MONROVIA – The loss of sight is already a challenge in itself. Even more dreadful is the lack of emotional support, limited access to educational opportunities as well as information. Even societal stigma and the lack of unemployment are additional factors that frequently lead visually impaired individuals in isolation.
By Elbie Sebleh, with Journalist for Human Rights
The lack of tertiary education opportunities for people with visual impairment, according to this investigation, is a huge blockade for harnessing their potentials. Many universities, colleges, and vocational institutions do not have programs to integrate them.
Liberia’s largest tertiary education provider, the state-run University of Liberia opens its doors to more than 25,000 students in both its undergraduate and graduate schools every semester. Sadly, out of this huge number, there is no visually impaired student.
It is not because the visually impaired do not want to enroll at the school. The school does not offer learning opportunities for them. And it has been this way for more than 150-years of its existence.
“I’m planning to protest at the University of Liberia to create a fair learning center for the visually impaired,” says Noah Zarwu Gibson, a leading advocate of the visually impaired community as he announces his plan to demonstrate against the school.
“During our time, we could not enroll because there was no environment for us; something which causes a lot of challenges requiring knowledge from a private university.”
Gibson, a Visually impaired person himself, says upon graduation from high school back in 2007, he and some other students with visual impairment planned to enroll at the University of Liberia since they could not afford the huge fees at private universities, but the school turned them down.
However, they were compelled to enroll at one of the most expensive universities in Liberia, the Cuttington University, which is 169 kilometers away from Monrovia. Despite the plethora of challenges, they encountered, Gibson and co graduated.
He now works in the office of Montserrado County Senator, Abraham Darius Dillion.
For the sake of the younger generation, Gibson has vowed to stage a lone protest against the university in solidarity with the young generation visually impaired people who, like him back in 2007, are aspiring to continue their education after high school.
“What if visually impairs can’t afford to fees at other universities; what will become of those who are hungry for education? This has been ongoing for a long time, and it got to stop. Somebody must take a stance.”
Abraham Sheriff, another visually impaired student, says the failure of the state-run university to create space for a huge number of the population was not only unfair but a national security problem.
“We are being deprived of our right to education, and it is against our human rights,” laments Sheriff, a high school graduate.
“I think it is time the government, through the University of Liberia and all public institutions create space for us, the blind and disadvantaged group. It is not only unfair to us, but national security issues to forget about a huge portion of the population and just allow them to be liabilities to the society.”
‘University Not Yet Ready’
The UL’s Vice President for Students Affairs, Sekou W. Konneh, acknowledged that there is a need to ensure an all-inclusive education as per its mandate; and this include admitting people with disabilities. However, he said currently, the necessary infrastructures are not available to accept students with visual problems at the University.
The United Nations Convention on People with Disabilities mandates states parties to provide such opportunities for their citizens in said conditions. The newly appointed Chairperson of the National Commission on Disabilities, Madam Daintowon Domah Pay-Bayee said the lack of adequate learning opportunities for People with Disabilities (PwD) has been serious issues of concern over the years.
For the Braille system to be taught at the University, Madam Paye-Bayee said it requires proper planning, adding that it starts with the training with teachers by the Ministry of Education and putting in place the rightful infrastructures to accommodate them.
It starts with training teachers to master the Braille and followed by erecting the right structures to accommodate the visually impaired students so that they can have a comfortable learning environment,” she said.
The demand from Gibson and co. comes at the time the University of Liberia is experiencing disruption in enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The University was forced to shut down following a mass protest and criticisms over its ‘sluggish’ e-learning program launched in the wake of the third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The students complained that the system was ineffective and demanded the administration to abandon the program and revert to the in-person learning. The administration yielded to the pressure and have since resumed the conduct of classes on its various campuses.
This story was produced with support from the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) through the Mobilizing Media against COVID-19, in partnership with FrontPage Africa.