimportant. Every now and again, someone might visit and we'll look through them. I find that there are one or two that I should know about, but I'm generally correct. Maybe someone sent me a letter without realising I'm blind. I take the details and contact them and the matter is resolved. I also try to learn about the world of sighted people. I know that not many blind Nigerians like movies like I do. When I was younger, I could recite the words of "Sound of Music". You might have thought that was normal, but not if you're a blind person.
As a VI person who has to rely on his other senses, what other senses have been enhanced as a result of your visual impairment?
That's another tough question, because I'm not sure how it works. For example, I know a few people who are visually and hearing impaired, so you see, it's not a natural presumption that all senses are automatically enhanced. I think it's how well you use them. For example, I never had a diary, calculator or address book. I used to be good at remembering addresses and phone numbers, until the computer and mobile phone came with address book features. Now, I'm not so good. So I still try to do basic numeracy and can add sums with 2 or 3 digits. I've resisted using the calculator features for that reason. The other day, I tested the theory about developing other senses. I have now concluded that all senses are always working, but we can't really distinguish which one is doing what, because we're so busy concentrating on the results. If you're walking and you avoid an oncoming car, you have to ask, did you see the car or hear it. Most times, you're not really sure, you just presume you saw it, but when you're blind, or deaf, you're really sure how you knew the car was approaching, because the other sense has been eliminated from your calculation. I once took a friend on a smell tour of the shops in Lancaster. It was really interesting for her to discover that you could simply walk into a shop and smell its contents. It's true that some research has now come out to suggest that departmental stores actually enhance the smells of their products, but we don't notice that, we're just subconsciously drawn to the shops.
Please tell us about your education and the challenges and triumphs of been a visually impaired student studying in Nigeria?
Education was difficult, but fun. I went to a school for blind children at primary level. We were taught to Braille and type. I once joked that at 8, when I passed my typing test, I could have been employed as a clerk in an office. Then, nobody knew that the computer would become predominant and the typewriter keyboard would be used by all. We just thought it was for blind people and secretaries. We were told we were receiving the very best education in the world, and we believed it. When I got to secondary school, I had to live and work with sighted people. There were only 2 blind people in my class at that time. The rest of the class was curious, and before we came to understand each other, they even played some games, (even dangerous ones). But some of them are still my best friends now. I find it's easier for younger people to understand visual impairment, before they grow old and develop fixed viewpoints. We had few books and I depended mostly on notes and friends who could spare time from their football to read to me. It was even tougher, studying law. I was perhaps the first visually impaired student in UNILAG to study law and I was one in a class of several hundred students. And we needed a lot more books. I'm sure I could have done much better if I didn't use mostly notes for my answers. In fact, I had part of a book for an exam I did and I heard later that the lecturer showed people my answer scripts as a model. My coping strategy was to assimilate as much as I could from the notes. If you transfer that skill to a whole book, you can imagine. It wasn't cramming, because a question can easily fool the crammer, it was looking at the points and remembering what they are so you can apply them. Now, I hear that blind people in Nigeria have computers, which is good. But they still don't have the books, and the internet access is poor. Besides, just getting a scanner and an optical character recognition software would mean that they could scan all their books onto an electronic format, but in Nigeria, that's only available to 2 or 3 institutions who are understaffed and under resourced and have to provide for the entire country. The important thing is that more visually impaired students are studying in various universities, and communication means they can share their experiences and interact with their lecturers and universities in a different way.
How does this compare to studying in the UK where you gained your Master's and Doctorate degrees?
When I came to the UK, I thought everything would work out brilliantly. I was surprised that it took so long to get books in Braille, (6 weeks, as opposed to several years in Nigeria) but in the 6 weeks, my colleagues had made substantial progress, and a lot more was expected of me. Fortunately, as I neared the end of my doctorate, the internet had gained ground and I was in a great position to study effectively. I had access to every material on the internet, journal articles, etc. I may not have been able to properly interact with graphic materials like maps, for which I still required help. I'm still a serious campaigner for IT as a leveller between sighted and visually impaired people.
Having lived in both the UK and Nigeria, how do you compare your living experiences as a VI person?
Every time I return to Nigeria, I always feel at home in a way I can't explain. That is, until I want to get things done and I can't. I can't walk on the streets of big cities because there are huge ditches and refuse, I can't get the information I need because telecommunications is so expensive and inaccessible. I once organised a conference in the UK, from my home. That included interacting with conference delegates, arranging the venue, accommodation, etc. When I eventually arrived at the venue, everyone was surprised that I had a visual impairment. That's not possible in Nigeria. I was much younger when I lived full time in Nigeria, so I did not mind hopping on and off the Lagos buses. But even my visually impaired friends can't do that now. They're all busy trying to acquire cars, even though they're underemployed. And when they get the cars, they have to pay for drivers as well. I thought that employment would be easy here, but it's not. Employers found some ingenious reasons for not employing me, because they couldn't fall foul of the disability discrimination act. There is no disability discrimination act in Nigeria. I have a friend who got his degree in political science and masters in public administration. He currently works as a telephonist in a bank. He's not the only one. Another friend died recently. In primary school, he was on television for his speed at adding up. We thought he was going places, but he eventually got a job in the Ministry of Transportation. He didn't move to Abuja with the ministry. I once came to Nigeria and visited him at home. It was 10 AM and he was just getting up. He said there was no need for him to go to work, they'd pay him anyway and they didn't care if he was there or not. I couldn't live that life. In the sense of friendliness, I can't forget Nigerians. I don't like it sometimes, when they gave me coins in my secondary school. I used to wonder if my school uniform was dirty and I hadn't seen it. One day, I was walking with my mum and someone stopped us. We didn't know why, but we stopped. She fished in her handbag for coins and handed to me. My mum wept. It was in the 1980s, I bet they wouldn't give us coins now because they have no value, but I also hope things have changed. To tell the truth, I'm still less formal with Nigerians than with British people, I don't know why. Perhaps it's because I grew up in Nigeria.
What do you think Nigeria can learn from the UK in terms of supporting and accepting the visually impaired and vice versa? The Nigeria government needs to adopt a disability discrimination act. For political reasons, that has not yet been done, but in the disability world, we'll soon become a laughing stock. Even other African countries are promulgating discrimination provisions. As I've often argued, the Nigerian law allows for no discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religious orientation, yet close to 20% of our citizens can be subject to discrimination. But more important than the law is the attitude. What I like about the attitude in the UK is that disabled people count enough for books to be produced, computer equipment to be designed, and legislation and government policy to be established. What can the UK learn from Nigeria. If a Nigerian is watching me, and I'm about to fall, they'll shout. I've fallen too many times in the very few obstacles in the UK to know that nothing would happen here. Maybe that's not true, some do help, but it's not as widespread as in Nigeria.
How has new emerging technologies contributed to your daily life and business?
It's wonderful to be able to report that I can do anything on the phone and computer. You need to understand the improvement that represents. Before the technologies came on board, all the books available to others had to be converted to Braille. Can you imagine a bookshop and all the books in it? Even now, only about 5% of books get converted to an alternative format. But if it's on computer, I have it. Or imagine all the letters we get everyday from banks, utility companies and so on. I can get all via email now. When mobile phones first emerged, we were doing well, till text facilities started. Then we thought we'd be lost again. Now, I have access to everything on my mobile phone. I set the time and alarm, text, access the Internet, exchange ring tones, ... everything. Satellite TV and DVDs also have audio description facilities, so that a voice tells me what you can see. It's impressive, and the most important thing is that within a few years of new technology that might otherwise exclude a visually impaired person, an adaptive alternative comes on stream.
What are your hobbies?
When I was younger I used to play football, but now, like everyone else, I'm just an armchair coach. But I still try to keep weekends free (with limited success) so I can enjoy the premiership. I also love current affairs, music (I play piano and still do some radio presenting) reading, movies and plays, and sometimes, just sitting and reflecting. I live such a full life these days, and I'm so glad for that; I think I should make sleeping a hobby so I can engage in it a little more. I have fond memories of when I went skiing, rock climbing and canoeing, but time has prevented further activities on those lines.
I know you like to travel a lot and you travel alone frequently, how do you find your way around and how do you remember locations?
You're right, I love travelling and have visited many locations in many countries. The great thing about travelling is that I can call on assistance from staff if I inform them in advance. There's usually someone to meet me at the airport to direct me to my next point, taxi, local transport, whatever. In Nigeria, it's usually a driver or a family member who has come to pick me up, but in Europe and America, I've done some travelling by myself. When I get to a new place, I don't really bother to learn the route, unless I intend to stay there for a while, perhaps 2 or 3 days. By that time, if I'm in a hotel, I know the basic places, where the food is and where the reception desk is. If it's walking through town, I've learnt several places in London I can get to from the nearest tube station. I even learnt a new route in Lancaster last week, because I just developed a new contact for work.
Has Ife being lucky in love? What challenges do you face in this area and how do you overcome them?
It's taken a very long time, but we're getting there at last. Challenges are many. The girl should expect her friends and family to object. I would have married a girl, but her dad said it would only happen over his dead body. Others didn't even go that far, as one told me that she'd never met anyone like me, but still she wouldn't put the proposition to her parents. It's mostly a question of what people know and what they expect. People are afraid to ask the questions such as "will our children also be blind"? How will I cope with all the looking after"? And the most difficult to put in words, "Will you be able to see what you're doing when we're making love"? I know these questions are asked in quiet places and I have positive answers for all. When a girl has come close to me, she also realises the answers, but she still can't effectively sell it to parents and friends. Again, we're getting there at the moment, but there's still a bit of work to do with the current situation.
What keeps you going?
Faith, dreams, the certainty that things are getting better and the fear of being stagnant. Usually, I look back on an event and wonder how I managed to pull through it. I've pioneered so many things already; I was the first blind law student in my department at the University of Lagos, the first in my department at Lancaster to do a masters and then a doctorate. Along with some friends, we organise the International Conference of Nigerian Students. We never knew it would become as significant as it is now. I never know I'm doing it until it's done. I can only thank God. I once thought that if Moses knew what would be involved in leading the Israelites from Egypt, he wouldn't have done it. Maybe that's why God doesn't show me those things until it's done.
You presently run a Consulting service, tell us a bit about it and your motivation for starting this business?
IOA Consults ltd was started because I looked for work and didn't get it. In the meantime, I'd begun to do a lot of voluntary work with international students and disabled people. I'd also helped with organising the International Conference of Nigerian Students. Gradually, I began to see that all the things I did on a voluntary basis could be converted. I believe that although charities have the best intentions, they're likely to use as much free service as they can get. Yet, the government and the shops expect that you work so you can afford to be independent. Unfortunately, some of the charities and individuals I used to work with have stopped engaging my services, because I said I'd begin to charge.
Where do you see Ife in 10 years time?
I wish I could say, taking a rest. I hope that by then, I'd have more recognition, that the causes I espouse will be better known and most important, that I would be associated with excellence in what I do. But more than the professional aspirations, I hope that at the end of each day, I'd come home to a loving family. That's the one thing I've actually planned for, but it's the one thing that has taken the longest to materialise.
As a blogger, why did you start blogging and what do you blog about?
A friend had been telling me about blogging for so long that one day, on a visit, we just said, "do it". My blog is called "Birth of a Notion" because I was thinking about the bridge between an idea and its implementation. In one sense, that's what I hope to do with my company as well, convert people's ideas into reality. But the blog does more. It's subtitle is "challenging perceptions" because I'd like people to look beyond the face value. I blog about my faith, life events, international politics, disability and anything that takes my fancy.
You also run a radio station, how did that come about and who are your audience?
I don't run the station, I've been involved in 3 projects however. One is Salt FM, which belongs to a friend of mine. I suppose sometimes, I'm his consultant on several levels and at other times, more of a business colleague or partner. I also present a programme. The second station I'm involved with is Diversity FM, where I run a 1 hour gospel programme. Finally, I used to be involved with a programme on disability from a Christian perspective, run by a charity, Torch Trust for the Blind, and aired on Premier radio. The programme is called Insight, and it still runs, though because it's so distant, I've become less and less involved.
If you could give a word of advice to a visually impaired young person living in Nigeria what would it be?
It's tough, but you're tougher. Keep trying to persuade your friends and the government that you can do it, but you'll never persuade anyone if you don't believe it yourself.
If you could give a word of advice to the same young person living in the UK what would it be?
Don't be complacent.