In Nigeria, access to opportunities for people with disabilities is an uphill climb. Amidst the challenges, Victor Ekwueme is shining a light through tech, especially for visually impaired persons.
If you sit beside software developer Victor Ekwueme while he’s writing or coding, you may think he’s a snob who only wants to be in his world; he would have his earphones on, and his stare at his screen wouldn’t waver. What you may not realise immediately is that he cannot see you. His earphones are for him to listen to his screen reader telling him what key he’s hitting.
Ekwueme, 44, is among the nearly seven million people who are blind in Nigeria. He was born to renowned professor of music, composer, and actor Lazarus “Laz” Ekwueme and Lucy Ekwueme, a professor of music education.
Before he became visually impaired, he earned a degree in computer science from the University of Lagos in 2002. In 2004, after getting his first master’s degree in information technology from the University of Nottingham, Ekwueme noticed that his sight was failing. Whenever he looked down, he could only partially see objects in his upper vision field, and if he looked up, he could only partially see things below. A medical diagnosis later revealed that he had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic eye defect affecting 1 in 4,000 people. It is incurable; this bug he could not fix.
Rather than take the blow sitting down, Ekwueme decided to take matters into his own hands. “I felt that as I was losing my vision, there was little time left for me. So I started consuming as much knowledge as I could find,” he told TechCabal. “I read various books because I felt they would help me if I lost my vision. I read developmental books as well, but that’s when I came across an MIT course on EdX, Introduction to Python Programming.”
In 2011, after he won the Apps4Africa hackathon for his app called HospitalManager, his eyesight deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t continue working on creating the app. He decided then to get a job.
As his eyesight declined, Ekwueme had to get an assistant to navigate daily life. His assistant, Tobi, a computer science student, introduced him to the screen reader on his personal computer, which allowed him to do certain tasks independently.
Initially, Victor listed his disability on his CV, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he hardly ever got called for interviews. He decided to remove that detail, and the interviews started coming. Despite his obvious skills, no one offered him a role.
“I remember once I went for an interview, and they gave me an assessment. My assistant was with me, and I mentioned that he’d read the assessment without giving anything away. The recruiter in charge said 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 people with visual impairments can relate to Ekwueme’s story. In 1994, Opeoluwa Akinola, CEO and co-founder of AccessTech, had the same experience. Akinola also has retinitis pigmentosa. As a young graduate of the University of Lagos, Akinola interviewed at an audit firm. Due to the confidential nature of the job, he wasn’t allowed to have an assistant read documents for him. He didn’t have access to assistive technology to work independently. This was the moment Akinola decided that he’d make sure that people with visual impairments did not get axed out of opportunities because of their disability. Twenty-six years later, Akinola created AccessTech, an organisation dedicated to providing assistive technology tools and training blind people on digital skills.
AccessTech wants inclusion through assistive technology
Though officially incorporated in 2020, AccessTech dates way back to when Akinola vowed that blind people would stop missing out on jobs on a large scale. 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 taught blind people digital literacy. While working as a consultant, he also got certified as a professional in accessibility core competencies. He’s one of the three people who are certified in Nigeria.
Now, AccessTech partners with organisations in the US, Europe, and Asia to provide assistive technology in the form of devices and training on how to use and maintain such devices. One such partnership is the Assistive Technology Experience Centre in Lagos, in partnership with Microsoft AI4 Accessibility which was launched in April 2023. It’s within this programme that they have collaborated with Ekwueme to teach rudimentary data analytics to young people with visual impairments.
“The objective of this training is to open up opportunities for blind persons as data analysts. Most blind children are relegated to the humanities while growing up; they’re not allowed to explore their talents. Most blind people typically end up as lawyers, teachers or in the civil service. We believe that opening up a tech career will help them diversify their opportunities,” Emmanuela Akinola, co-founder and COO of AccessTech, told TechCabal.
As an expert in data analytics, and with his disability, Ekwueme is the perfect tutor in the training’s pilot edition. The participants are advanced users of computers with screen readers and have a good understanding of statistics.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 26.3 million people in the African Region have a form of visual impairment. Of these, 20.4 million have low vision and 5.9 million are estimated to be completely blind. It is estimated that 15.3% of the world’s blind population resides in Africa. AccessTech has considered this and is not limiting its scope to Lagos. They’re hoping they can partner with the Nigerian government to include visually impaired persons in the three million technical training programme instituted by Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s minister of communications and information technology, and eventually expand their footprint to other African countries.
“The goal is to have blind people amongst them and reduce digital illiteracy among persons with disabilities,” Akinola said.
Ekwueme, who has another master’s degree in intelligent computational systems from the University of Dundee, believes in the training because he wants more people with visual impairments to be skilled in technology to enable them to contribute better to society.
“It’s so that blind people are not just limited to craft-making like tie-and-dye or bead making. We can train them to be properly assimilated into society in high-tech jobs to grow in the industry and be (financially) independent,” Ekwueme said.
The training, which started on October 21, will run every weekend for eight weeks. Ekwueme, now an Odoo specialist and data scientist at Chams, a Nigerian company providing integrated technology solutions, is living proof that with enough access to assistive technology and more accessible digital products in Africa, people with visual impairments can live independently and with dignity.
Academia is not an unfamiliar terrain for Ekwueme, with both parents being professors. In the future, Ekwueme hopes to earn a doctorate in artificial intelligence.