The atmosphere is still charged with various activities commemorating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). Advocates, adherents, and allies of the Disability movement across the globe are seizing on the momentum created by this special occasion to gain traction in the multi-fangled struggle for a better society.
Pushing the disability narrative with personal initiative, disability issues blogger, Alexander Ogheneruemu visited the palace of His Royal Highness, Oba (Dr) Olukunmi Olusesan Akingbola (Ikudoro 1), Kabiyesi of Oregun community, Ikeja, Lagos for an exclusive interview with the monarch.
For starters, Oba Akingbola is a strong ally of the disability inclusion movement. I was right from the word “go” wowed by the exemplary philosophy and approach of this very humane community leader toward the subject of Disability and Persons with Disabilities. I was moved by the practical examples he was setting, and the difference this was making in his Oregun constituency – and beyond. I was briefly introduced to Oba Akingbola by a mentor (Madam Treasures Uchegbu) sometime in October this year. My first impression at that brief meeting? Well, that must be the man’s very welcoming nature – especially towards persons with disability and their cause. That day, I witnessed exemplary leadership in action. I saw an Oba, using the influence of his position and physical presence to create space and recognition for one child with disability, Yetunde (girl on a wheelchair) at a social function “Chess for Impact” taking place in his community. It turns out that organizers of the function had brought together kids from different schools for a chess competition. But for Yetunde (whose attendance was at the insistence of Oba Akingbola) not one single child with a disability could be spotted among the many children at the event. That day, Oba would use the opportunity to deliver an awareness message on Disability inclusion to the gathering. At some points during the event, Yetunde practically stole the show. More importantly, traction was gained on the Disability awareness crusade – many thanks to one enlightened community king who knows and practices the essence of “leaving no one behind”
Witnessing first-hand this kind of unusual example from a community leader got me curious. I asked questions and the answers I received only served to heighten my curiosity. So, I requested an exclusive interview. It was a great time with Oba Akingbola that afternoon of Monday, November 27, 2023. I was at once excited and humbled at the height of enlightenment and depth of scintillating insights evidenced in the ‘sweatless’ responses of this erudite monarch to prodding questions about his involvement with the inclusion movement. It all came naturally – no stressing to impress. And, I, with all my lived experience with disability, left the regal palace a student with a desire for more knowledge. Below are excerpts from the interview:
Alexander: Thank you for the privilege of having your audience. The idea for this interview came after listening to Madam Treasures share snippets of your wonderful identification with disability causes. Permit me to say that I was wowed. Can you please tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in what you are doing for inclusion?
Oba Akingbola: Sure. Okay, I will start from my primary school to where I am today. I was born in Lagos Island and went to St. Peters Primary School, Lagos. From there, I would go on to Eko Boys high school, Mushin. I graduated from Eko Boys high in 1980. After that, I worked for two years and left for the United States in 1982. I was able to attain four academic degrees in the US. The first was in mechanical engineering. I progressed and obtained another one in engineering design. My third degree was in industrial technology (a Masters). And finally, a PhD in educational technology. I have taught in schools for 27 years in the United States. Then sometime in 2017, I got called upon if I would be interested in the stool of Oba of Oregun, and I said yes. I became king of Oregun in 2020 – three years afterwards.
One day, I went to a function and met Madam Treasures. She came to me and talked about what she was doing for the children. I was moved and promised to support her efforts. Thereafter, I invited her to my palace. She came. We sat, and discussed the way forward. I will never regret meeting Madam Treasures. She exposed me to good people. You know, she’s doing a lot for the children. I admire her so much and I promised her that whatever she wants to do, I will always support her good works with the children.
We have been doing a lot of programs together (with my support and hers). She brought a “Sign Language” program to Oregun High School. I introduced her to the Principal of the school and she was acknowledged. She has kept up the program till today. Also, I gave her a room in my palace where she comes to teach “Sign language” to residents of Oregun community every Wednesday. So we have been doing these things and we are progressing. Good things are coming out of it.
Also, we are not doing these for deaf kids. It is for all special children. Like Yetunde (see introduction) who has a problem with mobility and I gave her a wheelchair so she is able to move around. I also gave a wheelchair to another lady in Surulere. I love what Madam Treasures is doing and I always support her. So this is where we are today and I am loving every bit of it. God will help us.
Alexander: Thank you, thank you so much, sir. Let’s move on to the next one. If I may ask, what was your motivation for getting involved in the disability cause?
Oba Akingbola: Sure, like I said, we are all human beings. Because somebody is lacking something, that doesn’t mean we should put that person aside. Everybody is different, everyone has something to bring to the table, it takes a village to raise a child. We must embrace one another, it is nobody’s fault someone come out this way or somebody came out that way. It is only from God, there is nothing we can do about it. If it comes that way, we should accept it. God knows what He is doing.
So, on that note, I was moved because deaf children, sometimes, they are not recognized and that is not right. We are all human beings, we should treat everyone with dignity. It is not their fault. So what I’m trying to do is to bring them into the general population so we can do things together. So next month (December) I am planning a program for the deaf. I’m taking them on a picnic where everyone will play, drink and enjoy themselves so that they can feel, oh somebody loves them. You know, this picnic I’m talking about will be way different. They (deaf kids) are going to a park and play with the amenities, like jumping around swimming (if that’s a swimming pool there). You have to embrace people regardless of their conditions. Let’s treat them the way everyone wants to be treated. With God’s power everything will be possible. I will speak with Madam Treasure for confirmation of the date and anybody can come and join in the picnic.
Alexander: You realize that as a leader, you wield strong influence on your community which can be leveraged to influence attitudes toward people with disability in the community. How are you going about that?
Oba Akingbola: Of course, I am trying to set example, when my community sees me embracing these people, they will change their mindset on people with disability. In essence, I’m letting them know that this person, regardless of a disability, is also a human being. They may not be able to talk. They may not be able to walk. It’s not their fault. So let’s treat them as human beings, period. Do whatever you can to help. Nothing is small when you’re trying to help somebody. Help is help. So that’s what I believe. I learned a lot of this stuff in the U.S. where they treat everybody the same, regardless. Why can’t we do that in our community? Our leaders in politics, they are the ones supposed to set the standard. They should make laws that everyone must go to school. And these laws have to be enforced. These people must go to primary and secondary school. University is not by force. But the primary education, everyone needs that. Education is vital. And it’s very, very important. Everyone must get it.
Alexander: I have been writing on disability issues for some time and become particularly interested in taking the inclusion narrative to the church. We often talk about inclusion like it’s limited to the secular. Yet discrimination is happening in the church – all the other religions generally. I’ve witnessed it again and again. Myself, and some other like-minds are set on an initiative that targets church and community leaders for enlightenment and mindset change. Most of them don’t know about disability. Great if you will be involved.
Oba Akingbola: Sure. They can come to my palace. Invite them, give me a date. Why not? I’m trying to help the community. So, yes.
Alexander: Thank you, sir. How has your involvement with the disability cause helped your understanding of people with disability? I want to believe it has helped.
Oba Akingbola: Sure, okay. You know, I told you that I was an educator for 27 years in U.S. I went to higher institution in the United States. I was there for 41 years, yes. In my school, we have the deaf. So, I I’m aware of these things even more than most people in Nigeria. The U.S. government runs special programs for them. There, we don’t use the word deaf. We use “special kids”. Special, yes, they are special. Which is a rather nice way of putting it. Using deaf, deaf, it’s like we are disrespecting them. Because when people hear ‘deaf’, it brings a negative connotation to it. You see what I’m saying? So, we use this ‘special students’. So, therefore, we’re supposed to treat them with care. Embrace them. They are not 100% as the general population. So, we’re supposed to give them priorities. But in Nigeria, it’s the opposite. So, that’s what led me to embrace a different approach. Because I’ve been in a system that operates a better policy for special education students, I am able to include that in whatever I’m doing on cultural issues.
Kids in general population, for example, they tend to go everywhere they want, they mix freely. But when it comes to special students, you know, it’s like they’re trying to put them aside. We don’t want that. Madam Treasures is trying to teach my community the sign language. At least, you know like good morning, it helps to keep the communication line open. See? Like I was saying, it takes a whole village to raise a child. Not just the parents. Your child is going to go to school. Somebody watches over your child while you are not there. And so on, and so forth. It takes everybody one way or the other. So it’s easy for me to blend in into the program.
Alexander: Do you face challenges while involving in the disability cause? How do you handle these challenges?
Oba Akingbola: In Nigeria, no. I have not. In U.S., yes. Let me explain a bit. You know, everybody is learning. Sometimes you do things you think are right. Then somebody comes out and say ‘that’s not the right way to handle it’. Then you go from there, take the corrections. Nobody is perfect. There is no way someone knows everything now. It’s impossible. Things are constantly changing. No two situations are the same. Maybe it’s the time that’s different, maybe it’s the mood. The people you are dealing with may be different. So no two situations are going to be the same. No way. We are learning every day. No one is perfect. So, we just got to listen: able to take corrections, able to adjust. We must be able to retract so when you see something that is not right you change your behaviors. It goes for everybody. Pay attention to the details so you can make informed decisions that help everybody.
Alexander: Thank you very much. We’ve got some deep responses up there. Okay, please can you share some experiences that have been very gratifying for you in your involvement in the disability cause? Some kind of satisfaction, contentment, you know, that comes with recording improvements.
Oba Akingbola: Sure. Now let me begin here: If you are dealing with special children, the first thing you must have is patience. Patience. Patience, I repeat for special emphasis. The reason they are calling them special is that you are able to direct them several times. Give them corrections over and over. That’s normal with these people. So, you just can’t say, oh, did I not just correct you a few minutes ago? Be patient and just be gentle with them. You can’t handle things in an aggressive manner. It doesn’t work. Patience. Patience is the name of the game. Of course, you will reap the fruit of your labor if you have patience with them. Sometimes they are like babies, difficult to teach, however with your patience, what you want to achieve with them will come to fruition. Be patient. That’s the name of the game. Patience.
Alexander: From your perspective, can share what you think are the most critical needs of these kids with disabilities in our society. Let’s see it from your own perspective.
Oba Akingbola: Okay. Well, I will always talk about my experience in the U.S. You see, when you are dealing with special needs, there is something we call ‘time out’. Meaning, all these kids, you give them time out. Let them go and release their nerves. Meaning, let them go ahead and release their stress. Yes, they have about 25 minutes every day. My perspective from the U.S. experience: Let them go loose all the stress, right? Let them release it. Yes, every day, for like 25 minutes. Just go and release the stress. Play with one another. Let them run around. They are tired. See, they enjoy it. It’s not all about education. Read, read, read. No. You have to give them time to release the stress. Play, it’s an essential part of the curriculum. So, you will see the difference from there, you see the changes in them. Yes. That has been proven to be true by psychologists. Yes, so when kids are in the room, you should always give them time to release to release the bad energy. You know, let them have fun, let them talk to one another, let them run around, play cards, games – whichever is available. They need to stimulate their brains. Some 20 minutes every day, that doesn’t take away their school time.
Alexander: As part of awareness activities to mark this year’s International day of Persons with Disabilities, I’ll like to introduce a book to you: “Odyssey of a Deaf Farm Boy”. Memoirs of a Deaf man, he grew up in a small village in far away Abeokuta – through Divine Providence and sheer determination, William (that’s his name) overcame daunting odds to actualize his academic ambitions and much more. The book promises an exciting read for enlightenment and awareness creation for your community chiefs and subjects.
Oba Akingbola: (visibly impressed) Wow! I will buy this. Let me read this first. This is a good story to be told, very nice. After reading, I will know what to tell those guys. Let’s wait and see.
Alexander: By God’s grace, I’d be starting soon, a new series under the ‘commendational advocacy’ initiative. I’m convinced that ‘advocacy, awareness, etc shouldn’t be only about lecturing, telling people what to do, how to do it. I like to see the approach that commends the little things done right – just like you are doing. It’s only just right. And what’s more? This kind of approach will provide a boost in morale and an encouragement to do more. Your thoughts on this, sir?
Oba Akingbola: Good one. Gradually, things can happen in the country, where things are being done in the right way. You see, awareness is very important. Awareness, yes. It is very important. Because a lot of people, they don’t know anything about special needs and special kids. So, we need to let them know what’s going on with them. Look at what you are doing. So, the awareness is coming. In my community so far, because of what Madam Treasures is doing with the people of by giving them sign language, she is now popular and they are always happy to see her because of the good work she is doing.
Alexander: Thank you, sir. Lastly, I would like to ask what your long-term goal, vision is for the disability cause in your community?
Oba Akingbola: Okay, that. I was wondering if we can find a land so we can build a little school, a technical/vocational school for them where they can learn computers. We find a land, set up a storey building and get mainly deaf people who can volunteer to teach them. So, that’s my plan, my ultimate goal for them. Again, God will help us. Amen.
Special acknowledgement: To Mrs Treasures Uchegbu (a strong ally of disability). Dorcas Adedunye (thank you for a fine interpreting job during the interview)