MY STORY, GROWING UP WITH A DISABILITY: WHAT EXCLUSION MEANS TO ME

Friday, 16 September 2016 09:25

My interest in this topic stems from personal experiences with my own physical disability that I have suffered throughout my life. I was born normal like any other child, when I was 2½ years old polio came into my life and changed the course of my life and gave me a visible label that has attracted discrimination to me all my life. My right leg was affected and this meant that walking became difficult and painful. It is not easy to live with a physical disability. It is draining on one’s emotions specifically, because not enough people understand what we face socially, health wise, politically, culturally, economically, the physical and emotional barriers, etc.

 

It is good that people are now being sensitized about discrimination and social exclusion of disabled persons in the society. Everyone keeps pointing fingers at the government to make and implement laws/policies that will protect the rights of the disabled person. But I ask, who is “the government”? Is it not made up of individuals who come together to create, analyse, implement laws/ polices that will protect the rights of “everyone” in the society? When each and every one of us is aware of the special needs of the physically challenged persons in the society, it won’t be difficult (as it is now) to naturally make and implement laws/policies that will build an inclusive society in which people with disabilities are enabled to realize their civil, political, social, economical and cultural rights! I have experienced discrimination and social exclusion in every aspect of my life. Is it indifference, rejection, social isolation, prejudice, ignorance and lack of services and support? I’ve seen and passed through it all!

I was 5 years old when I started to notice that other kids usually stared and pointed at me whenever I walked and that some parents in our neighborhood dragged their kids away when they tried to play with me. At a point I stopped trying to join others in their games when one of the kids told the others, her mum said God had punished my parents by making me walk that way. They were to run away or I would transfer the curse to their parents! I told my mum who hugged me and said they were lying but I was to play in the house from that day on.

When my parent decided to enroll me in a school, my dad was advised by most friends and family not to bother wasting his money for my education. They believed since I was disabled, there was no way education would be of benefit to me or the family. He was to use the money instead to educate my other “normal” siblings! Thank God he didn’t listen! I was his first child and therefore deserved an equal opportunity to survive and educating me was going to make that possible.


I started school and on my first day my parent watched with fear and pride in their eyes as I stumbled along with the other pupils. As young as I was, I knew not to tell them, the other kids used to laugh at me whenever I fell down or that they followed me around walking like I did, while the teachers half-heartedly tried to stop them. I didn’t want to stay home.
I could hardly socialize with the other students in school; I became shy, withdrawn and unable to speak up when asked a question. I was always on my own on the school grounds because I couldn’t join in the PE, match pass, dancing or running. No one wanted me in their group since I wasn’t fun to be with and would demote the image of group with the others. I had no one to counsel me or support me, I felt all alone amongst my peers.


I got into the university and by now my dad deemed it wise to stop driving me to and fro from school. I was to start learning to survive on my own. He customized a car for me and converted the foot pedals to hand controls and told me to take care of it because it is my legs. Universities especially are built with no thoughts to the welfare of the physically challenged! Accesses to lecture halls and offices were too steep or high for me to navigate. High steps, verandas, narrow doorways, slippery walkways, etc which is taken for granted by the abled bodied students made life hell for me. I had to be extra resourceful and ingenious in finding ways to overcome the physical and psychological barriers I faced daily. I can’t count the number of times I fell down the stairs while trying to climb it. This was so embarrassing and demoralizing as my clothes got torn most times from these falls. Severally I had to miss lectures rather than get hurt in the process of trying to walk from the main gate to the lecture hall as no public transport was allowed on the school premises. I tried talking to the school management and all I got were promises, nothing was ever done to improve or rectify them.


It was when I decided to contest for the post of a treasurer in the SUG at School of Accountancy and Business Studies that I faced a two-fold discrimination: as a consequence of both my gender and my disability! I was told by majority of lecturers and other students that the post was not meant for a woman and more importantly, my being physically challenged would not let me represent the school/students well. My few friends and lecturers rallied around me and made sure my campaign was hitch-free and I won the election.


After several years of sacrifice, tears and pain in school, I finally graduated with an MBA in Business Administration and 2nd Class upper in B.Sc Marketing. I also had OND in Business Administration and an ND in Data Processing and Information Technology. Despite this academic achievement, skills and training, employers still viewed me as a liability. I would write the aptitude tests and pass but when I go back for the interview, I will be stared at with pity and I would read the discomfort in their body language. Mostly, accesses to the buildings are usually a challenge and the first question they always ask is “how will you cope”? I would answer that a ramp at the entrance would ease my access and an office on the ground floor (if it was a story-building) would better suit me.

They will smile and promise to get back to me but never do! All they see is the extra cost of accommodating my disability - parking space close to the building for my car, providing good access (a ramp or steps removed/reduced) for me to enter the workplace, arrangement of office equipment/furniture to avoid accidents, access to rest room facilities etc. They are also scared of the rate of absenteeism due to health issues arising from my disability as most days walking is almost impossible. As I’m writing this, I’m still not employed and this has affected my ability to be financially independent.

 

People can be so unbelievably cruel to others with disabilities, and what’s surprising is that some adults act with less sensitivity to their situations than a child who didn’t understand the situation or even know better would have acted! I went to the bank to get my BVN like everyone else, I assumed I would be attended to outside, in the car park as usual since I couldn’t navigate the entrance. Instead I was told their machine was upstairs and there was no way to bring it out and none of their branches were accessible either!  I complained bitterly to  the  officials since I knew my account would be blocked my CBN if I didn’t carry out the verification exercise, only for one of them to remark that there were others whose disability was worse and they went upstairs. I was to stop being lazy and climb upstairs! I couldn’t stop the smarting of tears in my eyes, it felt as if a knife had been plunged into my heart! Quietly, I turned and left.  I decided to dump that account as there wasn’t even any money in it and opened a new account with another bank.

My disability is only a part of who I am, but because it is so incredibly visible, I feel too many people tend to concentrate on that alone and that is very sad. I might be physically challenged but that has not made me less whole or less of a woman! I had this nasty experience some years back while still in the university. I had gone to my friend’s family house to borrow his hard drive since mine had crashed. During my first visit, I noticed the distance from the gate to the main entrance was much and a gutter/drainage was also directly in front of it. I implored my friend to show me the back way which would make it easy for me to walk in next time and he gladly complied. The next time, I called ahead and he told me to use the back door he had showed me and I did. I was to wait in his brother’s room since he was not home. I hardly sat down when his mum rushed into the room with a broom and angrily asked me how I got in! Timidly I said ‘good morning ma’ and tried to explain how I got in and why I took that path. She started shouting and said I should leave her house as she didn’t want my “type” in her son’s life.

She forced me to go out through the front entrance when I tried to take the back door and said she would beat me with the broom despite my disability if I disobeyed her. I kept begging and telling her I was sorry but she would not listen and up till this moment, I don’t know how I was able to make it across that drainage! My friend later called to ask my forgiveness and since it was not his fault, I accepted; though I cried for days at the humiliation. This really got me thinking; am I not human too, filled with the need to love and be loved? Why did guys who dated me want it to be a secret so others won’t know? Will I ever find true love? Is it not the same blood that flows through my veins? Don’t I have feelings too? What has my reproductive organs got to do with my inability to walk? When will people stop asking me if I can have kids as if my reproductive organs have anything to do with the deformity to my leg? When will this loneliness and isolation end?

The stares are sometimes the cruelest of all! Admittedly, I have gotten used to being stared at, and I know this is true because when there are other people with me, they comment constantly on this people staring and I did not even notice! There are those that stare out of curiosity that ends just as quickly as it started; there are the persistent rude stares that follows you for a whole minute or five! Then there is the ‘poor girl’ stare but my favorite is the stare with a smile followed by ‘hello’! I rarely get those!


I’m not saying it’s been totally darkness all through as I have met some good souls who have one way or the other tried to make life more bearable for me. They are few and their voice is just a mere 5% of the population who genuinely want to implement law/policies that would protect the rights of people living with disabilities. Government therefore must create an enabling environment for accessibility to physical structures, provide appropriate inclusive quality education, healthcare, employment and above all, provide stringed law against discrimination on ground of disability.    

The media should be used extensively to create awareness that disability is not a communicable disease. Kids and even some adults have this fear that if they are friendly or get close to a physically challenged person, that they too will be infected. Public buildings like banks, schools, churches, supermarkets, court house, hospitals, etc should be made accessible to people with disabilities. Ramps, wider doorways, paved walkways, etc should be incorporated into building plans. School curriculum from the primary schools to tertiary levels should incorporate studies on facts on why people with disabilities are the way they are and how to relate with them. This will stop a lot of bullying and mocking of physically challenged people by their fellow school mates.

And finally, stop the stares! Just give a nice smile and say hello!

TRUTH ITUEN

Volunteer with Youth Alive Foundation