This Tech Group is Empowering Hearing-impaired Children in Northern Nigeria with Tech Skills
When Amina Isa walked into her classroom to mingle with her new classmates after relocating to a new town, she found herself completely isolated. Born with a hearing impairment and unable to speak, Isa communicated using sign language. No one in the class of 40 knew what she was saying.
Of the 25.5 million Nigerians living with disabilities, according to the United Nations, some 9.5 million are deaf. In many rural and isolated communities across Africa, families, governments, and even religious institutions continue to contribute to deaf marginalisation through negligence, lack of support, exclusion, and discrimination.
Isa had relocated to the town with her parents and hoped to find a school with suitable learning conditions. Despite promises, it soon became clear to the young student that the school had no facilities at all to help her overcome her disability.
Experiences like Isa’s are why Wuni Bitrus and Pantong Dashwet set about building a suitable medium of learning for people with hearing disabilities in their local community in Jos, Plateau State, in 2017.
The pair started the Deaf Technology Foundation to provide digital skills training in programming and robotics for deaf children aged 5–12 years.
“Persons with hearing disabilities are heavily neglected. Especially in northern Nigeria. We came up with this idea to teach programming to deaf kids in northern Nigeria. We reached out to families with such cases, and the response was overwhelming,” Bitrus explained of their early endeavour.
The founders started small with just a computer, which they used to teach 10–20 students the basics of computer programming. Today, the group has successfully empowered over 1600 deaf children with programming skills.
The students are coached on functioning in a digital and information-driven world, applying digital and ICT skills, and living successfully in a rapidly changing and transforming society.
Beneficiaries can develop their tools. Students Mercy Grimah and Mercy Kure developed an automatic hand-sanitising dispenser thanks to their robotics training, while other outcomes have included animation, healthcare applications, games, autonomous robots, and smart home gadgets.
“I have been able to develop some amazing projects with robotics. It’s amazing what they are doing for deaf kids. Most of us don’t have the funds to sponsor our education. They have taught us to excel in programming competitions and added value to us in the labour space,” Grimah said, using sign language.
In addition to being taught to be articulate when signing, the students also get to engage in extracurricular activities such as basketball and other sports in addition to their programming training.
Bitrus and Dashwet also organise the annual “Week of Code” event at a special needs school in Plateau State. During the week, students are introduced to programming and internet technology (IT) and allowed to learn from and collaborate with students from other schools.
“Our vision is to build an ecosystem of software developers ages 9–12, empowering them to lead productive lives. The mission is to catch them young and empower them with the tools and skills to participate in the digital economy,” Bitrus explained.
The operation has grown faster than expected.
“Lack of funding is always a major problem we encounter. We have a huge volume of students but lack computers and other technical accessories to aid their learning,” Bitrus said.
The duo’s organisation is not slowing down, however. They have managed to recruit volunteer teachers who mentor the students in programming and robotics.
Next, they hope to get other NGOs on board and expand to other states in Nigeria with a mission to create an inclusive learning environment that gives deaf students equal access to quality education.
That includes providing interpreters, captioning, and other visual aids and fostering a culture of respect and understanding in the classroom to reduce discrimination and encourage inclusion.
These are key requirements for learning establishments. But for now, Bitrus and Dashwet are taking things one step at a time, hoping to ensure that in the future, learners like Isa don’t experience the kind of trauma she did on her first day of school.
Story Credit: Victor Eyike for Bird Story Agency