In Nigeria, access to opportunities for people with disabilities is a daunting task. Amidst the challenges, Victor Ekwueme sheds light on technology, especially for the visually impaired.
If you sit next to software developer Victor Ekwueme while he writes or codes, you might think he’s a snob who only wants to be in his world; he would have his headphones on and his gaze on his screen would not waver. What you may not immediately realize is that he can’t see you. His headphones allow him to listen to his screen reader telling him which key he is pressing.
Ekwueme, 44, is one of the seven million people who are blind in Nigeria. He was born to famous music teacher, composer and actor Lazarus “Laz” Ekwueme and music education teacher Lucy Ekwueme.
Before becoming visually impaired, he obtained a degree in computer science from the University of Lagos in 2002. In 2004, after completing his first master’s degree in information technology at the University of Nottingham, Ekwueme noticed his eyesight was declining . Whenever he looked down, he could only partially see the objects in his upper field of vision, and if he looked up, he could only partially see the things below. A medical diagnosis later revealed that he suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic vision defect that affects 1 in 4,000 people. It is incurable; He was unable to fix this bug.
Rather than take the hit by sitting back, Ekwueme decided to take matters into his own hands. “I felt like as I was losing my sight, I had little time left. So I started consuming as much knowledge as possible,” he told TechCabal. “I read various books because I thought they would help me if I lost my sight. I also read development books, but that’s when I came across an MIT course on EdX, Introduction to Python Programming.
In 2011, after winning the Apps4Africa hackathon for his app called HospitalManager, his eyesight deteriorated to the point that he could no longer continue working on creating the app. He then decides to find a job.
As his eyesight failed, Ekwueme had to hire an assistant to manage his daily life. His assistant, Tobi, a computer science student, introduced him to the screen reader on his personal computer, which allowed him to perform certain tasks independently.
Initially, Victor indicated his disability on his CV and, unsurprisingly, he was almost never called for interviews. He decided to cut that detail out and the interviews started coming in. Despite his obvious skills, no one offered him a role.
“I remember one time I went to an interview and they gave me an assessment. My assistant was with me and I mentioned that he had read the evaluation without giving anything away. The recruiter in charge told me I should read it myself. I told him I was blind and I couldn’t, and they just cut the interview short,” Ekwueme revealed.
Many visually impaired people can relate to Ekwueme’s story. In 1994, Opeoluwa Akinola, CEO and co-founder of AccessTech, had the same experience. Akinola also suffers from retinitis pigmentosa. As a recent graduate of the University of Lagos, Akinola interviewed at an accounting firm. Due to the confidential nature of his work, he was not allowed to have an assistant read the documents for him. He did not have access to assistive technology to work independently. It was then that Akinola decided to ensure that people with visual impairments were not excluded from opportunities due to their disability. Twenty-six years later, Akinola created AccessTechan organization dedicated to providing assistive technology tools and training blind people in digital skills.
AccessTech wants inclusion through assistive technology
Although officially incorporated in 2020, AccessTech dates back to when Akinola vowed that blind people would stop facing large-scale job shortages. Between 1999 and 2007, he trained as a computer technician, taught himself how to use the computer, and then developed the curriculum at the Nigerwives Computer Training and Braille Production Centre, an NGO that teaches digital literacy to the blind. While working as a consultant, he also obtained certification from professional in basic accessibility skills. He is one of three certified people in Nigeria.
Now, AccessTech partners with organizations across the United States, Europe and Asia to provide assistive technology in the form of devices and training on how to use and maintain those devices. One such partnership is the Assistive Technology Experience Center in Lagos, in partnership with Microsoft AI4 Accessibility, launching in April 2023. It is under this program that they collaborated with Ekwueme to teach data analytics rudimentary data for young people with visual impairments.
“The goal of this training is to open up opportunities for blind people as data analysts. Most blind children are relegated to the humanities as they grow up; they are not allowed to explore their talents. Most blind people usually end up as lawyers, teachers or in public service. We believe that opening a technology career will help them diversify their opportunities,” Emmanuela Akinola, co-founder and COO of AccessTech, told TechCabal.
As an expert in data analysis and with his disability, Ekwueme is the ideal tutor for the pilot edition of the training. Participants are advanced users of computers equipped with screen readers and have a good understanding of statistics.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 26.3 million people in the African Region suffer from some form of visual impairment. Of these, 20.4 million have low vision and 5.9 million are completely blind. An estimated 15.3% of the world’s blind population resides in Africa. AccessTech has thought about this and is not limiting its reach to Lagos. They hope to partner with the Nigerian government to include visually impaired people in the three million-person technical training program instituted by Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s minister of communications and information technology, and eventually expand their presence to other countries. other African countries.
“The aim is to have blind people among them and reduce digital illiteracy among people with disabilities,” Akinola said.
Ekwueme, who holds another master’s degree in Intelligent Computing Systems from the University of Dundee, believes in this training because he wants more visually impaired people to be technologically literate to enable them to better contribute to society.
“This is so that blind people are not limited to crafts like tie-and-dye or bead making. We can train them to be properly assimilated into society in high-tech jobs, grow in the industry and be (financially) independent,” Ekwueme said.
The training, which began on October 21, will take place every weekend for eight weeks. Ekwueme, now Odoo specialist and data scientist at Chamsa Nigerian company providing integrated technology solutions, is living proof that with sufficient access to assistive technologies and more accessible digital products in Africa, people with visual impairments can live independently and with dignity.
Academia is not foreign territory for Ekwueme, with both of his parents being professors. In the future, Ekwueme hopes to obtain a doctorate in artificial intelligence.