Lessons learned through IT and technology can change the course of a life, say educators in Nigeria. Showing children and young people with disabilities how to fly drones, construct robots and build electronic circuits has opened up a new world of possibilities.
The idea that young people with disabilities struggle when it comes to IT and technology subjects has gained traction despite its dubious origins.
And it’s a notion that one not-for-profit organisation in Nigeria aims to dispel.
Special Needs Initiative for Growth believes that STEM and robotics programs are ideally suited to those with special needs. And armed with the skills gleaned from these subjects, students have their best shot at a place in tomorrow’s workforce.
Founding Executive Director Racheal Inegbedion says that some of the biggest barriers to people with a disability pursuing a career in STEM or IT is a lack of confidence.
'A lot of the time, people with disabilities are left behind', she said. 'We saw a need to come in and fill this gap and change the narrative by helping people experience tech in a different format.'
It’s about empowering young people with a disability to pursue a career of their dreams in technology.
Financed by grants and assisted by several developmental organisations, the initiative teaches STEM and robotics to young adults aged 16 to 35 with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, and children with cerebral palsy and vision impairments.
Over the past three years, Special Needs Initiative For Growth has already imbued more than 300 people in Nigeria and other parts of Africa with the skills to pursue careers in IT.
Oluwatobiloba ‘Tobi’ Oluwole
The programmes are run by positive and experienced educators who provide their students with a gateway to technology through building electronic circuits, piloting drones and programming robots.
A developmental partner of the project, Oluwatobiloba Oluwole, teaches the students how to fly drones at the Global Air Drone Academy in the port city of Lagos.
After a professional drone flying demonstration, he gives students DIY kits that enable them to design and assemble their own aircraft.
Mr Oluwole makes sure that his students are also aware of safety regulations as well as aviation and licensing laws. It’s all about teaching them responsibility, he says.
'We make them aware that they are in charge of comprehensive, expensive, potentially dangerous equipment that they will be held liable for should something happen. We make them aware that they are in control of an aircraft.'
But most importantly, it’s about arousing their interests and curiosity surrounding the possibilities of technology.
It’s about getting them excited. When they get their drones flying, they really just go crazy. It’s always an experience.
It’s alive, it’s working!
Clifford Ajefo, who runs the Internship Organisation for Young Adults with Disability, Brainiacs STEM and Robotics Company at various locations around Nigeria, gets students’ creativity flowing with robots.
He shows them how to build basic driving robots from scratch before progressing onto more advanced units with superior functions. They are also encouraged to build robots with inexpensive materials that they can find at home.
'We give them the ability to flex their creativity, to come up with things that the robots can do and find their own solutions', Mr Ajefo said.
'When they manage to program the robot, they get very excited. "It’s working!" they say, and I say, "of course, you programmed it with AI, it’s meant to work!"
They may think of functionalities I haven’t thought of… and we’ll work together to implement them. They’re learning from us and we’re also learning from them. It’s a collaborative effort.'
Robots bring code to life in a way that computers can’t, he says. And in this way they open students’ minds to how far technology can go.
Preparing the visually impaired
Teaching IT skills to the blind and visually impaired is a new direction for Special Needs Initiative For Growth. Dikko Yusuf, the initiative’s project coordinator in northern Nigeria, has been working with a school for the blind and visually impaired to devise a computer literacy programme.
With most students only using braille, the tasks start simple: starting the computer, loading up a document, opening up a web browser and searching.
Visually impaired himself, Mr Yusuf says that he’s determined young people with vision impairments are not left behind.
'The world is moving at a very rapid pace where everything is done virtually and digitally – we communicate through technology, so we’re trying to introduce them to technology', he said.
Breaking perceptions, going higher
Atmosphere is everything at the Barack Obama American Corner, one of several organisations around the country to partner with the initiative. Bimbo Akintunde believes that the key to creativity is a comfortable and positive environment, which is exactly where her students create spinning motors, hair-trigger alarm systems or powerful sound projectors – all via electronic circuits.
'We generally create a space for them to really explore and express themselves by putting things together.'
Ms Akinsanya says that the experience has shown her what humans are capable of.
'We have a perception of children with Down syndrome or autism that they can’t really do things, but when they come in and they are taught, and I see them putting things together, I personally feel like wow, every child has this thing in them that they can really do, no matter what they may be facing.'
Similar revelations have opened doors at the Down Syndrome Foundation, where Innocent Okuru wants to help young adults with the condition discover their passion and prepare themselves for employment.
'They are discovering so many things that they can do on their own', he said.
'If they did not have this opportunity they would not be encouraged and they would be left out in society, but as technology is going higher, they are going higher too.'
Special Needs Initiative For Growth has been recognised at the global level. In 2021, it was awarded best innovative practice in employment and ICT for Persons with Disabilities by the Zero Project, which fights for the rights of people with disabilities around the world.
The various programmes are designed to allow students to reach their full potential. As many as 58 young adults with Down syndrome and autism have already progressed to internships.
Others are given access to work opportunities or are given a grant to start a business, while experienced counsellors provide advice that has the potential to kickstart careers that otherwise may never have been.
Ready for tomorrow
Combining technology with special needs education yields stunning results, Ms Inegbedion says, and teaches so much more than computer and technical skills.
It’s about solving authentic problems, which helps to prepare them for the complex world of work.
'Over time this enables them to improve their listening skills, leadership skills, emotional intelligence, communication skills, team building and even community flexibility', she said.
We want to transform this training into real life opportunities.