Making Himself Heard
As a deaf man in Nigeria, Godwin Irokaba was an object of pity. A fellowship at Gallaudet University is transforming him into an agent of change.

By Jim Haner
Sunday, February 18, 2007

WHEN THE FEVER FINALLY PASSED and Godwin Irokaba woke up, his mother was crying, and a look of worry was working in the lines of his father's face. His brothers and sisters were gathered around his hospital bed. Their lips moved, but they made no sounds. Between the first flush of a spiking temperature and this moment, Irokaba's life had been irrevocably changed in a span of days.

"I saw my family around me," he recalled in an interview, "and I saw they all seemed to be quite sad, and I was wondering what was going on. Later, my mother explained that I was now deaf. I didn't even understand what that meant. I was 9 years old, just a boy. I didn't feel any different . . . I didn't feel that I was lacking anything."

Speaking emphatically in sign language, he said: "I was the same person."

He was about to learn different. Almost from the day he lost his hearing to an outbreak of meningitis in Nigeria in 1976, Irokaba saw his social status diminished -- and it lit something inside him: a rage that transformed him by age 12 from a "lazy student," he said, into a voracious reader and "boy revolutionary" whose hero was Alexander the Great. Now 39, Irokaba is pursuing a master's degree in deaf education, with an emphasis on bilingual teaching (in English and sign language) and charter school administration, at Gallaudet University -- the world's leading institution of higher learning for the deaf.

His education here is being financed by the Ford Foundation as part of a $355 million campaign to provide postgraduate degrees to 4,000 students from developing countries by 2014. As a condition of the program, begun in 2000, recipients must agree to return to their homelands upon graduation to work for social change.

Irokaba is one of 2,400 Ford international fellows so far, all of whom have had to overcome enormous odds to attain the undergraduate degrees to even be considered for the pool of 100,000 applicants worldwide. About 5 percent of the fellows are handicapped, including about 10 who are deaf.

"Godwin had to teach himself American Sign Language in order to study here, and that's in addition to the four or five other languages he had to acquire just to complete his primary education and undergraduate degrees in Nigeria,'' says Joan Dassin, who administers the Ford program. "It's an enormous testament to his fortitude that he has gotten this far."

Irokaba still laughs at the culture shock he experienced when he first arrived on Gallaudet's historic Florida Avenue NE campus in 2005 -- "In America, deaf people are permitted to drive!" he said with mock marvel. But it was mere prelude to a much larger epiphany about what achievements are possible in a country with a functioning deaf culture.

"In truth, I say now, I belong to the Deaf Nation," a worldwide republic without borders, he said. "I was lucky to come to Gallaudet when I did, because I got to see what happened here with my own eyes."

THE STUDENT PROTESTS THAT SWEPT THE CAMPUS IN OCTOBER offered an object lesson that Irokaba had never experienced in Nigeria. In a nation of about 140 million people where hearing loss among the young occurs at a rate at least two to three times greater than in the West, a disabled-rights movement is barely in its infancy.

"Deaf people around the world pay attention to what happens here," Irokaba says of the university. "In the smallest schools, far away from the cities, even deaf children know when there is a disturbance at Gallaudet."

Not only were the protests well-organized, persistent and raucous -- at one point police arrested 130 demonstrators -- they also succeeded in a matter of weeks in forcing the ouster of university president-designate Jane Fernandes. At least part of the demonstrators' contention was that Fernandes was not truly representative of the deaf community. The product of mainstream schools, she had grown up among hearing classmates and had learned to speak vocally before studying sign language at the relatively late age of 23. Her detractors, she said, were attacking her for not being "deaf enough." Advocates shot back that she was trivializing student concerns about the erosion of traditional deaf culture. As leaps in audiovisual technology in the United States have made it possible for more hearing-impaired students to attend mainstream public schools, at least six states have debated whether to "mothball" their aging schools for the deaf rather than spend millions on renovations. Federally funded Gallaudet itself has come under scrutiny by government efficiency auditors.

Advocates for traditional deaf culture have likened these institutions to the nation's historically black colleges as repositories of memory and identity among a people long marginalized. It was on these campuses, some of which were founded in the 1800s, that many deaf people first met others like themselves, studied sign language together, fell in love, got married and became members of a larger, politically active, deaf community.

For Irokaba -- a self-described "neutral" who suddenly found himself surrounded by an eruption of "debate within the American deaf community that I do not personally belong to" -- the discourse was alien. But it was nonetheless life-altering for someone from a country in which the rights of the disabled are barely acknowledged. "In Nigeria, when you become deaf," he said, "people look at you with pity. Most of my associations with people when I was young were based on that. They viewed me with pity, and I really, really hated it."

He recalled that his father, who raised 10 children on his salary as a communications technician, warned him from an early age not to set his sights too high -- to learn a trade, to find a job as a mechanic or carpenter that did not involve public contact -- because "life for the deaf in Nigeria is hard."

Three major languages and more than 200 regional dialects are spoken in Nigeria, but a unified sign language does not exist. And despite government policies guaranteeing the rights of the disabled, the deaf are subject to what Irokaba calls a "culture of oppression" that discourages them from seeking an education or even being seen in public. "How can you articulate a dream and insist on your rights," Irokaba asked, "when you don't even have the means to communicate?"

Nigerian schools for the deaf are so rudimentary that a 2002 study published in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education found that they have not advanced beyond the "theory level."

"Schools for the deaf in Nigeria are in a sorry state, to put it mildly," said C. Jonah Eleweke, the author of the study and a researcher at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada, who also lost his hearing to meningitis as a boy in Nigeria.

But with a population of mostly young, deaf citizens conservatively estimated to be equivalent to the city of Chicago -- and possibly almost twice as large -- Nigeria is at the threshold of "deaf critical mass," Irokaba said, a political movement in waiting. Each year that population grows, driven by unchecked viral outbreaks. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen more than 500,000 new cases of meningitis in the past decade alone, according to the World Health Organization, resulting in hearing loss to tens of thousands of children.

A small cadre of Gallaudet-trained educators succeeded in establishing pilot schools for the deaf in most of Nigeria's 36 states over the past 40 years, Eleweke said. But Irokaba, who taught at a school for the deaf in Nigeria, observed that "deaf children continue to fail repeatedly, at every level" for lack of the most basic teaching tools or understanding of how "visual learners" grasp concepts.

At Gallaudet, Irokaba said, he encountered a learning environment designed by and for the deaf for the first time -- classrooms bristling with computers, television monitors, digital captioning equipment; buildings designed with hallways that arc around corners so students can communicate at a distance using sign language; a state-of-the-art library with an enormous central atrium to allow clear lines of sight between floors.

Recounting his own school experience in Nigeria, Irokaba laughed: "Even the seating arrangements are wrong. They still line deaf students up in rows, so all they see is the back of each other's heads. How can they communicate?"

By necessity, students would band together outside the classroom. "We taught each other; it was the only way," sometimes struggling to bridge gaps in understanding between one another's invented signing systems.

Irokaba's mission, he said, will be to plant the seeds of deaf culture in Nigeria -- and to change the laws that prohibit him from going anywhere in his Volkswagen van without a hearing chauffer at the wheel. He plans to start a school based on American Sign Language. Somehow, some way, he says, he will re-create the empowering environment he found on Florida Avenue. "The money, I do not think about," he said. "It will come from somewhere. My friends and family say I have always been lucky and always determined. This has been my dream for a very long time."

Today, Irokaba said, his father is proud that his son refused to listen to those who would pity him.

"Deaf children must be taught to believe in themselves first," he said. "But they need people they can look at and say: 'If these people can do things with their lives, then we can, too. . . We can start something. We can stand up for ourselves.' I know it can be done. At Gallaudet, I have seen the power of deaf culture."

Jim Haner is the author of Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey Into the Heart of the American Game. He can be reached at

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