Vimbai Kamoyo HARARE- Blessing Kamukosi is a lost man, literally. A mile from your intended destination is not what one person on foot would want and sadly that is the state of affairs that Kamukosi found himself in, not by desire or design of course but by default.
A student at the University of Zimbabwe, Kamukosi, who is blind, wanted to go to the offices of a top business executive in the Belgravia area in Harare but lost his way as he had no assistance. When he met this reporter he was nearly over a kilometre away and upon being told that he had lost his way, Kamukosi emotionally remarked: “This is the problem with being blind.”
Cutting the figure of an end-of-book Mr Rochester, of Jane Eyre fame by Charlotte Bronte, Kamukosi revealed that while moving around was difficult, but the biggest challenge was at school where he has to rely on other student to do his assignment.
“We have a lot of problems in writing our assignments because most of the material that we use is not friendly to people who are visually impaired. The material that we are using is outdated and in all honesty should be used by students that are in primary school. The college should provide the software that is friendly to visually impaired. What I am saying here is not foreign as other institutions in the country have that (the software) for example the USA library at the Eastgate. Therefore the conclusion would be that the institution and the government are not committed to providing these essential services to us,” he said.
Kamukosi’s sentiments were echoed by his colleagues- Emmanuel Muzanenhamo, Tawanda Muchembere and the other who declined to be named- who are also visually impaired.
“Apart from the computers that have no software that suits us, the tape recorders that we get sometimes are malfunctioning and that compromises our learning,” they said.
The students cited limited number of aides and walking canes as other constraints that they are facing in their learning.
Said the quartet: “The other constraints that we have are the limited number of aides that are allocated to us and the non-availability of walking canes and that are curtailing our movement.”
Computers that are fitted with software that is designed for the blind are commonly referred as “talking computers” because they allow words and images to be translated in to sound, meaning one can “see with ears.” Without seeing the screen one is capable of writing letters and documents; hear what one has written letter by letter or word by word.
The problems are not confined to the students in the tertiary stage as one partially blind form three student from the high-density suburb of Budiriro raised similar concerns.
“The problem of blindness normally comes to the fore when you go to school because the students and the staff sometimes do not understand our predicament. The buildings and the learning material at our present schools are not friendly to us as they were designed for the able bodied people,” said the Budiriro girl who requested anonymity.
Doctor Fainos Mangena a senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe said they were indeed confronted by a myriad of problems when teaching blind students.
“There are a number of challenges that confront both the student and teacher when it comes to blindness in students. Firstly there is the issue of materials that are in short supply; I refer to the issue of brails. There is also the question of deadlines which they (the blind) struggle to meet because there are few people who are willing to assist them just as there are few who are wiling to escort them to lecture rooms and that in a way affect their confidence in learning,” he said.
Sister Catherine Jackson the Director of Braille and rehabilitation at the Dorothy and Duncan Center-a voluntary organisation that caters for the blind- said the business of catering the blind and educating them was an onerous one as it required handsome amounts of money to man.
“The business of publishing books into Braille is an expensive one. Currently we are translating 3 200 primary books, from grade one to seven. This is being done under the direction of the Ministry of Education, sports arts and culture. 3 200 books may seem little but in Braille we use volumes and they will end as 13 000 volumes. And all this is done by an organisation that rely entirely on donations,” she said.
Sister Jackson (a catholic nun), who lost her sight in 1986, said since she started the library and the rehabilitation centre for the blind in the early 90s she has scored a number of success that she is proud of.
“We have to look on the positives that we have also scored here (the centre). The girl (Nozipho Khanda whom I started with at the age of ten has done well, going to a university in Australia and today she can speak six language including French and Spanish. As recently as last year a certain headmaster lost his sight and he came here for rehabilitation and by the time he left here he was a better Headmaster as he was able to use the computer and could walk around without anyone to help him,” said Sister Jackson.
However, she bemoaned the exorbitance of equipment used by the visually impaired people saying they were beyond the reach of many ordinary people, the computer software for the blind in particular.
“Lack of equipment because of price is the drawback for many blind people. It would be easier for them to use internet but the software the blind is pricey as it is going US$1 000 just for one license and that is a big bite to chew for many,” she said.
The Minister of Education, sports arts and culture Senator David Coltart said efforts to install computer software was hampered by “limited resources” but as government they were publishing books in Braille to assist the blind students, thereby collaborating sentiments made by Sister Catherine Jackson.
“We cannot install software for the blind because of the limited resources but we are publishing books with Dorothy and Duncan to assist the blind students,” he said.
This story was supported by the Humanitarian and Information Faciltation Centre (HIFC)