The Hope in Disability

Kayode Komolafe

April is the month dedicated to drawing  societal  attention to the acceptance of autism. In some climes, this is done  in a way that brings the subject of our common humanity into a sharp focus. It is a period to express solidarity with autistic children and their families.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), autism  “constitutes a diverse group of conditions related to development of the brain.” 

It is estimated that one in a hundred children is autistic worldwide.

In generic terms, this month could also be regarded as a season to reflect on the struggles of those who are living  with various forms of  disability.

A fellow columnist, Olusegun Adeniyi, made an introductory reference to autism in   his column on this page a fortnight ago. The column was on  the widely reported inhuman treatment of  Debola Daniel   at one eatery located in  the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja.  Daniel was on a wheelchair. The lady at the till told Daniel, accompanied by four other persons including his wife and brother, that “wheelchairs are not allowed” in that  public place. Expectedly, this act generated outrage from members of the public and the aviation authorities have appropriately sanctioned the offending outfit.

Today’s column is a follow-up of sorts to Adeniyi’s conclusion: “What we must begin to deal with includes the exclusion, discrimination, isolation, lack of empathy and frankly, the absence of thought in all facets of our society for the weak and vulnerable among us.”

The good news is that there is already a trend of advocacy in the positive direction suggested above. It is good not only  for the Persons with Disabilities (PwDs); it is also in the interest of   the society at large.

Beyond  the perennial  lamentation about the  gross erosion of our collective humanity, the forces of hope and improvement on the state of things should be encouraged.  Physical and institutional reforms are necessary to achieve this noble purpose. Doubtless, the government should take  the lead in the conscious inclusion of fellow human beings with disabilities in all areas of life. But as Adeniyi rightly observed, it is not a task  for only the government.  Private individuals and organisations  have a huge role to play to humanise the public space and boost  consciousness sufficiently for the inclusion of the PwDs.

The heroic efforts  of the private individuals and organisations  constitute a magnificent basis for hope for the members of society living with disabilities.

Take a sample.

Jake Epelle is the president of the Albino Foundation of Nigeria.  A distinguished personality in the society, Epelle is an accomplished personality in his private life.  Yet, he has invested  his time, energy and resources in  the daily struggles of those with disability in Nigeria.  The sheer gamut of the  activities of Epelle and the Foundation have gone a long way  to cure not a few members of the society of their ingrained prejudices about albinism.  For instance, while the government of President Goodluck Jonathan was putting together the famous 2014 National Conference, Epelle noticed  the seeming exclusion of albinos. Here is how Epelle  made a case for his group: “We have six million albinos in the country and so we need a voice. We should be heard. This is what we have been saying to the government not only in Nigeria but in Africa and in the world.

“The integration of persons with albinism is very important. We need to mainstream some our issues and challenges into the national policy and discuss. We see this National Conference as a platform to push our cases.

“Many people who go to such forums to discuss issues that affect us don’t know ‘jack’ about albinism. I think this is the right time and platform for us to be heard and we need to be heard.”

That was Epelle’s position 10 years ago. Since then, his voice has become more strident in the advocacy for the inclusion of PwDs.

Epelle is also the convener of another non-governmental organisation, the Disability Inclusion in Nigeria.

While President Bola Tinubu was constituting  his cabinet, Epelle put up  a passionate appeal to the President  for equality, justice and inclusion  for PwDs. On that occasion, he made a case for inclusion  like this: “Appointing PwDs to influential positions in your government would serve as a powerful symbol of inclusivity, sending a clearer message that Nigeria embraces and values the contribution of every citizen, regardless of their abilities

“This act of leadership would inspire other sectors of the society to follow suit and create a ripple effect of positive change that extends far beyond the political realm.

“It will also send a powerful message to the society, dispel misconceptions and prejudices surrounding disability as well as serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for countless PwDs who often face systemic barriers and limited opportunities due to societal attitudes and biases.” Epelle is certainly on point in this matter.

Of course, you can justifiably  talk of systemic barriers  when  ramps are not made available in public buildings for those on wheelchairs. The unacceptable  experience of Demola Daniel  at the airport  is a typical  case of prejudicial attitude of the society.

The advocacy of the Epelles in our amidst should inspire more persons and organisations to support and encourage those with disability in the struggles for justice and inclusion in the society, polity and economy.

Besides, hope is to be found in the examples of those who have turned disability into ability to make contributions to the society.  This point is amply demonstrated by  an American journalist, Steve Silberman, in his book, “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How  to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently.” 

Silberman traced  the history of autism to make the point that autistic people are actually  people who think differently and should be accepted by the society as neurological tribes. The success stories of the autistic persons are told in the book.

The example of the 21-year old Swedish  climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has received global acclaim. Thunberg is autistic. At the age of 15, she was addressing world bodies and national parliaments, stressing the urgency of climate action. In  fact, Thunberg’s influence was such that former American president, Donald Trump,  in one of his ugliest outings, taunted her because  of the condition.  The bluntness of Thunberg, her commitment  to the cause of nature and the disdain for deception are said to be enhanced  by her autistic condition.

All told, those who live  with disabilities have  reasons to be hopeful despite their condition. The society should be structured in a way to make them  enjoy life to the fullest.

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