YALI engineer becomes disability advocate in Kenya

Eric Ngondi, 29, water and environmental engineer and disability advocate.

Eric Ngondi, 29, water and environmental engineer and disability advocate.

Eric Ngondi, 29, is one of 25 participants in a group of young leaders at FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Each accomplished in their own right, Ngondi’s trans-Atlantic journey is particularly poignant given that it was almost three years ago to the day that he became blind.

As a water and environmental engineer, Ngondi had been working at one of the country’s largest oil companies as a quality environment health and safety assistant manager. But soon after losing his vision, he was let go. Undeterred, Ngondi co-founded Wess Consultant, a water and environmental company.

“I started it partly because I have skills there and to earn me a living,” he said. “I have expertise in that area.”

Ngondi advises communities on resource management, sanitation and health, impact assessment, environmental audits and safety training.

“In Africa, we have a huge challenge for water,” he explains. “The challenge comes from that it’s not available. If it is available, it’s not clean. And if it’s available and clean, it does not get to everyone. So we try to teach and build capacity in such areas to inform people of the cleanliness, how can it be found, ways it can be found, even if it’s one jerrycan [a container] a day or two.”

In addition to his role as managing director, Ngondi has also taken it upon himself to become a disability advocate. Volunteering with the Kenya Society for the Blind, the same place he attended for training after his accident, he now teaches adaptive computer skills, HIV/AIDS awareness and psychological counseling to others twice a week.

“I choose to be living like an inspiration to others,” he said. “To say the truth, I hadn’t seen so many blind people in Nairobi, in supermarkets, or basically participating in daily activities. So I decided one of the things I would do is try to be visible, to motivate and inspire others, touch their lives.”

Maybe I will be the first guy in Kenya to use a guide dog

Ngondi attends schools, churches, and government institutions to educate leaders on how to engage with people with disabilities. His goal is to encourage participation by those with disabilities in daily activities, from work to school and church. He wants to show people how technology can allow the disabled to be active participants in the community.

Before arriving at FIU as a YALI fellow, the organizers worked with the Disability Resource Center to learn more about what they would need to provide Ngondi with in order to allow him to fully participate in the program.

“It’s not a novelty to have a student who is blind in the classroom at FIU,” said Director Amanda Niguidula. “There’s a lot of participation, and students are not marginalized because of their vision or blindness.”

Niguidula notes that there are 38 visually impaired and/or blind students currently served by DRC. Technology resources have made it easier to work with students in in the classroom, since they can provide much assistance while allowing students independence in their studies.

“Having more online courses, more robust discussions, even in the classroom environment, these aspects facilitate engagement with students,” she said. “We find their mastery and utilization of technology to be very equalizing.”

In the case of Ngondi, DRC loaned him a recorder and laptop, fully loaded with coursework and a screen reader. Each evening, he receives the material for the following day.

“People with disabilities often need more time to learn the material since some real time tools aren’t accessible for disability students,” she explains. “With optical character recognition software, Eric can scan material audibly, so that when he’s in the class, he is ready to engage in the conversation.”

In addition, DRC also called on its partnership with Miami Lighthouse for the Blind to conduct an orientation and mobility training session of the FIU campus with Ngondi. This training allows for blind or low vision people to navigate an area safely and independently using techniques that maximize senses, helping them know where they are and where they want to go. For example, it may teach a person that if they exit the Graham Center after lunch and they feel the sun on their back, they are facing east. Used in combination with a white cane, mobility training can also indicate where steps are, forewarning the user of barriers or objects in their way.

“I’ve never had a proper mobility and orientation training and skills, to learn me around the campus,” said Ngondi.

Ngondi said that many of the services available in Kenya are costly, making them inaccessible to those who need them. From wheelchairs to white canes, braille machines and paper – it all comes at a high cost.

The concept of guide dogs are also unfamiliar.

“There is no such thing in Africa,” said Ngondi. “I’m told they’ll get confused by our roads and public transport. But, that’s something I’d like to experience here before I go. Maybe I will be the first guy in Kenya to use a guide dog.”

Working with nearly 2,000 students at FIU who receive services from DRC, Niguidula points out that Ngondi’s visit isn’t about his disability.

Read: African scholars at FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders

“We wanted to expose him to a seamless process, where we are part of the architecture of the program,” she said. “We don’t put more steps or obligations on him because he’s blind. He is a scholar at this institute and we are here to benefit his learning.”

Ngondi seems to be fitting in just fine, even updating his Facebook status to share his excitement about being part of YALI at FIU.

“As a public institution, it’s way ahead of our private institutions,” he said, commending the school. “I want to experience more of Miami, but so far, so good.”