Blind but not bound: Visually-impaired athletes find new vision, hope through sports

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In a country where people with disabilities are largely discriminated against, Nigeria’s blind athletes are carving a niche for themselves using sports as a tool of liberation from societal segregation, writes EBENEZER BAJELA

Muyiwa Fatogun sighed, cleared his throat, and began sharing his life story.

It’s the story of how he lost his sight and how sheer determination and the willpower to succeed as a sportsman saw him break new grounds.

“I started having problems with my eyes immediately after I finished secondary school in 1995,” Fatogun, founder of the Nigeria Blind Sports Association, said.

“There was no actual cause; it just started with the left eye. We started treating it but it later moved to the right eye in 1998. My mother detected it and we tried treating it at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. I also came to Obalende, Lagos for treatment but to no avail.  Then both eyes went off finally November 15, 1998, the same year I watched the France ’98 World Cup.”

For many, the thought of losing their sight is a horrifying and unimaginable experience.

However, some have overcome blindness to become global icons amid difficulties as a result of loss of vision.

Visually-impaired people like Marla Runyan, the first blind athlete at the Olympics, who competed in able-body sports and won gold in 1500m at the 1999 Pan-American Games; Steven Wonder (musician), Derek Rabelo (surfer), John Bramblitt (painter), Christine Hà (chef), Pete Eckert (photographer), Christopher Downey (architect) and most recently in Nigeria, Cobhams (musician, producer and songwriter), amongst others, have proven their ability to compete in a variety of fields.

Ironically, one of Nigeria’s most outstanding athletes of all-time is the visually impaired Paralympian Adekunle Adesoji.

Adesoji, now a national coach, competed at just one Paralympics, the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, but took a clean sweep of the T12 sprint gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 400m. He is Nigeria’s joint-second highest medalist at the Paralympics with retired powerlifter Monday Emoghavwe and behind first-place late para-sprinter Ajibola Adeoye, who has four gold and one silver.

But in many ways, the challenges blind people face growing up still loom as large as ever. Being blind too often comes with an assumption of being incapable, and never given a chance to prove otherwise.

Fatogun the trailblazer

Fatogun initially thought his dream of becoming a sportsman had died a natural death after he became blind, until he went into rehabilitation at the Nigerian Society for the Blind at Oshodi, Lagos.

The Federal Nigeria Society for The Blind, which was founded in 1955 with Chief S.L Edu, Alhaji I.S Adewale and Dr G.A Ademola, as founding fathers, established a Vocational Training Centre in 1956 in Oshodi, Lagos.

The VTC, which Fatogun attended, has a two-year duration and is meant specifically for people who went blind in life and thus needed rehabilitation.

Since its establishment, the centre has trained over 2000 blind men and women and assisted them to acquire skills in other fields like Braille Writing and Reading, Typewriting, Handicrafts, Telephone Switchboard Operation, Computer Operation, Mobility Skills, Music, Tie and Dye and various crafts necessary for job placement and self-employment.

“When I first went for counselling in Oshodi, I told them I was a footballer, and they said I could still continue with sports. I was surprised and I began rehabilitation and I won so many awards in sports with the school and my mentality changed about blindness.”

Thereafter, he represented Oyo State at the National Sports Festival, where he won silver at Gateway Games 2006, as well as double silver in the 100m and 200m at the 2009 Kada Games and the 2011 Garden City Games respectively.

He ended in fourth place in the final of the 100m at the 2007 African Games in Algiers, but a trip to Michigan in the United States gave Fatogun an insight into expanding the horizon for blind people to compete in more sports.

“I was in Michigan for several races and while there, I discovered that there were some sports for the blind there that were not in Nigeria. So, I came back and started judo at the stadium in Ibadan. I was the first person to introduce judo to blind people in Nigeria as well as blind soccer. We also started goalball and we moved forward.”

Though not yet very popular in Nigeria, goalball is a Paralympic Games event. It’s a team sport designed specifically for athletes with a vision impairment. Participants compete in teams of three, and try to throw a ball that has bells embedded in it into the opponents’ goal. The ball is thrown by hand and never kicked. Using ear-hand coordination, the sport has no able-bodied equivalent, but able-bodied athletes are blindfolded when involved in the sport.

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 Spurred on by his success and the desire to create sporting opportunities for blind people, Fatogun sought to break more grounds.

“I formed the Nigeria Blind Sports Association, which is in more than 23 states in the federation. I held the Tertiary Institutions Games for The Blind through the University of Lagos and the Federal College of Education, Oyo in February 2016. We did our first marathon in 2017.”

Plight of the blind/visually-impaired 

Africa carries a disproportionate responsibility in terms of blindness and visual impairment. With approximately 10 per cent of the world’s population, Africa, according to the International Center for Eye Care Education, has 19 per cent of the world’s blindness.

The  state  of  eye care  in  Nigeria, just like in most African nations,  stands  in  alarming  contrast  to  that  in  the  rest  of  the world.  Poor  practitioner-to-patient  ratios,  absence  of  eye-care  personnel,  inadequate facilities,  poor  state  funding  and  a  lack  of  educational  programmes  are  the  hallmarks  of eye care in Africa, with preventable and treatable conditions being the leading causes of blindness.

Eye diseases causing preventable blindness are often the result of a combination of factors such as poverty, lack of education and inadequate health-care services in Nigeria.

“I became blind because of my parents’ ignorance,” Elizabeth Ayobami, a goalball athlete, told The PUNCH.

“My case was as simple as that of a child having coloured eyeballs and doing home remedy.  We later went to LUTH (Lagos University Teaching Hospital), where we were advised not to do any surgery. But we had a family doctor who later did it and I went blind. I was only seven years old then.”

The World Health Organisation states that there is a paucity of data on the prevalence and causes of blindness and visual impairment in African countries, as very few have data at the national level.

Despite being the most populous country in Africa, with an estimated population of about 200 million people, Nigeria has no national estimate of the prevalence and causes of blindness and visual impairment. Most data used for planning eye care services are generated majorly from hospital-based studies or special population groups, or from small, focal surveys.

According to Sightsavers, about one million adults are blind in Nigeria and another three million visually-impaired, while 42 out of every 1,000 adults aged 40 and above are blind; with cataract the most common cause of visual-impairment and blindness in the country.

Many of the blind people, as well as other people with other disabilities, face a number of human rights abuses, including stigma, discrimination, violence, and lack of access to healthcare, housing and education.

This has often led to some of them ending up depressed or even committing suicide.

In the final year of medical school, Dr. Chibueze Anugwo’s vision started blurring. He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that starts from birth but manifests only later on in life and which, as of now, does not have a cure.

After struggling over a transitional period of 10 years, which rendered him completely blind, Anugwo fought back. Today, he is the founder of Retina Africa Foundation, an organisation on a mission to spread awareness about blindness and working towards early detection and prevention in kids.

“That transitional period of 10 years was a nightmare. I became withdrawn and depressed, with suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation but unable to commit the act, probably because I lacked the willpower to do it. But today I am glad for not doing that,”Anugwo told the-inkline.com.

“Being from Africa and Nigeria in particular, I knew that my future was finished as there is no opportunity for the blind in this country. In Nigeria, about 99 per cent of the blind are beggars and of the less than one percent that are educated, half of them are unemployed since they don’t have anyone to rely on who can secure employment for them.”

Noah Izuchukwu, an athlete, also admitted he almost committed suicide after being rendered blind by malaria and typhoid in 2014.

“My sight kept depreciating and the more I applied drugs, the more it got worse. That’s how it got to this level and I can’t use them anymore,” Izuchukwu, who also attended the Vocational Training Centre, Oshodi, told The PUNCH.

“Life has been challenging, sometimes you feel like committing suicide because you don’t have the right support. There are no more family members and friends around you; they have absconded because of your condition. It’s just you and your God. It’s been traumatic.”

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Adeoti Adekola, a para-powerlifter, who won silver at the Ilajiri Paralifitng event in Ibadan last year, was close to getting married when she became blind.

She also found herself stuck in no-man’s-land after her fiancée eloped, because of her loss of sight.

Adekola told The PUNCH, “At the moment I’m single and searching. I was in a relationship before I lost my sight. In fact, I was already working on my documents to join him in the UK. I was in Abuja twice for my travelling documents when I started feeling feverish. Afterwards, I lost my sight and I told him about it, but he reduced his phone calls and from there he started behaving funny.

“Some other men tried to take advantage of me because I’m financially independent. Despite my condition, they make unreasonable demands, but once I notice, I just let go.”

Ineffective FG Act?

As part of efforts to eradicate the bias against people with disabilities, President Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, on January 23, 2019, following nine years of relentless advocacy by disability rights groups and activists.

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and imposes sanctions, including fines and prison sentences, on those who contravene it. It also stipulated a five-year transitional period for modifying public buildings, structures, and automobiles to make them accessible and usable for people with disabilities.

The law also established the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, which is responsible for ensuring that people with disabilities have access to housing, education and healthcare. The commission was also empowered to receive complaints of rights violations and support victims to seek legal redress amongst other duties.

The new Act has not changed society’s impression about blind people, according to Fatogun.

“There’s still discrimination,” he said. “Even though I’ve been proving myself, there are still people who look down on me, they don’t believe the blind can coach, farm or do mechanical jobs. They don’t see possibilities in blindness. The sports minister needs to help us because the Blind Sports Association must stand like other physically-challenged sports association like that of the deaf, dwarf and paraplegic.”

Sports to the rescue

Oluwakemi Odusanya, a multi-talented athlete, who lost her sight after complications in her eyes at age 13, has proved her mettle in judo and football, and is untroubled about the reluctance to accept blind people.

She says sports gave her a new platform to enlighten the society about the abilities and talents of blind people.

“If you are focused, the stigma won’t affect you. I was introduced to sports in my final year at the University of Lagos by Fatogun and we started off with goalball, before I decided to go into other sports. In the next five years, I definitely want to be the number one judoka in Africa,” Odusanya said.

However, Odusanya has also had a fair share of society’s disdain for blind people.

She added, “I’ve had so many experiences of people discriminating against us. We were at the park one day and the driver didn’t want to pick us because he thought that as blind people we won’t be able to afford the fare. I had to explain that we would pay before the driver asked us to enter the vehicle. People have very low impression of our financial capability and that is a challenge. If I wasn’t bold, I wouldn’t want to go out alone next time.

“Societal attitude towards blind people is poor. Most parents are not bold to say their child is blind. The educational sector is not all-inclusive for people with disabilities and the blind child comes home to parents not confident enough of them, so it’s a societal problem.”

After being jilted, Adekola found a new love in blind sports afterwards, and it’s been a romance that has transformed and reconstructed her identity.

“Being visually impaired doesn’t make you useless,” Adekola added. “People used to talk about my body size because I’m 5ft10in tall and I’m huge. So, I was told to try out sports after I lost my sight. I started gradually and found out I could do more, and with constant practice and training I have laurels to show for my efforts. Sports redefined my life.”

Bina Foundation giving hope

Bina Foundation for People with Special Needs, a non-profit organisation based in Enugu, has since its inception in 2010, been working for improved personal development, economic empowerment, social inclusion and human rights of people with special needs in Nigeria.

The foundation, which was founded by Lady Ifeoma Atuegwu, has four major Intervention Centres through which it has touched the lives of persons with special needs: free medical services, Skills Acquisition Training Centre, the Resource and Recreational Centre for the Blind and Visually-Impaired and the Blind Sports and Blind Football Training Academy.

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Bina Foundation established blind football in Nigeria in 2017 and has ever since made the sport more popular in Nigeria, even though if not the desired attention it craved.

Blind football is played by the blind and visually-impaired people and became an official sport of the International Blind Sports Federation in 1996. It is played on a 40mx20m pitch with side kick-boards and an audible ball.

A team is made up of five players – four outfield players and a goalkeeper. The outfield players wear eye-shades to equal their sight and the goalkeeper can be fully or partially-sighted.

In August 2018, Bina Foundation staged the country’s first blind football league tournament in Enugu for 115 young men and women.

Hosted by the Union Secondary School, the competition featured five clubs: Lions Blind FC, All Stars Blind FC, Stallions Blind FC, Golden Blind Boys FC and Tigers Blind FC.

The round-robin tournament consisted of 10 matches, with Lions Blind emerging winners after topping the table with eight points and a +3 goals difference. All Stars Blind and Golden Boys Blind completed the podium.

The milestone event also had a training camp, with the participants learning about ball control, orientation, communication, dribbling and shooting.

The women’s blind football camp and tournament followed thereafter, with Diamond Ladies FC and Sunshine Ladies FC playing each other in two matches, with the former ending in a draw and the latter resulting in a 1-0 win by Diamond Ladies to claim the women’s blind football trophy.

In February 2019, the foundation also formed the country’s first national teams for men and women after a six-day screening exercise in Enugu.

The men’s national team was named the Star Eagles Blind Football Team of Nigeria and women’s team tagged the Star Falcons.

The Star Eagles made a historic appearance at an international event when Bina Foundation hosted the 2019 IBSA Blind Football African Championship in Enugu from November 22 to December 1, 2019.

They beat rivals Cameroon 2-1 in a pulsating opening game of the eight-team tournament, with Morocco ending up winners after overcoming Mali in the final. Ivory Coast and hosts Nigeria placed second and third respectively.

The victory also earned Morocco a spot in the blind men’s football event at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“In Nigeria, the blind don’t have any recreational activities, even in their schools; and very little is done for them in this area,” Bina Foundation president, Lady Ifeoma Atuegwu, told our correspondent, when she was asked her reason for setting up the Blind Football Academy.

“In 2016, we started it as a recreation for them (the blind), but then we found out it could go pro. We were impressed with the level of turnout, a lot of blind men and women were interested. And that’s how we started the league.

“We went to different states in the eastern part of the country, as well as Akwa Ibom and Edo states. We run a blind football camp and hopefully, they will become professionals and play in the beat leagues in the world; that’s part of our target.”

Fulfillment

Despite the challenges and hurdles people with disabilities face, the Nigerian blind sports community feel a sense of accomplishment.

“Maybe I may not have achieved all that I have in sports if I had not lost my sight,” Fatogun said.

“I think God wants to use me in that area, that’s why I found myself like this, because He knows my abilities.”

Goalball player Ayobami said, “Life has been beautiful; I’ve always said if I had my sight I might not have been as lucky. This condition enables you to think and plan your life. While others are playing around, you talk to yourself, which helps a lot.”

For Adekola, a graduate of Mass Communication from UNILAG, veering into sports has been a life-changing experience.

“Sports found me and I found sports in my final year at the university, when I got to know about blind sports. It’s been interesting, despite initial challenges. I’m happy sports opened my eyes to the world.”

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