Meet Oluwatobiloba Ajayi; one of the powerful voices among Nigeria’s 25 million-special needs population

There are a number of voices speaking for the rights of the Nigerian people, few of those remember to speak for people living with disabilities. That is far from the gloom and doom reality you probably pictured it to be mentally as the few voices that speak for the disabled are loud and impactful.

The lived reality of Nigeria’s 25 million-strong special need population is not much improved by the valiant efforts of these tireless fighters, even as they achieve legislative milestones.

Lawyer and Disability Management Advocate, Oluwatobiloba Ajayi, who recently won the first-ever Nigeria Prize for Difference and Diversity endowed by Chude Jideonwo, founder of human flourishing company is almost fantastically hopeful. She may be onto something however.

In an interview with Chude, Ms. Ajayi projected a timeline of 10 years to attain a Nigeria in which children with cerebral palsy are not sent away by schools simply because they have a disability. She thinks in 6 more years, her work on this would likely be done.

“I have a 10-year plan to see a Nigeria in which basic education is seen as the norm and not the ‘special’ choice that it is seen as today for people living with disabilities,” she said, “For me, I have 6 more years to go.”

The reason for her hope is rooted in a personal experience with disability. It saw her experience the timeline of social attitude evolution to disability in the country with a clear-mindedness perhaps only the personally affected can have.

“Growing up the attitude to children with disabilities was just, ‘we won’t turn you back if you come, but we also won’t make provision for things to be easy for you, if you keep up fine,’” she said about the evolution of social attitude to children with special needs seeking basic education, “we moved from that to children being turned back by schools simply for having a disability. Nowadays, schools are actually trying to create appropriate learning environments for disabled students.”

A dream is however just that, without the legal, economic, and social backing. The work that Ms. Ajayi and other advocates have done and continue to do has yielded more than improvement in social attitude, on which she says we still have a long way to go. It has also yielded a legislative win.

In late 2018, exactly 2 years after the bill was passed by the Nigeria Senate, President Muhammadu Buhari succumbed to pressure from persistent activists and signed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act into law. It was a win that took 9 years to arrive at and countless man-hours of relentless effort by disability rights groups and activists.

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and imposes sanctions including fines and prison sentences on those who contravene it. It also stipulates a five-year transitional period for modifying public buildings, structures, and automobiles to make them accessible and usable for people with disabilities.

The law will also establish a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, responsible for ensuring that people with disabilities have access to housing, education, and healthcare. The Commission will be empowered to receive complaints of rights violations and support victims to seek legal redress amongst other duties.

Laws have always played a major role in pushing the needle of progress in the right direction, but without the right response from society there often remains a sublayer living in plain sight that the law may be helpless to improve.

Take the case of hate crimes and speech in western nations like Germany. For all its stringent efforts to curtail these atrocities, the number of politically-motivated crimes (a wording that is necessary to assist the police in tracking racist attacks) rose by 14% to a whopping 41, 0000 attacks in 2020.

This is why Ms Ajayi’s response to the question, ‘What do you need to make the work easier and attaining the end goal faster?,’ is most apt. “Allies,” she said simply.

At the heart of all discriminatory acts against persons of whatever inclination is a failure by those doing the discrimination – whether intentional or not, to see the human behind whatever it is they chose to discriminate them against. 

“If we have enough allies who see the human behind the disability, my work will be done,” Ms Ajayi said, “If for example, Chude sees the humanity of disabled people, I wouldn’t have to ask him to create an inclusive work environment, he will do it because he sees the value in the human.”

Some of the difficulties in the work she does are in getting people – some of whom are the parents of the children she works with, to see this intrinsic value.

The law is thankfully there, social attitude is picking up albeit not fast enough, and more voices are joining the call to ensure equal dignity for neurodivergent people same as neurotypical people.

We yet have a long way to go as a nation, but if we can keep a hopeful and honest outlook, maybe the dream of Ms Ajayi will be faster in coming to reality. Maybe 6 years is too long a time to wait for the millions of Nigerians living with disability to enjoy basic human decency, same as anyone.

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