Growing up, I never ever thought about what life could be like for people that are disabled in anyway.
I don’t blame myself. You see life through your own prism especially when you are young.
I went to a school that had a couple of blind students; there was even a school for the blind right by our school. In fact, we had a blind teacher at some point.
I sort of just accepted them with mild curiosity.
There was a student called Salome, she was blind. We insensitively called her Salome Blind. This was to distinguish her from the other Salome who wasn’t blind. We could have just used her last name but we didn’t. Salome was nice though. She seemed slightly older than us and was more mature. She spoke like an older aunt and had few issues with anyone.
The younger one was called Florence (don’t hold your breath) Blind. No points for creativity there. She was a firebrand. She was argumentative, defensive and sometimes downright offensive. I remember her fighting with her roommate and getting so angry that she flung a full bucket of water her roommate kept under the bed. In the end, no one felt obligated to be extra nice with Florence, she hated pity and I think that was what made her a tad aggressive.
We used to run into the students in the School for the Blind. We giggled as we saw them cosy up to each other with romance in the air. And we wondered a thousand and one things. They generally did not take shit from anyone. They would stone you with uncanny accuracy if you messed with them.
Save for these experiences, I never really thought about people with disabilities. No one ever took time to educate us at any point in time about disabilities.
There was this girl that took the bus that ferried us to school even though she was not in our school. She was much older than us but never outgrew her school. She must have been in her 20s then but spoke like a 5 year old. She scared us and we did our best to avoid her in the school bus. We would leave four seats just for her. I did not know what was wrong with her.
I did not know about learning disabilities growing up.
Some people were dull and some were bright. Some just never put in effort and that was why they were dull… that was my thinking then. We did not know about dyslexia and dyscalculia and the autism spectrum. And I suspect that most of our teachers didn’t too.
The very first time that I wondered what life was for the disabled was when my friend had an accident and had a spinal cord injury.
In fact, we were supposed to catch up and we were waiting for her when a friend came out of breath to inform us that she was at Jos University Teaching Hospital.
The fall out of this was that a very close person that I interacted with constantly became a paraplegic. And for the very first time in my life, I saw up close what it was living with a disability.
Nothing in Nigeria was built with the convenience of a physically challenged person. My friend had no choice but to put up with strangers carrying her out of cars, up the stairs and even to board a plane.
Except for the emergence of modern malls now, there was then nothing like a parking space for disabled people. Most toilets were made with physically abled people in mind.
For the first time, I saw how selfishly built our nation’s infrastructure was.
When I was pregnant for my first child, I read up everything. And when he was growing I would read up developmental milestones to see if he was on track mentally and physically for his age.
It was then I started realising that there many causes and early pointers to children that had learning challenges. It was not as clear cut as one being dull or smart.
I did a flash back in my life and wondered about those kids who just could not cope in classrooms.
In Nigeria, there is very little space to accommodate people with learning disabilities as well.
Who knows if we had a system that made early diagnosis possible, trained teachers who not only know what to look out for but are continuously updated on best practices worldwide and support for parents, life would be better for the part of our populace that are unable to function like everyone else.
I was once at a church programme where parenting was talked about. Anonymous questions were allowed. Someone sent a question that sent chills down my spine.
“When people give birth to children with special needs, is it not merciful to send them back to their maker as early as possible?”
The moderator gasped as she read this question.
People abandon children that have obvious special needs from birth. Some even kill them. I saw a picture of a boy that was brain damaged by jaundice on facebook. The mother had run away from the child who was just over 13months old. The father had no idea what to do.
Because there is little education and support from the community and government, legitimate Nigerians get a raw deal and are unable to get help.
Some that are rich enough hide such children. The whole neighbourhood gossips and the child is rarely seen.
I recall someone with a daughter who was over 20 but with the mental age of about 7. This young lady got pregnant because the men on the street found ways to take advantage of her.
You know the worst part?
Because her father was very rich, it was a forgone conclusion that he had used her to make money.
So parents with kids that have special needs suffer stigma and have little support.
When people see the children they stare and point. Or they begin to rudely offer contacts of pastors promising miracle cures.
I will never forget the day a pastor tried to heal my friend in Mr Biggs. He kept trying to get her to stand up from the wheelchair and walk. Thinking back that was horrific.
So what is it I am trying to say?
Reflecting on my own past, I think specific education on accommodating the people with special needs is needed. Religious institutions and communities need to be educated and in turn educate people. And then there needs to be compassion and support for families with special people.
This will give them confidence to seek help and not see the situation as hopeless enough to abandon or kill a child.
Our government needs to step up as well. There needs to be laws on how to make life easier for people with disabilities. Ways need to be mapped out for inclusion, infrastructure that is accommodating, medical assistance and benefits. Schools are needed, teachers need to be trained and facilities provided to make life bearable.
As individuals, we need to educate ourselves and our families. My kids were curious about albinism and so I explained what it was and they accepted it and don’t see it as anything strange.
There is a child with cerebral palsy in one of my son’s class. My son kept talking about how the boy was the only one with diapers and that he was the biggest child and also could not verbalise his needs. So we had the talk. I explained that it wasn’t his fault and that they had to be nice and understanding. My son felt so much compassion that he actually wondered aloud what he could do for the boy.
Lastly to the parents. There are some situations that get better with determination and early intervention. If you have a child with a need, please seek professional help. The earlier the better. Some are able to live with a measure of independence because of intervention. Don’t hide them or keep praying in your closet alone. When you come out, you will see that you are not alone and get to meet and bond with other families going through the same thing.
My heart has been heavy since I had this long discussion with a special needs educator who coordinates for Grange School in Ikeja. There is so much that needs to be done in the area of people with disabilities in this country.