World Braille Foundation

World Braille Foundation

A light in the dark

By Christine Mehta
August 24, 2010

Alexander Williams, a graduate student from Ghana, has managed to overcome the obstacles inherent to being blind.

Alexander Williams was always a curious child. One day, his curiosity got him into trouble.

At age 12, Williams was hit in the right eye by a stray bullet.  Warring factions in the part of Liberia where he lived for the first 12 years of his life were fighting over port access to the harbor when his house got caught in the crossfire. 

"I was in the living room, and being the boy that I was, I would constantly peer through the windows because from a distance you could see what was going on," Williams said. "A bullet came through our window. What actually helped was just as the bullet was coming I turned my head and it kind of went right in front of me, scraping my eye instead of going straight through my head and killing me. But I lost my sight."

Williams is the only blind person from an African nation to be selected for the 2009-2010 Fellowship award. The Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program awarded 37 fellowships this year to people from Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria. After considering the disability studies programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Kansas State University, Williams decided to attend Syracuse University along with fellow Ghanaian scholarship recipient, Anita Djandoh, his current roommate.

Making change in Ghana

In Accra, Ghana, where he lives and works, Williams is an assistant director with the Organization of Ghana for the Blind, a nonprofit that merged with another organization to become the Ghana Society for the Blind. Williams specializes in the development of assistive technology and sports for the blind. In other words, he works on making technology such as computers that can speak text on the screen, PDAs for the blind, electronic book players, and machines that can scan printed material and then speak the text, available to the blind population in Ghana.

"Blindness, or any form of disability, is viewed as having come about as a result of a curse. It is never linked to serious medical causes," he said. "We were shunned, but you know what? Even when I was shunned, I forced myself into other people's lives."

Even in high school, where he faced the harshest rejection from his peers, he played in a brass band and was captain of the track and field team. He ran the 100-meter, and threw the javelin and shot put.

Williams knew he wanted to study in the U.S. In comparison to the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, Ghana has very limited resources and access to information for the blind, he said.

"When we had exams, the blind students have to go to the resource center for the blind, the questions are brought to us, read out loud, and we have to write down the questions before we start answering them. I spent two hours writing out my questions and another four hours answering the questions. Why couldn't they get the tests ready before the exams like they did for the sighted students? Why was that? I was a second-class citizen, a second-class human being. I was a second thought."

During his undergraduate education, Williams had to ask classmates to read aloud hundreds of pages of text to him because there were no Braille-version texts or audiotapes available to him. "That's one thing I find wonderful about SU, there are accommodations for blind persons on campus. Things are well-planned here, well-laid out for blind persons. I can go to the resources center and get any information I need. Can you imagine that huge access to information all of a sudden? I never had that in Ghana."

He applied for the Ford fellowship after the deadline, with low expectations. By mid-May, he'd heard nothing. In June, he cleared the first hurdle: he had been shortlisted for an interview. In August, he was told that he had won the scholarship — something he said he had given up on.

"I was crazy, wild. I almost turned my office table upside down," he said.

A new adventure

A few weeks later, Williams arrived in Syracuse for his first orientation. He and Djandoh, his roommate, live in a small off-campus apartment where Williams, said Djandoh, is constantly on Skype, talking loudly with friends and family from home, or playing music. "I think he's a fun-loving person, but I always have to remind him that he's in the U.S., you have neighbors downstairs. He's so loud," Djandoh joked.

"I'm kind of still in Ghana, in a way," Williams said. "I'm always on the phone. I could spend the whole day on the phone, just talking."

Williams loves to talk. Engaging, open, and constantly flashing a brilliant smile, he lets his stories flow in an endless stream. "I'm the loud type, everywhere I go. I've never learned to keep quiet, actually. If I had something to say, I had to say it," he said.

"Alex has charm," said Williams' friend and colleague, Armand Bam. "He can say the harshest of things and make it seem like he's giving them a cupcake."

Bam works in South Africa as the manager of a wellness program with the League of Friends of the Blind. He met Williams at the All African Forum for the Blind in Kenya in 2007, and developed a friendship.

'When I look at Alex, I don't see his blindness.'

Williams is an imposing 6 foot 4 inches and well over 200 pounds. But it is his animated manner that gives him a larger-than-life persona. "You can't help but notice him, and I noticed that he was confident and inquisitive," Bam said. "In a lot of work that I do, people's blindness is very apparent. It can be a hindrance to people, emotionally and psychologically, but not for Alex. When I look at Alex, I don't see his blindness."

Born with part of his brain tissue protruding from a fissure in the back of his skull, he has had vision problems since infancy. He developed extreme nearsightedness and glaucoma. At 11 years old, doctors removed his left eye to prevent the spread of glaucoma to his right eye, warning him that eventually, the vision in his right eye would fail as well. Then, being shot in the eye unexpectedly rendered him 100 percent blind.

Adjusting to complete blindness was not that traumatic for him, Williams said. He had many blind friends through his elementary school, the School for the Blind in Liberia, his mother's home country and his birthplace. The difficulty for Williams started when he and his family moved to Cape Coast, Ghana, and he was enrolled in an integrated boarding school for both sighted and blind students in the capital city, Accra.

"I remember in eleventh grade a classmate of mine, a senior girl, told me that at first she was afraid to get next to me because she thought my blindness was contagious."

Despite struggles to overcome cultural stigma, Williams finished high school and went on to college in Cape Coast, Ghana, the town he calls home. His struggles socially in high school, and educationally in college, have become his motivation for his life's work in increasing the standards of living for Africa's 750,000 blind people.

Williams cherishes his newfound mobility on the SU campus and hopes that he can make Ghanaian schools and communities more accessible to the blind.

"My biggest drive is making meaning in the lives of blind persons," he said. "I have seen blind people suffer without information; lose meaning through their life without hope. And I do something that gives blind people hope, access to information, ability to work independently. So, for me, what I do makes meaning to human lives."