On this site, I will post excerpts from ten interviews I conducted in Malawi during June, July, and August of 2013. Each interviewee was a Malawian adult with severe vision impairment.
The quotes are numbered individually and some commentary follows each. The quotes are divided into three broad categories in this order: Visual Impairment and Work, Phones and Assistive Technology, and Gender.
One of the goals of posting these quotes early on is to get a sense of what resonates with people. What questions do these quotes leave you with? Do the sentiments expressed seem to apply in other cultures? What strikes you the most about these quotes?
Visual Impairment and Work
“[In] Malawi […] visually impaired people are teachers, or maybe teachers or those are employing teachers, are aware of capabilities of visually impaired persons, but apart from them, nobody else I think is aware of what visually impaired people can do apart from teaching. Of course where I work, now at least the bosses are able to consult me before they want to do something [...] Somehow, they are now aware of what a visually impaired person is supposed to do. Mostly, people are not aware of what a visually impaired person is capable of doing. [...] I think it is a process for everyone if they are working somewhere if they are visually impaired…they normally have to convince someone that they are capable of working. ” Ruthie, Female, Radio Host, Age 31
Quote One Commentary: Ruthie describes how members of the visually impaired population is most likely to find work in the field of primary and secondary education, whereas in most other industries coworkers and superiors are unexposed to, and therefore unaware of, the potential of visually impaired people to do capable work. She also relates how in her own work experience, it has taken time for her superiors to adjust to her particular needs, and how that process must repeat itself for visually impaired Malawians.
“I had worked at one place for a period of eight/nine years. And the people there in that area –Ahh, they loved me and I appreciated the way they were assisting me. To the extent that when I demanded posting to say ‘I have to go to another place.’ I did it myself to say ‘I have to go from this place to another place, so that I have maybe to experience another life.’ Even though I did this, I was a little bit depressed to say, ‘Will I be able to find people of this same behavior?’ So I came, to [this] Secondary School, and Ahh, yes, for the first days…I could remember the former place. [Laughs] But later, slowly, presently I am used to the people there. But the problem is when you are on a new place sometimes, it becomes a big problem.” Chikonde, Male, Teacher Age 43
Quote Two Commentary: Here, Chikonde elaborates upon the theme of coworker sensitization. After challenging himself to move towns and begin working at a new school, leaving behind people who understood him, Chikonde has gradually found a degree of comfort. Initially, though, he found his new school to be not nearly as comfortable.
Phones and Assistive Technology
“Yeah, first and foremost I think it’s the communication part of it. For visually impaired person now in particular, it enables you to link with specific people you may want to meet. Because with limited mobility and the cell phone becomes very handy. I may want to meet somebody, for example here at the campus, if I’m to go from room to room hunting for somebody, I may have more problems than a certain person. But now with a mobile phone, I can simply ring him and agree how to meet. So it’s quite, it’s quite helpful. I think it’s even more helpful than to a person who is sighted. [...] You don’t need really much assistance to go where the phones are or go with the public phone call. You can always have your handset with you and always call whenever you want.” Lucius, Male, Student-Teacher age 39
Quote Three Commentary: Lucius finds that phones hold great value in their ability to enable communication. The tedious process of finding someone on campus is greatly simplified. The reduction of often-difficult travelling leads Lucius to declare “I think it’s even more helpful to a person who is sighted.”
“The use of phones has increased the number of friends both within and outside this country. But it has also increased opportunities; you easily get messages which are helpful at work or entertainment and any other fields, so it’s a very known revolution in my life.”Alfred, Male, Teacher age 33
Quote Four Commentary: Alfred, who has lived in South Africa and has international contacts in the field visual impairment advocacy, lauds the mobile phone for enabling social networking and for information access for work and pleasure.
“Without the mobile gadgets, you cannot communicate, so it looks like when these mobile gadgets I think they had people with visual impairment in mind, so I think they had to consider them saying ‘Ahhh how best can we help them?’ coming up with the mobile gadgets.” John G., Male, Teacher, Age 51
Quote Five Commentary: John G. echoes Lucius’ separate sentiment that phones hold potentially greater value for the visually impaired population than the sighted population, going so far as to muse that they were designed for the visually impaired community.
“So yes frankly speaking, without the mobile gadgets, certain things have been difficult which have been improved on due to the coming in of maybe such facilities. So yes it is true to say that there would be certain things undone minus mobile gadgets.” John G., Male, Teacher, Age 51
Quote Six Commentary: When I met with John G., he was on his way to a conference for head teachers. He had used his mobile phone to communicate with the District Education office to organize transportation, and uses his multiple phones nearly constantly for work purposes. Here, he indicates the transformative power of the phones for his productivity and job efficacy with the phrase “Certain things undone minus mobile gadgets.”
“But today, maybe you are conversant on using a computer, you can do things on your own, let’s say you want to write a report, you can write a report. At a same time, submit it to the boss in time. And then it also helps much in gaining confidence from the people around or from the boss or even the workmates because it doesn’t give any difference because they know that maybe…despite the fact that you are blind, you can perform just as good as any persons. So it’s something that has really changed lives of the VI people, as compared to the life before.” Evie, Family Rehabilitation Consultant, Female Age 36
Quote Seven Commentary: Evie touches on a number of important points here when talking about the use of Assistive Technology for computers in her workplace. While previously was time-consuming, Evie has found that screen reader technology enables her to check her writing and submit written work to her superiors in good time. She has found this to be very useful in displaying her efficacy to her coworkers, earning their trust and respect.
“People with visual impairment could be taught how to type, but could not check what was typed, but could not read what was there. [...] But now with the assistive devices, say the speech, or the screen readers, enable a visually impaired person to type, check his work, edit his work, or read somebody’s work. And in a career, that is a step forward.” Lucius, Male, Student-Teacher age 39
Quote Eight Commentary: Lucius describes the effect of computer-based assistive technology on office work: typing, editing, reading another person’s work. “In a career, that is a step forward.”
“When I was joining this organization, I called the director, because that time I knew there was a vacancy, I talked to him, and then he gave me the relevant document that I can used to apply. But the whole beginning started with a calling. At a same time the information that I want to help me to win the job, I was getting that information through talking to people through the mobile.” Justice, Youth Coordinator, Male Age 34
Quote Nine Commentary: Justice relates that he used his mobile phone to first inquire about a position, obtain the documents required to apply, and source information on the appropriateness of the job.
“You know, even awareness on assistive technology is poor like I said in Malawi. Though many people don’t know about it, about assistive technology. Especially for the VI. They don’t. Even okay only one lecturer here when I told her that I’m using JAWS she knew what Jaws was. The rest were asking what JAWS –’what is JAWS?’ yet we have the resource center here, where computers are writing on JAWS. And she asked me that?: Francis, Student, Male age 25
Quote Ten Commentary: Francis describes how even in Malawi’s premier educational institutions, knowledge of Assistive Technology is low, despite the presence of an Assistive Technology lab with technician. In particular, screen reader technology (JAWS), is not known about despite its impact on the ability of visually impaired students to complete academic coursework.
“Our main problem is availability. Because some people with vision impairment can afford some of these things, but we don’t know where to buy. When we talk about online, how many people have Visa cards to buy? Nobody. So it becomes a problem when you have the money, but we don’t know how to buy these things.” Lucius, Male, Student-Teacher age 39
Quote Eleven Commentary: Lucius, well informed on assistive technology on mobile devices in Malawi and in South Africa, bemoans the lack of access to quality assistive-technology capable devices. Though there are phones available on the internet, Malawians do not have ready access to the forms of payment that could be used for such a purchase.
“Ahh, here in Malawi, I don’t know any cafe but it is the usual one, the ordinary ones.” Madalitso, Teacher, Female Age 45
Quote Twelve Commentary: Madalitso is explaining that outside of specifically designated resource spaces for the blind and visually disabled—typically found in educational institutions—there is not access to the internet through assistive technology at cyber cafes. In Malawi, cyber café’s are prevalent for-profit enterprises in cities.
“Yeah, the problem is our women with visual impairment in Malawi, they haven’t been exposed to education as much as boys. So as a result, they don’t have the skills, they are very few. You can imagine, since education of the blind in Malawi was introduced, probably 1968. Because earlier, say, in the 1950s, and the first person who went to University was in 1973. But since, then, to this very day, it’s only one woman who has gone to the University, who we were talking about. [...] so without those skills then, if you have a profession without any skills, than it will be difficult for them to look for JAWS, to come out.”Lucius, Male, Student-Teacher age 39
Quote Thirteen Commentary: Lucius describes what he sees as a major barrier for visually impaired women being able to work in office setting. He describes how women don’t receive the same exposure to education and do not matriculate to higher levels of education at nearly the same rate as men.
“I think women with disabilities are relatively more disadvantaged than men with disabilities, but it comes from the societal view of the masculinity or femininity of a human being.[...] It’s easy for a child of a parent whose got a male child with a VI to send him to school than for a parent whose got a child with, a female child with visual impairment. I can give you my own example, my father never went to school and was not educated, but he used to tell me whenever I am weak, I am crying, he used to tell me ‘You are a man, you are not supposed to cry. You have to take on the world, you have to face life.’ And these things became very instrumental when I faced challenges. Even when I lost eye sight and began going to school my sister […] he kept on telling me to ‘Work hard and harder than your sister. She will get married. You will get married if you have something.’ Alfred, Male, Teacher age 33
Quote Fourteen Commentary: Alfred gives his perspective on the differing expectations for men and women in Malawian society. He gives the example of his own father, who extolled Alfred’s working hard, despite his disability, because unlike his sister his ability to wed would be largely determined by his success in work.
“They do walk without feeling any shy, without feeling shy. But women are shy, they don’t like walking. They think that they can be laughed at if they fall in a pit somewhere, but men they don’t care.” Bernedetta, Female, Teacher age 36
Quote Fifteen Commentary: Bernedetta describes women as being more shy than men, and less willing to be laughed at. This was given as partial explanation for Bernadetta’s thought that visually impaired men were much more mobile and physically outgoing than visually impaired women.
“Because we always try to supply maximum security to women. So we don’t allow women to go outside maybe during the evening by themselves. And even during the day, if we know it’s a place that is not secure for a woman to go, we say ‘ah, no, I will go myself.’”Justice, Youth Coordinator, Male Age 34
Quote Sixteen Commentary: Justice relates that men expect to protect women, and that this is a factor in women’s ability to go places on their own. Even in daytime, women might be told not to travel alone.
“Most of the times men are so courageous, they can move along without relying on somebody, they can move along maybe without having a guide besides them, because they are courageous, unlike women, it’s very difficult for a woman to move alone without a guide. Most of the time, it’s like we doubt about ourselves and on top of that a lot of women don’t like using canes. Because the canes are very important as far as independent movement as far as blind person is concerned. Besides that, you know, it’s difficult again for a blind woman to move along, as far as rape cases are concerned.” Evie, Family Rehabilitation Consultant, Female Age 36
Quote Seventeen Commentary: Evie says that visually impaired Malawian men are able to walk alone, even without a guide walking with them. She says this is because men are “courageous”, whereas women must make different considerations. She cites self-doubt, unwillingness to use assistive canes, and concerns for security, specifically rape.