By Esther Bila (YES 2014-2015, Nigeria, placed with IRIS in Hills, IA)
Growing up, I had few problems navigating the world and didn’t understand those with challenges; I was a naïve kid back then. Eventually, as I got older, learned and grew, and participated in the YES program, I learned to embrace diversity.
The Special Education Centre in Gombe was my first encounter with persons with disabilities. The people I met there were some of the nicest people yet the most unpopular in my society. They seemed to be accustomed to separation and low expectations from society. I initially felt pity, worry, and protectiveness. Through interactions with the students and lengthy discussions with the school management, I came to realize that acceptance and integration were lacking. Apart from the communication barriers, environment, and challenges posed by the stigma around disability, discrimination and negligence from families were major issues. Negative social attitudes, stigma, and pity towards PWDs are the main challenges to achieving an inclusive society.
Disability is not a disease — it is an inevitable part of the human experience. By attending the Projects for All workshop in November 2020, I learned some critical and necessary steps to achieving inclusion and promoting the rights of PWDs. First, one must identify the problem particular to your society and culture. It was on this basis that the “Listen to Me” workshop, funded by a YES Projects for All grant, was born. My team and I embarked on a campaign to expose people in Gombe to the notions of disability inclusion and rights, and to educate people about what this negligence costs our society and will keep costing us if we don’t start taking steps towards inclusion. People with disabilities do not need charity, but equal opportunities and equal rights. Equal opportunities for education, jobs, public life, and accommodations will support PWDs in reaching their fullest potential and being seen as human beings.
Listen to Me brought more than 60 high school students with and without disabilities from the Special Education Centre and Pen Resource Academy together for a one-day workshop on inclusion. The workshop began with an inclusive classroom lecture to demonstrate to participants what an inclusive classroom feels and looks like, and show that persons with disabilities are just as intellectual as their peers without disabilities. This was followed by games that taught participants some sign language and fostered teamwork and a spirit of cooperation. During the Navigating the World session, students with disabilities shared their experiences and the challenges they have faced because of the discriminatory culture and negligence from family. But it also featured success stories — stories of overcoming challenges and excelling. At the end of the session, the students worked together to brainstorm other solutions to these challenges.
Inclusion cannot be achieved in a day, but it is now the responsibility of these students to push the ripple effect out to others that they know. It’s “all hands on deck” to achieve an inclusive society.