Monday May 6 2013

Teaching from a wheelchair for 37 years

Right, Peter Okitera with his students in a classroom.

Right, Peter Okitera with his students in a classroom. Left, he writes on the blackboard from his wheelchair. Below right, Okitera speaks to fellow teachers. He taught Phyisics and Mathematics while inspiring his students that if a PWD, like himself managed to pass the subjects, they too, with all body parts functioning well can do them. PHOTOS BY HAMADI LUBWAMA 

How did you get the disability?
I was born in June 1951 when I was a normal child but got the disability when I was still very young. I cannot remember how it came but my parents told me that I got a fever that left both of my legs paralysed (very weak) and unable to walk. It was polio that caused my disability.

Many schools are inaccessible to PWDs. How did you manage to cope while using a wheel chair?
I had an ambition. I wanted to prove that I could make it in spite of my disability, so I did not let anything block my way. I studied from Kidoko Primary School, Bukedi College, Kings College Budo and Makerere University where I got a degree in education.
My parents carried me to school every day during my primary education because I had no assistive device. At school, I crawled. I got my first wheelchair when I joined secondary school. My classrooms were not in storied buildings except the dormitories. There were some small steps but I could crawl over them. In storied dormitories like in Lumumba Hall (Makerere), I was allocated one of the rooms on the ground floor that was accessible. The physics laboratory and my lecture rooms at Makerere were also on the ground floor – even up to now.

Why did you pick interest in teaching?
One of my senior brothers was a mechanical engineer but I did not want to be like him. My ambition was to become a doctor like one of my cousins. However, my parents and head teacher (Ian Robinson) at Budo who was a Briton discouraged me from doing medicine. They said that the work of a doctor would be so difficult for me because of my disability. They chose for me to do education and I became a teacher. I was a successful teacher and I don’t regret.

How easy was it for a person with disability to find a job?
I got three jobs before I left the university in 1975. I was posted to three schools: Bukedi College (Tororo), Makerere College, Kampala) and Jinja Girls School. All the head teachers of these schools wanted me.
We were very few teachers qualified to teach my subjects: physics and mathematics but I chose Bukedi College because I was an OB. Since then, schools have just been fighting for me because my work made the students understand and pass my subjects. I have also taught in Majansi High School and Tororo Girls School where I retired from in 2011. In both of these schools, I was the head of the Physics department. I taught for 37 years (1975-2011).

How did you manage to teach from a wheel chair?
I designed a tricycle that was suitable for me. I gave my specifications to a fabricator in a workshop in Jinja who made it for me. This was in 1975 but I still have it up to now. It is a small tricycle adapted to my height. It can also enter through any door.

Many PWDs are stigmatised and discriminated in society. How did you handle these challenges at school?
I cannot really say that I faced any specific challenges apart from the general challenges of little pay for teachers. My salary was not enough to maintain my family (of six children and wife) well, pay for my helpers and maintain my tricycle. I missed trips and tours because the schools could not make special arrangements for me.

Didn’t the students disrespect you because of your disability?
In whichever school I went, students doubted me at first. They were curious and wondered whether a disabled man like me could teach them very well from a wheelchair but whenever I started teaching, they were surprised to the extent that they liked my subjects the more. Some people say that Mathematics and Physics are hard subjects but my students did not find these subjects hard. They were inspired to do the subjects because, if I, despite the disability, offered and passed these subjects, why not them?

What are your greatest achievements?
I have been happily married to Joyce Apadet Okitera for the last 35 years. We have produced nine children since then but three passed on. I have raised and educated all the remaining six. Three have graduated from Makerere, two are in high school and the other is a clinical officer. I have a shop, a house and a commercial plot of land in Tororo Municipality.

How did you meet your wife?
I met her in the school where my father Tanga Osunueri was a headmaster. This was in 1978 after my graduation from Makerere. She was in Senior Four. I and my family thought the next thing I had to do after university was to get married and have a family. My father met her family and there was some initial resistance.

So it was not easy to get her?
Yes! It was not easy. Some of her family members discouraged her saying that a man like me could not keep her and could not have children. We told them that since I was successful in education, I would also be successful in marriage.
I had opened a shop in town and they were further convinced when we told them that she would run the shop as I teach.
The parents finally accepted and I paid dowry according to our custom. Ours is a customary marriage. She has been running the shop since our marriage and she also grows food for the family.

Has she ever regretted marrying you?
We have been living together very well. In fact, she has told me on several occasions that I am more capable than some other able-bodied men she dated before our marriage. We have never had any major problems in our marriage and we have never had any separation. She has been so supportive to me. I have done my best and we have been able to progress. She is proud of me because I am popular. I was a councillor at the district for 10 years and I am holding other leadership positions in the disability movement. I go with her for workshops in Kampala where I also meet and talk with several Members of Parliament, fellow councillors and prominent district officials. She is comfortable with me.

What has been your best moment with her?
We have had two best moments. First is when I took her to Makerere University for our first daughter’s graduation (Esther Shaggy Awuyo). We also attended together our second daughter’s graduation from Uganda Christian University. The other best moment was when we bought a piece of land in Tororo Municipality.

How are you surviving after retiring? Have you started to receive pension?
I have not been having a salary since I retired in 2011. Surviving is very difficult. I wish I retired early because then you could get your benefits right away. Now the process takes so long. I submitted all the necessary documents but moving my file from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Public Service is a big war. I do not know how long it will take.

What is your plan for the future?
I want all my children to graduate. I should have a good, complete and organised residence. I also want to have rental buildings. I have some business but I want to concentrate on it and develop it. I was also a councillor and represented persons with disability in Tororo District for 10 years but I was pushed out by a legislation that barred public servants from being councillors. Now that I am retired, I will go back to active politics and also be active in the disability movement.