Adeyinka Adegbenro wasn’t born deaf. She was 20, a fresh university graduate when she developed a swelling along the right side of her face. The swelling subsided but, one morning, she woke up and the world was silent.
Since she had already acquired language proficiency, it wasn’t too difficult for her to start lip-reading when people speak. But it’s difficult being a deaf person in Nigeria, as she was soon about to find out.
For a start, Adeyinka lives in Lagos, a city with one of the most chaotic transport systems in the world. “Leaving the house and going out is usually very stressful, especially when I am visiting a place for the first time,” she wrote in a 2018 blog post. At the bus-stop, she can’t hear what the bus conductors are saying. And when there is a rush for buses, as is common in Lagos, especially during peak traffic hours, she is almost always the last to leave the bus-stop.
And what about the difficulty of demanding for her cash balance from bus-conductors? Sometimes, she is shouting (it is difficult to modulate her voice since she can’t hear it) and other passengers stare curiously, making for awkward moments.
“Or when I ask the driver to stop at my bus-stop in a very low voice, and they don’t hear me, it is never fun,” she wrote. “Let’s just say I have had to trek back from where I was dropped to my real bus stop a number of times.”
She also suffers from a fear of being run over by a vehicle. In Lagos, horns are used for almost everything; drivers rarely obey zebra crossings, regularly cheat the traffic light and don’t adhere to simple road signs. So, for someone who is deaf, commuting across Lagos is an extreme sport.
“Almost getting hit happens frequently to me because somewhere deep in my head, my brain keeps forgetting that I’m deaf and that I won’t hear a car horn if at all there is one,” she said. “I used to get yelled at a lot by car drivers, then I’d feel bad, and then I’d go home and cry.”
Adeyinka has a number of ridiculous stories, of men who presume she is desperate for their love because of her lack of hearing. After she had clearly told a boy she wasn’t interested in him during her orientation at the NYSC camp in Zamfara, he blurted: “See you . . . are you not deaf? Instead of you to be happy that I am asking you out.”
In Nigeria, there is a perception that disabled people are defective and should be ‘pitied’, that they are not whole. Dr Emmanuel Asonye, a research scholar at the University of New Mexico, has spent most of his academic career studying deaf child language acquisition and literacy in Nigeria. In a Zoom call with this reporter, he linked the perception to several factors, including poverty and poor early education for deaf children, which usually leads to feelings of neglect, anger, and worthlessness among many deaf persons.
“At the end of the day, it all boils down to the same thing, they expect you to be vulnerable, cheap, willing, ready, desperate and to have a low self-esteem,” Adeyinka wrote in 2018. “It is pathetic.”
A masked problem
The COVID-19 pandemic made life harder for Adeyinka. Her lipreading was severely hampered when most people wore masks.
“During the peak of the pandemic, it was really tough, you know communicating with people,” she said. “I need to be able to look at someone’s mouth to read their lips and actually get what they are saying.”
Once, she visited a bank buzzing with people. The security man approached her and said a few words. She could not understand, as he was wearing a mask. She tried to tell him she was deaf, but he just kept talking. At some point, he left.
Commuting also became tougher, Adeyinka said. She found it harder to find buses. Perhaps because fewer drivers were on the road. And bus prices fluctuated.
“When the driver hikes the price and tells passengers when boarding, but you didn’t hear because, well, you are deaf,” she said.
Ebuka Okeke, the current Administrative Secretary of the Nigerian National Association of the Deaf, said lack of access to basic information was a big problem for deaf people when the pandemic struck. A plethora of information was disseminated via the electronic and print media, but very little was adapted for the deaf.
“Not all TVs have sign language interpreters and not all deaf people can read and write,” Okeke said. “This placed them in a more vulnerable position to be victims of the pandemic compared to other people.”
Okeke added that the lack of information accessibility exacerbated the economic effects of the pandemic on deaf people who are arguably “among the poorest of the poor population in most developing countries, including Nigeria” and who “were unable to work and feed themselves and their families” during a government-enforced lockdown at the height of the coronavirus spread.
“Information about relief packages available was not accessible to them, so they missed out on government packages,” Okeke said.
Nigerian governments, both at the federal and state level, have enacted a plethora of laws protecting the disabled, but implementation and enforcement have always been a problem. Lagos State passed a Special People’s Law in 2011, which seeks to protect and uphold the rights of persons living with disabilities. But a study published in 2018 by the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, a nonprofit, concluded that the Lagos law “is weakly enforced and compliance with the provisions of the law is generally poor.”
For example, one of the law’s provisions makes it compulsory for all schools to include sign language in their curriculum. However, Stella Modupe, a teacher who has taught in more than 10 Lagos schools across seven years, said sign language inclusion “is rare”.
“A lot of schools in Nigeria don’t include sign language in their curriculum unless it’s a special needs school specifically for people with hearing impairment,” Jennifer Emelife, an educator and Chevening scholar said. “Our inclusiveness hasn’t gotten to that level yet. Sadly.”
“There has not been much enforcement on most aspects of the law, General Manager at the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs (LASODA), Dare Dairo, admitted. “But the government is (now) doing a lot in that regard.”
In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act into law after about 18 years. It was a landmark moment for disability rights in Nigeria. The act established the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities and included progressive provisions such as the requirement of accessibility aids in public places within the next five years.
Okeke, the deaf association representative, believes it is still too early to say how beneficial the law is to deaf people. In August, the federal government announced the take-off of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities. “I guess it is a step forward towards the changes we desire,” Okeke said.
But some are not so sanguine. “Nigeria has a lot of laws on paper,” a lawyer, Dora Nwachukwu said. “But enforcement is always a problem.”
A diagnosis too late
Adeyinka now considers herself a privileged deaf person. “I could afford getting a hearing aid,” she said. “I have a great support system. I have a job.”
But the story of how she became deaf isn’t couched in privilege. Apparently she has always been deaf in one ear, but didn’t get a diagnosis. She – and her parents – didn’t even know it was a problem until she saw people plugging ear-pieces into two ears as a teenager.
“I tried to use ear-piece regularly and I was like, why do they even put this second ear in the ear-piece. And people were telling me that they could hear in their left ear and I was like, you can hear in your left ear, really? And that was the first time I knew that something was wrong with me.” Even then, she didn’t get a diagnosis. There were other more pressing things to deal with.
After writing her final exams at the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), she developed a fever. A tooth was growing abnormally. “And I think it got infected, and pus was coming out of my gum. Then I realised that this place (right cheek) got swollen, very swollen, up till my ear area. I was in a lot of pain.”
Like many Nigerians without health insurance or ability to pay hospital bills out of pocket, she turned to a local pharmacy for treatment and started the prescribed medication. Then one morning her hearing faded. “I mean, I knew something was weird when I didn’t hear – there was this mosque in my area then that used to call for prayer every morning. But I didn’t hear them that morning.”
She reached out to her parents in Lagos and they asked her to travel home quickly. They visited at least two government hospitals before they were eventually referred to the Military Hospital in Yaba where Adeyinka was eventually diagnosed with Sudden Hearing Loss. “It’s actually quite rare,” she said. “But it’s supposed to be permanent and it doesn’t really have a cure, there is no known cure yet.” Later, she would learn about a steroid that could have reversed the condition in the first 24 hours of loss. “But I didn’t have any of that awareness. I didn’t even have money to go to the hospital. I just knew I had to get home, so my parents would help me.”
The deaf in time
History has been unkind to the deaf. The ancient Greeks opined that people born deaf were incapable of education and “early religious accounts viewed children afflicted with deafness as evidence of anger,” according to the Arizona Office for Americans with Disabilities. In some African cultures and societies, deaf people are regarded as sick, unfortunate, cursed, and demon-possessed. The Spanish Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon is widely accepted as the first person to develop a method for teaching the deaf in the 16th century. Around the same time in Italy, Geronimo Cardano, a physician, is also believed to have taught his deaf son to communicate using a variety of symbols.
Although deaf education is recorded to have first been introduced into Nigeria in the 1950s, different tribes are certain to have developed special signs through which they communicated with their deaf.
Linguist, Kola Tubosun, for instance, believes deaf people were not excluded from the Yoruba community. “From a popular saying in Yorùbá that warns people not to put leaves in their mouths when in the presence of a deaf person so as not to offend them, I can surmise that they had ways of communicating with them, through improvised signs,” he said.
In a seminal paper on deaf education in Nigeria, academic Jonah Eleweke suggested that Nigeria is at least 200 years behind Europe and North America in regard to educating and protecting the rights of deaf people in society. In 1760, the French already had a free public school for the deaf. Nigeria’s first – the Wesley School for the Deaf – only arrived in 1958.
The numbers paint a more grim picture. According to one 2016 study, almost one in every four Nigerians have an hearing impairment, and up to 84 percent of the country’s deaf population remain undereducated and economically disadvantaged.
One way to improve the lot of deaf people in Nigeria, according to Dr Asonye, the University of New Mexico scholar, is to elevate their language. “A people cannot grow beyond the status of their language,” he said. “If sign language is not accepted, the people who own it will continue to feel inferior.”
Particularly, Dr Asonye preaches the widespread adoption of indigenous sign-languages, over imported ones like the American Sign Language. The former, he argues, is more entrenched in local communities where they have been used for centuries and can facilitate improved integration into society, especially for children born deaf.
Making lemons into lemonade
Adeyinka’s deafness, just before she was to enroll for the National Youth Service Corps, was disorienting. She had studied Urban and Regional Planning at FUTA and had been worried about employment after school. After becoming deaf, the future looked bleaker. The next year, Nigeria would enter a recession.
But, armed with her education and an ample support system, she started searching for careers suited for deaf people. “That was how I discovered that software engineering was like a way out for someone like me,” she said. “Because employers didn’t care whether you are deaf, or whatever disability you have, as long as you can do the job.” Building software, she added, “kind of gave me a new purpose.”
Today, she proudly identifies as a deaf person. Her Twitter bio reads, in part, ‘deafie’. One day, she hopes to learn sign language. But, stemming from her own experiences, she’s not oblivious of how society still regards deafness.
“I want people to know that deaf people are just people like them,” she said. “They are out there, everywhere. And they are ordinary people like you and me. They might not meet the expectation of who you think a deaf person should be. People have the expectation that maybe a deaf person is usually a beggar, but that’s not usually the case. And when you meet people like that, you should try as much as possible to be accommodating, to try to be patient with them, try to guide them, as much as you can. Help them navigate their environment if they are having trouble with that, because it’s hard enough in Nigeria to navigate the environment and communicate with people.”