See Me, Not My Disability
It was my 19th birthday and I had gone out for lunch with friends. During our meal, a sudden uproar with people cheering, phone cameras clicking and the song “Happy Birthday to you” filled the air. I felt indifferent and a little confused because I had heard the Happy Birthday song so many times that day and the singing was coming from unfamiliar voices, so other than their proximity, there was no telling if the singing was actually for me. Then, someone took my hand and directed it to a plate with elevated dots made out of what I presumed was candy or some sort of hard chocolate. And gliding my fingers across the plate, I read the phrase “Happy Birthday Enita, from the Chef and Waiters”, written in Braille and within seconds, this had become my best birthday yet. If you haven’t figured it out already, I am visually impaired and this little gesture from the staff at the restaurant had transformed me from a distant spectator at my birthday to being actively involved in the celebration.
Luckily for me, I come from a comfortable family and the majority of challenges I have as a person with disabilities (PWD) are those relating to my comfort and pleasure. However, not every PWD is this privileged and many of them are faced with the uncertainty of food, shelter or even just survival. An accident could occur at any moment in time, and then you realize that buildings are wheelchair-inaccessible, doctors cannot sign language and every gadget is dependent on your ability to see.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 25 million people in Nigeria are living with one form of disability or the other and with such an alarmingly high number, I often wonder why I hardly come across these 25 million people other than those begging on the streets. This is because our society has neglected a large number of them so greatly that they are now segregated from the world, spending the majority of their lives in Centres for PWDs or at home dependent on their families to cater for their every need.
I understand that there are various degrees to disabilities and some people do need all-around care but, a lot of PWDs are restricted by our communities as opposed to their disabilities. Though achieving goals may be more challenging for PWDs, this does not equate to them being liabilities. They tend to advance in other capabilities, and this has been scientifically proven.
Thus, as a means of evolution and adaptation, defects in one aspect of our bodies increases efficiency in other areas to ensure the survival of the individual. Think about it, how many people with both hands functioning can fry an egg with their feet? But I know at least two amputees (without hands) who can! PWDS provided they are in a nurturing environment, have the propensity to thrive, to do well not just for themselves, but for the society at large.
Several policies relating to PWDs have been put in place in Nigeria, including The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 10 (2015), The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 and The National Policy on Inclusive Education (1977), but with the current state of things, there is still so much more to be done. Discrimination against PWDs is prevalent in Nigeria and can be in form of limited employment, lack of access to education, restricted use of public spaces, stigmatization, absence in political offices, underrepresentation in the media, and even unsolicited sympathy to name a few. The first step towards empowering PWDs is to identify the causes of these disabilities to bridge the gap between them and the general population.
Although a majority of those in Nigeria is a product of violence and warfare, they also frequently occur due to poor medical care, as well as laxity in road safety regulations, fire prevention termination protocol and abject poverty.
The goal is to create a level playing field by equipping PWDs in every way possible to reach their highest potentials in a world that is inherently rigged against them. Some of the ways to achieve these are;
- Routine screening: hospitals should enforce routine screening protocol for prevalent disabilities in newborns and infants. When identified early, some of these diseases can be corrected and the irreversible ones can be managed to stop them from progressing. For example, a birth defect like clubfoot can be corrected within the first year of life (as babies have softer bones), yet it is still a common cause of paralysis in Nigeria (About 9,000 of Nigeria’s seven million yearly newborns have clubfoot. That is 4.5 per cent of the global 200,000 annual incidences). Screening should also include visual and hearing acuity tests
- Prioritizing Fire Safety: This can be achieved by requiring mandatory fire extinguishers, fire drills and fire exits in public buildings. Additionally, adequate funding of the Firefighters Brigade is essential to increase efficiency.
- Prioritizing Road safety: may include additional training requirements for professional drivers (e.g., truck drivers) and regular inspection of their vehicles to ensure that they are up to standard. Also, strict adherence to seatbelt and traffic laws with appropriate fining of defaulters is necessary
- Training Doctors, Nurses especially midwives who are in charge of births on how to handle emergencies like when an unborn baby is in a distress situation. Some disabilities like cerebral palsy(sometimes caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during labour and delivery) can be prevented if medical personnel at delivery are competent and efficient.
- Improvement of Health Care – For years, Nigeria’s health care network has been rated among the worst in the world: a 2018 study in The Lancet of global health care access and quality ranked Nigeria 142nd out of 195 countries. Thus, a lot of Nigerians resort to self-medication which sometimes results in one form of disability. Sometimes, people are medicated with expired drugs or are given an overdose, or are wrongly diagnosed.
- Educating Healthcare Professionals; courses should be made available for healthcare professionals to increase their sensitivity to PWDs and to equip them in meeting their specific needs.
- Disability Awareness Day: creating awareness will help to curb the stigmatization of PWDs. In 2021, it is inexcusable that some of us still view PWDs as accursed or the condition as contagious. Educating the population on disabilities will increase tolerance and understanding.
- Grants and Financial Aids; the government can provide financial assistance for caretakers and institutions that cater for PWDs and through this, improve their quality of life. Also, the release of grants to provide wheelchairs, ramps, Braille books, Newscasters that Sign and anything that equips PWDs to interact with the world will be impactful.
- Review of current policies regarding PWDs and making adjustments where necessary
In case you are wondering whether you have the financial resources to implement any of the above, not to worry, there are multiple ways you can get involved in making a difference. You could volunteer at a school for the blind, you could also register for Sign Language classes in KIR Foundation, or start advocating for the rights of PWDs online and promote disability inclusion in all your activities. It is truly about ‘Empathy’ because there is a thin line between ability and disability, chances are that you know someone with a disability who was not born that way. So, remember, small gestures of love can go a long way to supporting and encouraging the PWDs in your network. , empowering the largest majority of a marginalized and underserved group of people that make up approximately 15% of the Nigerian population will undoubtedly result not only in socio-economic advancement but more importantly, enable PWDs to reach their potentials. Can you put a price on that?
Please to learn more about how to relate with PWDs, kindly download http://bit.ly/Itsaboutempathy, KIR Foundation’s Explanatory Guide to The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018.
Written by Dr Ese Praise Chovwen
2nd December 2021
KIR Foundation Volunteer