Life for visually impaired people in Cameroon is a constant battle, given that they are discriminated against, a phenomenon which condemns some to live in solitude and mendicancy. Even though they are often ignored by society, this doesn’t stop them from being ambitious and entrepreneurial.
No national survey of blindness has been undertaken in Cameroon and WHO estimates that approximately 3% (660,000) of the population of Cameroon (which is 22 million, according to the 2013 census), and 9% (1,980,000) of people aged above 50 years, are blind. This, therefore, highlights the necessity of institutions which take visually impaired people and others under its wing, giving them shelter and an inclusive education so that they do not feel alienated.
Upon graduating from the Rehabilitation Institute for the Blind in Buea, south west Cameroon, in 1986, Coco Bertin never considered his situation a handicap and decided to become an entrepreneur. This led him to join forces with Martin Luther, another visually impaired person who graduated from the same school as himself. All they had was CFA 123,000, a financial incentive received after graduation, and they wanted to start an organisation that could provide strategic education for the visually impaired. This decision was greatly influenced by the fact that people with disabilities who go to school find it very difficult coping with a system which does not take them into account when drawing the curriculum.
Photos: Coco Bertin in his office at CJARC and people from Cameroon Blind School, Yaounde, Cameroon
Despite the fact that Cameroon is a signatory to conventions by organisations such as the UN and UNESCO, which foreground Inclusive Education (IE), Cameroon to a greater extent is still at the level of sensitisation, a fact which Louis Mbibeh corroborates in his article ‘Implementing Inclusive Education in Cameroon’ when he says “…this is because most curricula were developed without any consideration for learners with impairments and it equally becomes difficult to change the habits of teachers who were initially trained within the backdrop of this curriculum.”
In order to contribute to shaping the educational experience of visually impaired people, Coco Bertin started working on the furniture of his organisation, named COJARY (Coopérative des Jeunes Aveugles Réhabilités de Yaoundé) and later renamed CJARC (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Réhabilités du Cameroun) in 1988, from his bedroom in his parents’ house.
In 1991, they searched several neighbourhoods for visually impaired persons, whom they took under their wing, teaching them mobility and braille. By 2003, CJARC became highly sought after, leading to the creation of a primary school called Louis Braille in 2004, which initially had 15 pupils. Last year, about 220 pupils were enrolled, including those with various handicaps. Furthermore, the school is inclusive of children with no handicaps, which makes the curriculum very particular.
In Cameroon, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable to poverty. Many of them are undereducated and unemployed. The government is not rigorous in implementing the measures stipulated in the constitution to protect and ensure the well-being of persons with disabilities and it is not uncommon for members of a family who are visually impaired to be considered only after the educational needs of other children have been taken care of. Moreover, there is no rule which specifies the employment conditions of visually impaired people.
Over the years, CJARC has been in contact with several visually impaired persons who have not passed through the organization, and CJARC has played a part in their job-hunting as well. One such example is Jean-Pascal, who heard about CJARC for the first time in 1993 during a trip to Ngoundal in the northern part of Cameroon where he met Martin Luther, who told him about CJARC. Jean-Pascal crossed paths sometime later with CJARC during a sensitization campaign. Today Jean-Pascal is a journalist, who has been working with CRTV since 2011, and is thankful for CJARC’s guidance. Judithe, one of the cooks at CJARC is a product of the institution in question, and she is grateful, not only for the job, but because she learned how to read braille and readjust her mobility after she became blind in 1998 due to complications resulting from an intoxication of methylated spirit. “It gave me a reason to continue living,” she says.
Despite the fact that there are not many government structures which prioritise the education of visually impaired persons, several private organisations have stepped in and are doing their best to fill the lacuna. Much work still needs to be done, especially at the level of sensitisation and the implementation of Inclusive Education, such that visually impaired people and people with disabilities in general can have more opportunities to compete for jobs.
Dzekashu MacViban is a freelance journalist and writer who focuses on the intersection between culture and technology. He can be found on twitter here: @Dmacviban.