From a recluse to guest speaker at a disability inclusion event attended by Members of Parliament and the Disability-inclusive Development Reference Group in Canberra, Australia, Dr Maureen Udodeme has come a long way since developing a hearing impairment in her final years of medical school in Nigeria.
Speaking to ABC’s Ramp Up, Dr Udodeme says adjusting to the sudden change in her circumstances was challenging in more ways than one. She not only had to come to terms with losing her hearing as an adult, she also had to deal with the psychological toll it took on her.
“My initial response to the new problem was withdrawal from public life into a more reclusive kind of life. Group discussions with friends were a problem,” recalls Dr Udodeme.
“You have to live with the fact that some activities you were fond of in the absence of disability would be difficult in the face of disability.
“In my last years of medical school there were just two of us with a hearing impairment and there were no assistive technologies. Teachers did most of their teaching by talking. The university did not have a disability services section and we had zero support,” she says.
In spite of these hurdles, a determined Dr Udodeme graduated as a medical doctor in Nigeria and later went on to receive an Australia Awards Scholarship to undertake a Master of International Public Health at the University of Sydney.
Dr Udodeme admits that securing work in the saturated Nigerian job market after medical school was no easy feat, more so for someone with a hearing impairment, but she was undeterred. “I was turned down several times, but I did not give up,” she explains.
Dr Udodeme’s perseverance was rewarded when she landed a job as a specialist trainee in Paediatrics at the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Delta State University Teaching Hospital, Delta State Nigeria, although the job was not without its challenges. “It was difficult initially getting on well with colleagues because most had not lived with deaf people and there was a communication problem, but now we are like family,” says Dr Udodeme. “I have learned new ways to communicate better, use sign language and social media, and the deaf community has been quite helpful, so I am happier now.”
On commencing her scholarship in Australia and receiving support from the University of Sydney’s Disability Services Unit, as well as funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Disability Access and Equity Fund for the purchase of hearing aids, Dr Udodeme noted the difference technology makes in ensuring disability inclusion.
“It is easier to access assistive technologies to alleviate the effects of disabilities in developed countries. It is different in developing countries where the technology is absent and, even when available, very few can afford it, so you are mostly on your own,” she observes. “All around me in Sydney, I see accessible buses and toilets, ramps, escalators, lifts, hearing loops in classrooms and other places: the list is endless. The University Disability Service offers state-of-the-art physical and psychological support to students with disabilities, and business firms offer special internship programs for people with disabilities.”
With a keen interest in child health, Dr Udodeme plans to return home to focus her efforts on reducing the high rates of infant and child mortality by tackling the main preventable causes of infant and child mortality in Nigeria.