Ambode with Dr. Waheed Oki; Sugar Band, Mr. Akin Akinloye; Producer/Presenter Lagos Television, Folasade Suleiman and CEO, Loizelle Evening Baps, Ms. Leila Atake, at a forum with the physically challenged persons to mark Ambode’s first anniversary in office, at Lagos House, Ikeja… recently

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode recently spent an evening with disable persons in the state to mark his first anniversary in office. Gboyega Akinsanmi writes that he was not just moved by the scale of neglect they often suffer, but also by their potential to add value despite the odds stacked against them

He probably never bargained for a life so challenged; neither was he born likewise. But by accident, Olugbenga Kuye lost his limbs to poliomyelitis, a highly infectious disease caused by a virus at the age of three. It was a challenge he never prepared for, but definitely had to cope with and surmount if he should add value to himself and by extension his generation.

For Kuye, walking is debilitating and living full life is perhaps a mirage. Like all disable persons, growing up was not palatable. Accessing quality education was, for him, indeed a daunting challenge. Even after tertiary education, getting a lucrative job often reminded him of his disability. Getting married too, cast deepest palls on the future he had painstakingly nurtured.

Despite his challenges physically, Kuye dared the storms of life and pulled through virtually in all stages. He had set up the Polio Rescue Association (PRA), an anti-polio advocacy group, fighting hard to eradicate the scourge of poliomyelitis in Nigeria. For him, polio still exists as a social menace and a real threat to actualising dream of every Nigerian child.

But Kuye’s anti-polio crusade is now helping to fight the dream-killing virus educatively and methodically. Kuye has been able to achieve this feat with the development of anti-polio animated movie. Also, he had written an anti-polio comic book already translated to other languages to educate and sensitise all Nigerian families across ethno-religious boundaries.

Like Kuye, a good number of disable persons are adding values nationwide not just to themselves, but equally to their communities. In real sector, for instance, some of them are actively involved, creating jobs and rendering services. In informal sector too, others are truly blooming with enviable records because they refused to submit to their challenges.

Such spirit of resilience has been a source of inspiration for Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode. Before his election, Ambode had been working with persons with diverse conditions or disabilities. So, stirring their hope was one of the rationales he set up La Roche Leadership Foundation, a charity group now independently functioning to identify and rewards talents.

Even though he had formally resigned from the Board of La Roche Leadership Foundation due to a position of trust he is currently holding for Lagos residents, Ambode never forgot persons with disabilities. Ambode never left them in the lurch of their lives. Instead, the governor brought to the front burner, engaging them and stirring their hope.

Rather than celebrating his first anniversary in office with funfairs, Ambode held a meeting with persons with special conditions. For him, bringing them a message of assurance is sufficient to rekindle their aspiration; refresh their hope for a future and strengthen their minds at a trying time. He, thus, said that should be the focus of every people-driven government.

Previous administrations had truly reckoned with disable persons. Under the Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration, for instance, persons living with disabilities were offered rare privilege in the public service and an office was created for them. Under the Babatunde Fashola administration, they were never thrown into the cold; neither were they abandoned.

But the Ambode administration had taken them more seriously. At a recent forum, Ambode explained the real reasons it became important “to celebrate these special people.” He cited diverse socio-economic interventions, which he said, had been provided by people living with diverse conditions or disabilities, not just in the state, but also nationwide.

Besides, the governor has an entirely different perspective “to hosting these special people and engaging them meaningfully.” He said he had a commitment to all Lagos residents, not just “to run an all-inclusive government, but also to emphasise a pledge to give every resident a voice in our administration.” He said that “is the essence of every government.”

Ambode said he had specifically requested to mark his first anniversary with persons living with disabilities “to showcase their talents,” thereby pleading with the society at large to encourage persons living with disabilities; show them love always and give them deserved support. Our role is not to pity them, but to stir up their potentials and give them hope.”

He thus reeled out the names of special persons, whose potentials had indeed become a source of inspiration. He cited Dr. Waheed Oki, a medical doctor who runs one of the largest clinics in Badagry. He recognised Mrs. Folashade Sulaiman, a presenter with Lagos Television. He mentioned Mr. Akin Akinloye, leader of Sugar Band and a successful lawyer, Leila Atake.

Among others, Ambode noted that persons living disabilities “are people with enviable potentials and talents. These are people who are successful in their own right and in their own career. Dr. Oki, for instance, is from Lagos Island. He is a successful medical doctor. I have personally known him for over 42 years. We were in the same class in Form One.”

He shared his experience living with the special people at different stages of his life. He said this experience formed one of the reasons he had to take them more seriously. He said: “I have lived all my life growing up with people with disabilities. That is why it is important to engage them. I just want to honour all of you for your chosen careers and for living it up.

“Allowing your abilities to actually triumph over your disabilities is indeed amazing. I am committed to celebrating the special people to inspire others. With the position I am holding in trust for Lagos residents, I am your partner and all the ones that are out there also, Lagos State will partner with all of you and you will all live your lives to the fullest,” he explained.

Ambode, however, canvassed a change of perception about persons living with disabilities. He said it was important to correct erroneous impression most people “have about persons living with disabilities. Such impression often result in discrimination and exclusion on a daily basis. It was high time Nigerians began to embrace them as part of the society.

“They are faced with barriers to education and training which limit their job opportunities, leading in turn to poverty, social exclusion and restricted access the basic human rights which we all take for granted. This is unacceptable. People living with disabilities have a right to live a decent life and enjoy the benefits of good governance and as much as anyone else.

“Physical disability is not inability per se. So, it should not be seen as an inhibition from achieving something positive in life. This thinking informs the need to celebrate ability in disability. Persons living with disabilities have special skills and talents which if properly harnessed will make a huge difference not only in their lives, but to the society at large,” the governor said.

At this instance, Ambode renewed a commitment “to the welfare of all people without discrimination and exclusion.” He also gave a pledge that his government “owes a duty to protect and provide for every subject and group in the state; especially vulnerable ones. The government actually exists for people. Without people, there will not be any government in place.”

He therefore launched a N500 million Support Fund for persons with disabilities. The fund is in line with section 12 of Lagos Special People’s Law. Consequently, Ambode appealed to individuals, corporate organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders to support the fund to maximise the disabilities of challenged persons.”

But more importantly, according to him, “as a government, we owe special people huge responsibilities. As citizens of Nigeria, we have onus to give them deserved support. As Lagos residents, we must embrace persons living with disabilities. Do not discriminate against them. All they require is care, support and opportunity to live a fulfilled and productive life.”

This burden of responsibilities has indeed redefined Ambode’s response to the conditions of the special people in the state. He promised effective implementation of the Lagos State Special Peoples Law, 2011. He directed the registration of all persons living with disabilities in the state, which he said, would ensure effective planning for the need of special persons.

Already, Lagos State Office of Disability Affairs (LASODA) is firmly established. Also, Ambode had pledged to strengthen the office for optimal performance. This pledge is a testament to the reasons the General Manager of LASODA, Dr. Babatunde Awelenge, said Ambode’s approach had truly given disable persons a cause “to smile with policies that ensure their wellbeing.”

Aside, it is a testament to Ambode’s commitment to a government of inclusion. It is on this ground that Awelenge said Lagos State “remains the only state in Nigeria where real inclusive governance by social inclusion is practiced in the running of government. This is the first time such an event is taking place not just in Lagos State, but in Nigeria as a whole.”

So, according to him, it is a historic event. It is more historic because Ambode chose to mark his first anniversary with persons with special conditions. He therefore said it was selfless on the part of Ambode “to spend this moment with persons living with disabilities,” which he said, was the height of recognition the special persons could be accorded.

He added that it “is indeed a great sacrifice on the Ambode administration to spend one of his most important date only and solely with persons living with disabilities. For us, it is a mark of great honour and privilege” which he said, would trigger positive response to the plight of special people in other climes and redefine people’s perception of those living with disabilities.