Dr. Joseph Chikunie is a lecturer in the University of Lagos. He is a also the national coordinator of the Association of Individuals Living with Disabilities. In this interview with Austin Oyibode of NAIJ.com, he speaks on his background, how he overcame obstacles and became a PhD holder. He also talks about how the society is treating people living with disabilities.
How was life as a growing child born with physical disability?
It was tough, miserable and traumatic. I was the only deformed child in a family of eight children. This was compounded by the excesses of some of my peers who made mockery of my situation. As a child, I loved playing football but each time I scored a goal, the glory was trivialized under the claim I didn’t get a close tackle because of the wooden support I was moving it. Many times I went into my room and wept profusely, asking God why he had to create me with such deformity.
I finally rounded off my secondary education with a good certificate but my father rejected my request for a university education. He was worried that no one would care for me if I travelled outside their reach. In pains, I wrote a four page emotional letter to an uncle, Prof. Willy Yeguligbe of Finance Department, University of Lagos, telling him of my burning desire to further my education.
When my uncle saw my sentence construction, syntax and general composition, he was moved. Before I knew it, he drove down from UNILAG to my house, packed up all my belongings and took me to Lagos. I got admission to the department of Philosophy, UNILAG and graduated as the best student of the department.
How did you cope while in school?
It is often said that where there is a will, there is a way. Once you are determined to do anything worthwhile, you will definitely succeed no matter the encumbrances you may face. As an individual, I am very academic but also very sociable. I realized I had not much physical strength as others did; so, I had to develop my intellectual power.
Despite my physical challenge, I emerged as the secretary general of my faculty and also graduated as the best student of the Philosophy Department. My outstanding academic performance made me a rallying point for my course mates. I had some of the most beautiful girls on campus as friends because they always sought my guidance. The challenges I had in school were not as pronounced as the ones I had while growing up.
Having acquired a higher education, what did you do about the situation of your colleagues?
I may have, to some extent, overcome the challenges of being physically challenged but I know there are still many physically challenged people out there who are suffering the scourge of inferiority basically because they have one disability or the other.
Moved by this reality, I had to champion the formation of the first association for disabled persons and through it, disabled people were always accommodated first in the scheme of things in UNILAG. I continued my education till I got a doctorate degree and, at present, I am an Assistant Lecturer in UNILAG. Now that I have achieved something, I decided to give back to the society. That led to the foundation of Association of Individuals Living with Physical Disabilities (AIPD).
What is the AIPD all about?
It is an organization made up of Nigerians living with one form of physical challenge or the other. There are about 25 million Nigerians living with disabilities. Out of this, about 3.6 million of them find it extremely difficult to move around. It is on this basis that the AIPD was formed with the cardinal objectives of promoting equal opportunities, economic power and independent living for the physically challenged.
Is that not part of what the Nigerian government is doing already?
Not really, our government is not doing much for the physically challenged persons in Nigeria. By design, the Nigerian system does put people with disability into consideration. For instance, there are many tall buildings in this country without elevators, yet everyone, including the physically challenged is supposed to access these buildings.
I once watched with high emotions how a woman unsuccessfully tried to use an ATM while sitting on a wheel chair. The ATM was on a raised platform hence, she had to stretch as much as possible to insert her card. In that process, she fell off the wheel chair. Some people around came to her aid and requested her ATM PIN so as to help her but she refused because it is not safe to entrust her PIN with others.
Painfully, she had to leave the bank without carrying out her intended transactions. The truth is, if the ATM were on a plain floor, she would have been able to make her transactions without hitches.
What are the main goals of the AIPD?
The AIPD is hinged on a nine-point agenda. The first is on education. Education is the best legacy that can be bequeathed to anyone. Through adequate education, the physically challenged people will be empowered to correct some anomalies in the society. As part of the agenda, the AIPD aims to provide scholarship to any physically challenged who, though brilliant, cannot finance their education. Besides, we will provide free buses to convey physically challenged individuals from their hostels to their lecture halls and also convey them home when lectures are over.
Again, we will embark on a massive skills acquisition programme to train people living with disabilities on the various skills like shoes and bags making, tailoring and other vocational ventures that will enable them generate money for themselves and families. We believe that once a physically challenged person is empowered, he can do virtually everything that others can do.
We do not need the pity of people; in fact, we abhor being pitied because it is disrespectful to us. What we want is a level playing field and equal opportunities that will enable us earn decent living like others. Unfortunately, our governments have been found wanting in this regard. But we cannot allow our destiny to be in the hands of others, hence the need for us to act.
Nothing bars a physically challenged person from delving into agriculture and other lucrative businesses. Through the help of corporate bodies and philanthropic individuals, we will bring in enough capital into the system. We have started that already in the University of Lagos. We are getting a bus and over 1,000 wheel chairs to be distributed among the physically challenged people not only in the University of Lagos but also in various parts of Lagos.
You seem to have lofty goals and worthy causes, but how do you hope to fund these projects in the face of our receding economy?
AIPD is a Non-Governmental Organization that is already entrenched in many institutions. There are some well-meaning individuals who have shown commitment to the ideals of this organization. In Delta state for instance, the father of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa is one of the critical stakeholders in this project. The issue is not always about the source of fund, once you are able to articulate your world view and people see light in it, the support will definitely come. Once they offer you the first support and you are able to judiciously apply it for the initial purpose, they will keep supporting not basically you but the idea you stand for.
You have disclosed your intention to spread the tentacles of the AIPD to all campuses of tertiary institutions in Nigeria; how do you hope to achieve this?
The truth is that we have started already. What we do in each state we visit is to get registered as a recognized body that will drive the yearnings of the physically challenged people in that state. On March 23, 2017, we were at the University of Lagos to flag off this noble initiative. The event was attended by high profile personalities cutting across all parts of Nigeria.
At the event, we gave out awards to philanthropists who have shown much commitment to the development of humanity. At present, we have shifted focus to Delta state and before May 20, we will have a similar event at Delta State University, Abraka.
We have also submitted a letter requesting to be registered in the College of Education, Agbor. The AIPD is a moving train, we have started in the South-South and South-West; we will soon proceed to the North Central and other geopolitical zones in the country. We are being encouraged by people who believe in our vision. All necessary information about the AIPD can be accessed on www.aipd.org.ng.
Are your activities restricted to the campuses of tertiary institutions?
No. We are focusing on academic institutions now because that is where we have authorities who are well versed in issues of the physically challenged and will easily understand our vision and objectives. Besides, institutions of higher learning provide us with the environment to reward humanitarian and philanthropic individuals.
However, the revenues that emanate from our activities will certainly have direct impact on both the physically challenged in schools and outside schools. We cannot just be everywhere; we have to start from a point; hence our choice of tertiary institutions where ideas and logical thoughts are held supreme.
In your view, is the Nigerian society fair to people living with disabilities?
No, not at all. I earlier cited the case of a physically challenged woman who fell off her wheel chair while trying to use the ATM. Although some people had indicated willingness to help her, they later abandoned her after she refused to divulge her ATM PIN that could empty her bank account within few seconds.
The truth is that many Nigerians tend to respond to issues sporadically but easily forget them once they are past. What happened to that woman is a microcosm of what is happening to millions of physically challenged people in our society.
The ATM is fixed on elevated floors, traffic arrangements and road users have no regards for the physically challenged, high tower public buildings are designed without elevators to aid the movement of people with disabilities and so many others.
In many ways, the society is designed against our interest. What we need most is a level playing ground that will help us actualize our dreams. We all have ambitions to live out; we just need the opportunity to actualize that.
What should governments do to ameliorate the challenges of the physically challenged people in Nigeria?
There are many things government should have done that it is not doing. For instance, the bill against the physically challenged is yet to be assented to by the president despite its passage some time ago. That bill should, without further delay, become a law; the president should put his hands to paper and sign it into law.
Secondly, when building public structures, the ease of the physically challenged should be duly considered; there should be a functional traffic light that will give room for the safe crossing over of pedestrians, especially the physically challenged. More importantly, no physically challenged person should be left to roam on the streets.
I once saw a repulsive sight of a man crawling on his belly in Lagos. People like that ought to be taken off the street and well cared for in designated centres and trained to advance the development course of the society. It is inhuman to allow people beg for bread under the scorching sun.
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