04/17/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

A Nigerian Lawyer With Cerebral Palsy: My Encounter

A few weeks after publishing the article, "The Future of a Child with Cerebral Palsy in Nigeria", I met Tobiloba Ajayi, a barrister and solicitor with cerebral palsy. This of course contradicts the popularly held notion that people with disabilities don't turn out well in life.

Cerebral Palsy is a disorder of movement and posture caused by permanent, non-progressive damage to the developing brain of a child. Children with cerebral palsy are usually impaired in speech and communication. Cerebral Palsy could be mild, moderate or severe and is of such different types as spastic, dyskinetic, ataxic, and athetoid. It presently has no cure and management requires a multidisciplinary approach.

Tobi's life exemplifies the possibility for every child with disability to overcome the limitations of the disability and achieve their life's dreams.

Tobiloba was a premature newborn, the 4th child of the Ajayi's 5 children. Initially, her parents didn't want to enrol her in school because although she could speak she could not sit, stand or walk; hence they thought she wouldn't do well in school. It took the intervention of the proprietor of her siblings' school for her to be enrolled. He convinced Tobi's parents that that she couldn't sit, stand or walk, didn't mean she wouldn't be able to learn.

Equating a physical disability with a mental impairment is one of the biggest myths about disabilities in Nigeria; and a myth that it is, it is far from the truth.

Tobi recalls her dad saying that soon after she started school she began to make efforts to stand. Though she enrolled in Nursery at the age of 3, Tobi eventually started walking at the age of 12. She says that attending school with other students (without disabilities) challenged her to be better and encouraged her to overcome self-defeat.

Tobiloba had her primary, secondary and tertiary education in Nigeria, and even partook in the National Youth Service Corps program. She later bagged a Master's degree in International Law from the University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.

Tobiloba is an advocate of inclusive education for children living with disabilities as against the popular schools of children with special needs. She says these special schools put children in acceptance mode ('this is how I am and I cannot change it') and thereby breed a life that is dependent on others for hand-outs, that such schools encourage their pupils to engage in pity parties but however admits that children with severe disabilities should be enrolled in special schools.

Personally, one of the reasons why it was easy for me to advocate and care for people with disabilities despite not having any disability or relative with one is because I attended the prestigious Adeola Odutola College, Ijebu Ode, where inclusive education is being practised. Our motto is "Adeola o k'omo k'omo, Aitan o ko'le ki le" meaning the school doesn't discriminate. And so it was normal to freely relate and interact with other students who had one disability or the other without any discrimination or stigmatization. Our communities need to be more supportive and less discriminative towards people with disabilities.

At the 3rd edition of the Heal The World Charity Outreaches which was held on June 26, 2011 to the School of the Visually Impaired in Ijebu Igbo, Ogun State, I met Hammed Junaid my former visually impaired junior student at Adeola Odutola College. He had become a teacher at the school.

Inclusive education is a process of enhancing the capacity of the education system in any country to reach out to diverse learners. The basis of inclusion is that special-needs pupils have a right to the benefits of a full school experience, with needed modifications and supports, alongside their peers without disabilities who receive general education.

As an advocate for disability rights, Tobiloba Ajayi was part of the team that drafted Nigeria's Vision 2020 especially as concerning the over 20 million Nigerians living with disabilities. She was likewise involved in the putting together of the Lagos State Disability Law.

Barrister Tobiloba turned out well today because she has a very supportive family which treated her without any special preference among her siblings. She was given same chores and expected to do well academically as much as her other siblings, and she lived up to it. She says that 80 percent of the time her family related with her as if she didn't have any disability.

A child with disabilities really needs a very supportive family but the special schools are viewed by some parents as 'live-in facilities' where they dump their wards. Consequently, many of these parents do not visit them regularly or offer them the much needed attention. Though raising a child with disabilities is no doubt very tough but it can be done successfully well.

It is to correct such attitude and to encourage the parents and family members of these children to be actively involved in their care and management that The Cerebral Palsy Centre, Surulere, Lagos, was founded and managed as a day-care centre for children with cerebral palsy. The Centre which was set up by Ms Nonyelum Nweke in April 2010 as a result of efforts to take care of her child, Zimuzo (Igbo for 'God, show me the way') who was adopted as a six-day old baby and was diagnosed of cerebral palsy at five months.

The government needs to be more responsible and responsive in the care of people with disabilities. Presently, much of the care available to People Living with Disabilities in Nigeria is by the individual efforts of concerned Nigerians through their non-governmental initiatives. Another worthy example of such is The Benola Foundation, a centre for Cerebral Palsy care in Nigeria which was founded by Air Vice-Marshal Femi Gbadebo (Rtd) whose 17 year old son, Olaoluwa, has a severe form of cerebral palsy.

As much effort ought to be put into prevention of disabilities as is being put into welfare and care of people with disabilities as revealed by a 3-year study of Cerebral Palsy in Ibadan by Nottidge V. A. and Okogbo M. E. which stated that about 63 percent of the causes of cerebral palsy are preventable.

Tobiloba is the author of Inspiration, a collection of poems written from her personal experiences and Christian faith. I just finished reading a copy of it and truly was I inspired. Tobiloba is an articulate, fluent and intelligent lady who lives her life to the full and does pretty much of everything including swimming.

Tobiloba isn't the only person with disabilities living life to its fullest as she shares about her friends; Amanda and Tokunbo. Amanda Ikem, despite being visually impaired, trained herself to type well and fast. She is married to a Medical Doctor. Tokunbo Johnson who also has Cerebral Palsy is a Master's degree holder and married with a daughter.

With a supportive family, good education, non-discriminatory and stigma-free community, every child with disabilities can live a life devoid of poverty and attain the best of what the world has to offer.

As I round up this piece, my heart goes out to the many children with disabilities cocooned away in our villages, slums and rural communities. And I ask: When will they get the much needed support and education?

Dr Freeman Osonuga
Founder and Executive Director,
Heal The World Foundation Nigeria