“Physical Disability is not a Barrier to a Willing Soul.”
David Akanji an educator with recent doctorate degree in Special Education from Gallaudet University is a man who does not believe that his sight impairment is an excuse for him not to reach the heights. In fact he is a better cook than some sighted men. In this interview with Seyi Oduyela, he shared his life experience. His journey that started from Bode in Iwo, Nigeria, through Little Rock in Arkansas and now Hyattsville in Maryland. He also spoke about his new book and his pet project; excerpts:
Q: Who is Dr. David Akanji?
A: I am a native of Iwo in Osun State of Nigeria. It is very important for me, at this particular time, to begin the story of my life in earnest. An article writer says, “Life is a place full of struggles, it is also like a pendulum which swings from side to side, no one knows when and how it will fall.” As a blind person, I started my struggle in life at a very early age. My philosophy of life is “physical disability is not a barrier to a willing soul.”
Q: What year were you born and where is your place of birth?
A: I was born in 1955. Historically I was born at Bode, a village near Iwo; a town in Osun State of Nigeria.
Q: Were you born blind?
A: I became blind when I was an infant.
Q: Tell us about your elementary education?
A: I did not start my primary education until I was 10 years old. I started my education at Ogbomosho Blind Training Center in 1961.
Q: Where is Ogbomosho?
A: Ogbomosho is in Oyo State of Nigeria. I was there from 1961 to 1963. During the same year, 1963, I was sent to my parents at Bode in order to continue my primary school education. I was at Bode District Council School from 1963 to 1966; when I successfully completed my primary school education. I did not even stop there. In 1967, I had the opportunity to attend Oshodi Vocational Training Center, where I learned Advanced Braille and Telephone operation.
Q: Where is Oshodi?
A: Oshodi is in Lagos, former capital city of Nigeria. I was at the Center from 1967 to 1968. In 1969 I attended Iwo Catholic Secondary Modern School, where I learned typing. I was there till the end of 1970.
Q: What is Modern School?
A: Modern School is like Middle School. In 1971, I started my High Education at Ibadan Christ Apostolic Grammar School, Aperin- Oniyere, Ibadan, where I successfully completed my School Certificate papers with flying colours. I was there from 1971 to 1975. In 1981, the then Oyo State Government, sent me to the United States of America for further studies. I was admitted by the then Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind. I was there so that I could be taught to use some different types of machines to enable me compete successfully with my sighted colleagues academically.
Q: How long were you there?
A: I was there for two semesters. In 1982, I was admitted by Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Arkansas for my Degree program in Special Education. I was at Philander from 1982 to 1985. I successfully completed my degree in three years instead of four. I graduated with Magna Cum Laudi. My thanks will always go to God and Dr. Joseph Amprey, the Vice President for the Academic Advancement at Kutz Town University in Pennsylvania; he was the one who got me a scholarship with which I did my graduate program at Howard University in Washington DC.
Q: When did you start your graduate program at Howard and for what course?
A: I started my graduate program in 1986. I was at Howard from 1986 to 1987. I completed the program in 3 semesters instead of two years. My course of study was M.Ed in Special education with specializing in Learning Disabilities.
Q: Did you participate in any extracurricular activities on campus?
A: When I was at Philander, I was a member of “Who is Who” among American Universities and Colleges. I was also a member of Alpha Kappa Mu.
Q: What did you do after you left Howard University?
A: After the completion of my MA at Howard, I had the opportunity to teach Blind people like myself at Logan School for the Blind in North East, DC, I taught sighted students too. I taught braille to blind people and English Literature to the sighted people for many years. I taught with the District of Columbia Public School. Most of my students attended and still attending the University of the District of Columbia.
Q: You have a PhD, when and where did you do it?
A: Realistically, I started my PhD in 1998 at Gallaudet University, Washington, DC. Frankly speaking, the journey at Gallaudet as far as PhD is concerned was not a smooth one; but as the Lord would have it, I survived the Doctoral ordeal. By the grace of God I took my qualifying exams and passed.
Q: What did you write your PhD Thesis on, how did you choose the topic and why?
A: The topic of my dissertation had been in my mind since the time I was at Philander after I had seriously looked into the problems of blind people like me in Nigeria. As I was thinking about this problem, I started to have the feeling that one day I will go into the Nitti gritty of these problems. As I was examining the problems facing blind people in Nigeria, I was able to put realize that the contributing factor to the problems of blind and visually impaired in Nigeria must be poor management on the part of administrators.
Q: What are the challenges you are facing?
A: The journey has not been easy. One thing about disability that I do not like so much is that you have to prove yourself to people every time. As far as people are concerned, once a person is disabled, there is nothing, absolutely nothing can come out of you. I t is left to the physically challenged person to prove that physical disability is not a barrier to a willing soul, and also there is no mountain a man or woman cannot climb provided he or she set mind on it.
Q: How did you become blind, since you stated earlier that you were not born blind?
A: When I was a small child, my parents said it was small pox. You know in our country, a very little thing could be blown out of proportion; that is, through the, those evil doers.
Q: when you look back at the beginning and now how do you feel?
A: As far as my accomplishments, I strongly believe that I have changed most people’s attitude towards people who are physically challenged. If I can do this, then there is no excuse for anybody not to want to strive.
Q: Tell us more about your family. What is your position and how many children?
A: I am the third child. My mother gave birth to five children. My father is a polygamist. He married two wives.
Q: From what I know and understand about Iwo people, they are predominantly Muslims. Were you a Muslim before you became a Christian?
A: I was born Muslim, my Muslim name is Sabitu.
Q: Why and how did you become a Christian?
A: When I was at Ogbomosho Blind Training Center, the Baptist Missionaries preached to me and I found Jesus through them. Most importantly, through me, all the people in my family are Christians now.
Q: What led to the book you wrote on Blind Education in Nigeria?
A: As I have already said, being a blind person and when I got here, , especially when I was in Nigeria, I started to go to school, I encountered a lot of problems. There is nothing more stressful, especially when you are physically challenged and you are struggling to survive and people are putting barriers upon barriers on your way. If you don’t have God’s backing and you are not fully determined, there is every possibility for that particular person to give up. As a result that I did not give up and I was able to compete my Secondary education in Nigeria, I made up my mind that well, whatever is going to happen, I am not going to sit down and fold my arms and see other blind people encounter the same problems I encountered when I was young like them. As I have told you, my PhD Dissertation topic came when I was doing my second statistics at Philander. When I went to Nigeria for data collection, , and blind people started to narrate to me, what, those of them who are attending school, what they are going through; I was weeping inside me. I don’t why they should be neglected like that. As a matter of fact, the government is not even ready to care for them. Some of them were sent to vocational schools but after graduation, they have nothing to do. No jobs and the government is not doing anything to set them up, so they eventually went back to begging for survival. So I felt someone has to stand up to do something to help this people and that is exactly why I decided to write the book.
Q: What do you think your book will do?
A: To serve as an eye opener. It is a wakeup call to Nigeria government at all levels.
Q: What message do you have for physically challenged people?
A: They should be fully determined. They should not allow anybody to intimidate them or tell them that cannot do anything about their condition, because disability is not inability.
Q: What do you think the Nigerian government should do about education?
A: I think the system of education in Nigeria should be reviewed because we have been giving ourselves what I can call mental torture. For instance now, you tell me that someone who passed literature and science but failed English language, then cannot go to the University, did he write his science, literature, economics and other subjects he passed in another language? For the physically challenged, government should provide adequate educational materials that will help the disabled get the right education they deserve. And those sent to Vocational Training centers should be taken care of. They need to be gainfully employed.
Q: what is the difference between living in Nigeria and America as a physically challenged person?
A: oh my goodness! The gap is too wide. First, America takes proper care of physically challenged people. Let me give you an example, on metro buses and train, disabled people enjoy priority seating. The sidewalks here too enable blind man like to go anywhere with my cane. Nothing like that exists in Nigeria, not because we cannot afford it back home it is because of lack of priority of the government in Nigeria. Those who are not even physically challenged find it hard to live comfortably.
Q: What do you for fun?
A: I don’t go to parties. Any party you see me, that person must be very important to me. I do go to parties on very rare occasion.
Q; You live by yourself. How do you all the things you do by yourself?
A: That is training. That is why America is great. I learned a lot of self-reliant skills at the Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind. They taught me how to cook. I did not know that I could do what I am doing now; I realized my potentials at Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind. I can do almost everything by myself. I can cook, bake cake and more; before I will request for any help from sighted person, I should have tried so hard.
Q: Do you consider going back home?
A: Yes. I am working on a project now. I have a foundation. The project is setting up School system from elementary to University and Vocational Training Center to help physically challenged people. I am hoping to start next year. We are looking for funding now.