Disability can happen to anyone. Approximately 25 million Nigerians have a disability, and 3.5 million Nigerians have significant difficulties in social and physical functioning according to the 2011 World Report on Disability. Yet these people are largely marginalised by the Nigerian government and stigmatised by the general public. It is this concern for the status of the intellectually and physically disabled that inspired Dr Precious Nonye Sango, a UK based Nigerian academic to establish the International School of Disabilities (ISDS) in Abuja Nigeria. According to Dr Precious Sango, the newly established ISDS is to serve as a research and learning centre, bringing together national and international academics, health and social care professionals and providing advanced academic and research opportunities for people interested in intellectual and developmental disabilities. To launch the postgraduate school, lawmakers, academics, activists and health care professionals from Nigeria, United Kingdom and all over the world attended the first International Conference on Disabilities in Africa (ICDA 2018) at the Nordic Hotel Abuja and contributed presentations and panel discussions.
In line with the theme of the conference “Visible but invisible: towards a new perspective on disability in Africa”, academics from the University of Kent, the University of Jos, University of New Mexico, Bayero University and the University of Leuven, among others made presentations to highlight the need for correctly defining disabilities. Professor Rachel Forester-Jones Director of Tizard Centre, University of Kent and ISDS consultant in her keynote speech emphasised the need for better understanding and greater focus on intellectual and developmental disabilities. Professor Forester-Jones commended Dr Precious Sango for organising the conference and launching the postgraduate school, which she described as crucial to improving the quality of lives for people with disabilities in Nigeria. Echoing her views, Prof Mary Haggai, Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Jos expressed the need to move beyond the theory and begin to brainstorm about practical measures that can be taken to improve the lives of people living with disabilities in Nigeria. She lamented that despite the progress in research concerning disabilities, the government has been slow in implementing the recommendations of academics in the past.
To clarify the current measures being taken by the government, the Deputy Chair, House committee on Legislative Budget and Research, Hon Idaghbo Ochiglegor updated participants on the disability bill which he sponsored. The bill contains about twenty clauses that; prohibits discrimination and exploitation of people with disabilities, makes physical structures and transportation accessible, and free education up until secondary age, among others. Hon Ochiglegor explained that the bill has passed through first, second and third reading, and he hopes the bill will be signed by the President before the end of the year. Other members of the House of Representatives in attendance included Hon. Timothy Golu, Hon. Gaza Gbefwi and Hon. Beni Lar who commended the conference and stated the government’s commitment to ensuring that more disabled people are present and represented in key government institutions and departments. Former Minister of Sports and Social Development, Chief Damishi Sango challenged the current government to enhance the ability of people with disabilities by supporting such initiatives.
Also challenging the government, were activists Grace Jerry and Joy Jenyo among others, highlighting that people with disabilities are tired of being ignored. According to Grace Jerry, people with disabilities do not need pity or sympathy, they need to be empowered by the government to live able and independent lives despite their disability. Representing the Universal Basic Education Board (UBEC) Idris Sarauta explained that it is the agency’s policy that 2% of their budget goes to children with disability. He encouraged service providers to apply by writing to their respective state UBEC Boards to be considered by UBEC. Unfortunately, because their tends to be more applicants than the budget would allow, not all applications are successful. According to Mr Sarauta, an estimated 1.9 billion Naira of the UBECs budget was allocated to service providers in 2017.
Presentations by other ISDS consultants Mrs Eziafakaku Nwokolo and Dr Chidiebere Uwadoka emphasised the need for accurate diagnosis of disability before taking measures for management or treatment. With a wide variety of conditions included under the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) umbrella, diagnosis can be a multifaceted process that requires accredited and qualified professionals to get it right. This further justifies the need for carers of people with disabilities to undergo professional training provided by ISDS faculty and consultants. The panel discussion chaired by Dr Sango and featuring a mixed panel of academics, activists, and healthcare professionals also emphasised the need to avoid presumptuous diagnoses and archaic methods of treatment. Although the discussions highlighted some disagreements amongst experts on how to best address the issues raised, there was a general consensus that more emphasis needs to be placed on intellectual disabilities and finding a common understanding and definition of intellectual disability is a starting point.
Researcher Roy Deveau from the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, encouraged service providers such as care homes, hospitals and governmental and non-governmental organisations to look carefully at training their staff to improve management and adequately prepare them to meet the needs of their service users who have a disability. Isola Adewumi of the Federal College of Education (Special) Oyo went further to emphasise that parents of people with disability can also benefit from further training provided at ISDS to improve the quality of care they provide at home and reduce symptoms such as stress and depression that are common amongst carers. PhD student Vincent Nwokorie’s presentation highlighted the need for more research into disabilities that are perceived to be caused by spiritual/supernatural factors as informed by his research of traditional remedies in rural parts of Nigeria.
Dr Precious Sango thanked everyone for attending the ICDA 2018 conference that marked the launch of the International School of Disability Studies and reminded participants that conference presentations would be made available online at www.isds.com.ng. She also thanked Books2Africa, Ninety and the University of Bedfordshire for sponsoring the conference. The ISDS is currently in the process of securing new premises in Abuja to house their library with a collection of more than 10,000 books on intellectual and developmental disabilities and related disciplines. Universities and organisations interested in collaborating with ISDS to offer courses to prospective students and workshop training to employees in Nigeria starting in September 2019; and organisations who would like to sponsor the next conference are encouraged to get in touch by emailing ISDS at email@example.com or visiting the ISDS website www.isds.com.ng.