The student opened the letter she was clutching in her hands and felt the walls around her crumble.
As Jane Ottah stood outside her departmental office at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, the reality of what she had just read began to gradually sink in.
“What I saw in the letter was the shock of my life,” said Ms. Ottah, 28, who was in her first year in the Department of Educational Foundation.
“This was a thing I will never believe, this was the one thing that could have taken away my life if it wasn’t for the help of my friends who were there when I was about to faint.”
On January 30, 2015, the university terminated Ms. Ottah’s admission over claims of speech and hearing challenges.
“I am directed to state that during your recent medical examination in the Health Services Department, it was observed that you are medically challenged and have hearing and speech difficulties,” read the letter signed by C.M Ewhorlu, Principal Assistant Registrar (Senate) of the university.
“I am further directed to state that as a result of these difficulties our team of medical personnel found it impossible to communicate with you.
“Since the University does not have special communication facilities, the Vice-Chancellor has directed that you be de-registered on health grounds. I am in the circumstance, directed to inform you that you have been de-registered on health grounds with immediate effect.
“You are therefore advised to hand over all University property(ies) in your possession to your Head of Department and thereafter leave the campus.”
A ‘Special’ Student?
Despite the university’s claims that she was a special student, Ms. Ottah insisted she had no such challenges.
After initially applying to study Business Administration at the university, Ms. Ottah was offered an admission to read Educational Foundations in September 2014.
When the school reopened a month later, she joined other fresh students for the admission formalities, which included a medical check-up at the institution’s medical centre.
“As soon as I went there and I was asked what is wrong with my voice, I told the doctor that I have a voice problem, that I can talk but at times my voice is somehow,” Ms. Ottah told PREMIUM TIMES during a Whatsapp chat.
“I was not with my hearing aid the day I went there., and she (the doctor) didn’t understand me very well but the other younger doctor was there as well who was asking me questions about what happened to my voice and I decided to tell her about my hearing problem as well.
“And she asked me some questions like how did it happened and I told her. She seemed to understand me a bit but the elder doctor didn’t.
“And she asked about my eyes just because I was putting on glasses. And I told her that I do have eyes problem and she checked my eyes and put it down on a book.
”And she asked me if I was sick as a kid because of my hearing loss. I told her no. It just happened in a way that one can’t tell.
“So she asked about my secondary school, if it was a deaf school. I told her no, it’s not a deaf school I went to.”
According to her West African Examination Council result made available to PREMIUM TIMES, Ms. Ottah finished from Hallel College in Rumuogba, Port Harcourt, with three distinctions and five credits.
At the university medical centre, Ms. Ottah said she overheard the doctors discussing the possibility of her coping with the academic rigours.
“From that day, nothing was bad. I was busy with assignment, project, test, and planning for my first semester exams in February,” she said.
The school went on Christmas break on December 22, 2014, and resumed on January 5th, 2015.
Everything seemed fine for Ms. Ottah.
Until the first semester examination began.
“On the first paper, there was a paper that the lecturer will give you to sign if your name is there, and if you see your name on the list you have to sign there and I did mine,” she said.
Ms. Ottah said she signed against her name during her second and third papers.
However, on the day of the fourth paper, trouble surfaced.
“I didn’t see my name on the list to sign and I was worried that I asked my course mate and she direct me to go to the ICT centre to check,” she said.
“I went there with two of my course mates and we were told that they couldn’t find my name on the list but my name was there and that they couldn’t see the course I requested, and I was told it was from the medical centre. They blocked me from there.
“And I went with my course mate and met with the doctor, crying with a shaky voice which made her not to understand what I was talking about and I decided to call my friend to speak on my behalf. For example, I will talk to her and she will tell them what I am saying.
”As soon as we were done talking, the doctor said she once one told me that day I was in her office that I should come the other day but I didn’t. I was so busy that I forget about it. She sent me to my Department Office.”
It was at the Department Office that a lady delivered the letter which bore the shattering news to Ms. Ottah.
“In school, no one ever knew about my hearing problem, it was just my voice they knew,” she said.
Benedict Ottah, her father, described the letter as a “serious embarrassment”.
“I drove to the school, met the HOD, unfortunately, she didn’t attend to me in a way that she should,” Mr. Ottah told PREMIUM TIMES over the telephone.
“And I put up a letter demanding her (his daughter’s) instant recall. They refused. All of a sudden the HOD sent me back to the Medical Board. Only to be informed by the Medical Board that I should write a letter to the VC.
“I later wrote a letter to the VC, copied the Medical Board, the HOD, and the registrar who wrote the letter.”
In his letter to the Vice Chancellor, Mr. Ottah appealed for his daughter’s re-registration, noting that she had been taking her lectures and doing her class assignments without stress or complaints.
“I wish to state that on 2nd March, 2015, in the office of the HOD of Technical and Science Educational Foundations, Jane Ihuoma Ottah demonstrated clearly to the witness of the HOD her hearing and responding ability different from what was stated in the above letter,” Mr. Ottah wrote in the letter dated 2nd March, 2015.
“This demonstration was made possible while she wore her hearing aids. The same demonstration repeated again when she was referred to meet the Medical Director, Medical Services on same 2nd March 2015 in the office of the Medical Director himself.
“However, Jane Ihuoma Ottah did not attend the medical observation with her hearing, ear-aids the day she was scheduled. Furthermore, I wish the Medical Services may conduct another examination that she should be allowed to use her hearing aids. I am optimistic that this report will be put to rest.”
About two weeks after he wrote to the university, Mr. Ottah said he returned to the school only to be told by the head of her daughter’s department that the letter was “infuriating to her”.
”I told her what transpired in her office was exactly what I communicated, and then you are blaming me. All of a sudden she demanded that I should leave her office. Honestly I was seriously embarrassed,” he said.
“Only to go back to the VC secretary, I was being turned up, come back today, come back tomorrow. I ended up without no response up till date. They did not respond to my letter.
“The university has just denied her the opportunity to be in school. I know my daughter has a problem but she had every opportunity up till today.”
When contacted by PREMIUM TIMES, the Vice Chancellor of the university, Blessing Didia, said he had never heard of Ms. Ottah’s case.
“The matter happened in January as you said. I came from the University of Port Harcourt to become VC here in August,” Mr. Didia, a professor of medicine said. “This is the first time I have heard about the case.”
When asked whether he would review the case now that he is aware, Mr. Didia said, “They don’t admit deaf and dumb here. And if what you said really happened, the vice chancellor then must have seen reasons why she could not be taught here.”
Efforts to reach the school’s Registrar were unsuccessful and an e-mail sent to the school’s official mail address was not replied.
Ms. Ottah said she had remained at home since her dismissal – weeping over her misfortune and praying – while her friends are now in 200 level in the school.
“I never thought that Rivers State University of Science can send me away like this,” she said.
“Discrimination needs to stop. Everyone has the right to be educated no matter the conditions one is facing.”
The International Ford Fellowships Alumni Association Nigeria (IFFPAN), which first brought the student’s ordeal to the attention of this newspaper, has condemned the action of the University.
Speaking through its president, Faruk Sarkinfada, a professor, it said, “It is regrettable that a University in Nigeria in the 21st century can discriminate against any citizen on account of her disability.
“Her right to Education has been breached. The aspect of her life that must be telling her she is not wanted in our society will unfortunately impact negatively on her whole being.
“The university should review its decision and reinstate her, so that she can acquire tertiary education like her contemporaries.”