By Benjamin Njoku
As you step into their world, signs of misery and pains become obvious. Their world probably ended the very day they found themselves in this unending traumatic condition.
A recent visit to theÂ Amuwo-Odofin Estate, Lagos, secretariat of the Spinal Cord injuriesÂ Association of Nigeria, otherwise known as the Rehabilitation for the Physically Challenged People Centre invokes some kind of pity and gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps, itâ€™s a dark world inhabited by people whose dreams and aspirations suffered serious setbacks following their pitiable condition which probably is none of their making.
Any hard heart will definitely melt at the sight of these individuals whose present predicaments far overwhelm everything that life could hold in stock for them.
To some of the patients at the centre, life is as meaningless as it is interesting.
Beyond psychological denial, the patients are locked with the need to begin to heal the emotions of their unconscious mind. Held bound by circumstances of life, they are eternally shut out of the world of the able-bodied people.
Until you show a little love and kindness to them, they do not seem to belong to this world. Each one of them, a victim of what they did not bargain for in life, has since resigned to fate after several years of leaving a miserable life of denial and abandonment.
For a person who has suffered a spinal cord injury, what once were simple everyday tasks become challenges that must be conquered. At the centre, it is indeed a challenge to overcome the realities and trauma of the situation the patients found themselves.
The centre, established since 1984, serves as home to many spinal cord patients within the Lagos metropolis and for those who cannot assist themselves in anyway. Some of them, victims of motor accidents, are eitherÂ abandoned by their relations or preferred to live among people of their nature. Very many others whose relations occasionally visit them operate from the centre, described as colony of the disabled people.
Unfortunately today, despite attempts by some individuals and corporate organisations to make life more meaningful to these victims of circumstances of life, life at the centre is cheerless, dull, empty and uninteresting. From the main gate of the centre through the walkways, one could perceive the ugly aroma of dejection, frustration and abandonment all over the place.
The centre, overgrown with grasses, have been thrown into darkness for months, owing to lack of electricity supply. Moreover, lack of enough wheelchairs and funding pose serious challenges to the inhabitants of the centre.
â€œOur challenges are numerous as an association that sees to the welfare of persons with disability, especially spinal cord injured ones. Itâ€™s a very difficult situation to deal with people that live their lives in the wheelchair. Wheelchairs are very important implements used by our members, and we cannot afford them because they are expensive,â€Mr. Obioha Ononugba, Acting President/ Administrative Secretary of the association narrated to Saturday Vanguard.
He added that running the centre remains another challenge that the association is faced with, coupled with the problem of paying salaries of the 12 staff in their pay roll. â€œWe have a lot of facilities that need to be maintained. We have staff that need to be paid monthly and vehicles that clamour for maintenance, NEPA bills to settle and diesel to run our generating set. Also, our members want access to free medical services as well as good transportation system,â€ said Ononugba who became the acting president of SCIAN since 2005.
According to him, the association depends solely on good-will and donations from well-meaning Nigerians and corporate organisations to run the centre. This, he noted, does not come most often.
ExplainingÂ that the association was formed as a result of the need to give those suffering from spinal cord injuries a sense of belonging, the SCIAN president said their membership cuts across the country, adding, â€œin Lagos, we have over 200 registered members.
â€œWe have been trying to reach out to those ones who are not residing in Lagos. This association was formed in 1984 as a result of the problems which most of our members were exposed to. Majority of us are accident victims. While we were at the National Orthopaedics Hospital, we found out that some of us were somehow abandoned by society, and nobody actually was addressing the needs or challenges facing these unfortunate victims. As a result, we decided to formÂ the association to cater for the needs of our members, and also enlighten the public on the problems and challenges facing the physically challenged people. â€
However, for spinal cord patients at the centre, organising an educational forum to provide them withÂ information about pain management, introduce adaptive recreational activities and explore new research for spinal cord injuries are most therapeutic.
One organisation which Mr. Ononugba mentioned as having been a consistent pillar of support to this association in the last 20 years in terms of providing mobility aids, computers and computer skills and helping to relocate the members from a temporary site to their permanent centre in Lagos is Fidelity Bank.
Despite the fact that Governor Babatunde Fasola last year assigned doctors to the clinic to be taking care of patients, SICAN president canvassed for more.
â€œThe association needs to purchase equipment for their fashion and design workshops, which have been temporarily closed down.â€
He disclosed that the main objective of the workshop was to train their members in the areas of fashion and designing which are yet to be realised because the workshop is not yet functional. He expressed his gratitude to individuals, banks, clubs and corporate organizations that have assisted the association in its various projects but still called on public spirited individuals and organizations to assist them through donations as they need vehicles for the transportation of their members and funds to finish their uncompleted projects.
Our challenges are numerous as an association that sees to the welfare of persons with disability, especially the spinal cord injured ones. Itâ€™s a very difficult situation to deal with people that live their lives in the wheelchair. Wheelchairs are very important implement used by our members, and we cannot afford them because they are expensive. Also, running the centre is another challenge that isÂ facing the association.
We depend solely on goodwill donations from individuals and corporate organizations. And these donations do not come easily. We need to purchase equipment for their fashion and design workshops, which have been temporarily closed down. We also have our staff salaries to pay at the end of every month, vehicles to maintain, NEPA bills to settle and diesel to run our generating set. Our members need access to free medical services and affordable transportation system.
There is no direct funding for the centre, except when we get donations from well-meaning Nigerians and corporate organisations.
Why the association was formed:
The association was formed in 1984 as a result of the challenges that facedÂ most of our members while we were at the National Orthopaedics Hospital, Igbobi.Â Majority of us are accident victims. People that are physically challenged somehow are usually discriminated against, or totally abandoned by society. Nobody actually wants to address the challenges facing these disabled persons.
That was how the need to form this association came up. For over 25 years now, we have been able to use thisÂ association to enlighten the public on the problems and challenges facing the spinal cord injured patients. At the moment, we have over 200 registered members of the association. Our membership cut across the country.
The structures you see in this centre are built by individuals, corporate organisations and religious bodies. Some of our members, given their condition, are residing here because of the need for accessible accommodation, unlike what obtains in the outside world where buildings are not constructed to suit the desires of our members who need to move around.
Some of our members are residingÂ here, not because they are abandoned by their relations, but because of their inability to secure an accessible accommodation elsewhere,Â while there are few cases of others who are abandoned by their relations but who have found a home here. Here, we donâ€™t pay for accommodation. We are thinking that something should be paid by our members for the upkeep of the centre.
What the government should doÂ for us
We want the government to put a law in place where buildings can be accessible to those that are physically challenged. It has been done elsewhere, and it can be done in this country. It does not cost extra money to put such structures in place. It only requires you to structure your building in such way that it can be wheelchair friendly.
There is need to enact a law making it compulsory for anybody constructing a building to make a provision for its accessibility to the disabled persons. Also, there is need for the government to recognize that there are people with special needs, which they must provide, no matter the situation. In the annual budget, certain provisions should be made for these people.
Also, there is the issue of employment to address. Among us here, there are people who have good qualifications but couldnâ€™t secure any employment because the society tends to discriminate against them. These are the areas we want the government look into and ensure that the physically challenged are also given a sense of belonging in the society.
From time to time, we do get donations from well-meaning Nigerians and corporate organizations. We use such donations to assist some of our members who cannot help themselves. There are few of us who are working and are capable of taking care of their needs.
Life in the wheelchair:
I was involved in a motor accident on the 8th January 1983(26 years ago). Life in the wheelchair has not been very easy. But the most important thing is that I have accepted my condition. I have discovered that it wasnâ€™t the end of life for me; that there is nothing I want to do, I cannot do today. When I got involved in the accident, I was not married.
But today, I am married with kids who are in secondary school. I no longer see my condition as a barrier to attend my height in society. When I initially found myself in thisÂ condition, I felt bad and somewhat defeated. I kept asking myself why should I be in this condition.
But after some few years, I picked up courage, believing that it had happened, and it had happened, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Itâ€™s nothing to be ashamed of or bother oneself, because I later realized through my own recognition that whatever you come across in life, you have to learn to live with it, either because you desired it or you are destined to encounter such problem.
I have actually found that, that is the truth about life. If I was not destined to be in this condition, I wouldnâ€™t have gotten involved in the accident in the first place. When the accident happened, I was returning from my annual leave.
Then, I was working in the State House during Alhaji Shehu Shagariâ€™s administration.Â as a secretary. When it happened, after spending few years in the hospital, my employers wrote to find out from my doctors whether I would be fit to continue with my job, and my doctors replied in the affirmative. I went back to my job. I just retired at the end of March this year. I was in Lagos and I put over 35 years in service.
On street begging
I dont really blame them. We need to re-orientate them concerning the fact that you are disabled is not an excuse to live a life of a beggar. Their own condition cannot be compared with ours. They can be regarded as able-bodied people with either one amputated leg or arm. Theirs is no disability compared with our own condition, yet we donâ€™t go to the street to beg.
Life, meaningless and stagnant -Ms. Omotayo Ayodeji
A graduate of Management and Accounting from the Obafemi Awolowo University(OAU), Ile-Ife, Ms. Omotayo Ayodeji is one of the victims at the centre whose story is bound to touch your heart. She was involved in a fatal accident five years ago(2004), while returning to Lagos from Ile-Ife, where she had gone to collect her result as a final year student and also, her NYSC call-up letter before the unexpected happened. She sustainedÂ a traumatic spinal cord injury.
And today, life for Omotayo is not only meaningless but also stagnant, having beenÂ permanently paralyzed from the waist downwards. Her spine was severed during the accident, resulting in her being confined to the wheelchair. When Saturday Vanguard encountered her at the centre, it was with deep pains and agony she narrated her story.
â€œ I had the accident in 2004, and it happened while I was returning from my school, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, to Lagos, where I had gone to collect my result and my NYSC call-up letter.
When the accident happened, I was unconscious for hours before I was rushed to a hospital where I was operated upon and later got informed that I had sustained spinal cord injury, which left my waist downwards paralyzed. For five years now, I have remained in this condition. Life has been a misery and stagnant for me. I hardly go nowhere now because of lack of accessible transportation system.â€
Omotayo said after she sustained the spinal cord injury, her dream to serve her fatherland as well as getting herself a good job thereafter became a mirage. But for one thing, she insisted she must be allowed to serve her fatherland, in spite of her present condition.
She narrated a situation where the authorities at the National Youths Service Corps(NYSC) declined to exempt her from proceeding to observe the one-year compulsory primary assignment on grounds that, â€œNYSC does not grant exemption on health basis any more.â€
â€œI still want to proceed to serve my fatherland. After five years, NYSC refused to exempt me from serving. They didnâ€™t believe my story as they alleged that many people hide under the shield of health basis to seek for exemption. Since it is like that, I need the NYSC certificate to be able to apply for a job and get my life on the track again.â€
Omotayo, according to her father, Dr. O.F. Ayodeji, a Gynaecologist, was flown to South Africa, after the accident to be rehabilitated. She later returned to the country few months later, after it became obvious that she was going to live the rest of her life in the wheelchair.
Narrating how she came to the centre, the middle-aged lady said, â€œI came to the centre through one of my friends who knew the president of the association. I was later invited to the centre. Initially, I was not interested until my dad got involved in the process, and persuaded me to come here and stay.â€
Though life may be meaningless to Omotayo for now, she indeed desires to pick the broken pieces of what life have left of her and move on.
I â€˜ve been in this condition for 25 years -Mrs. Joke Afolabi
Also, Mrs. Joke Afolabi, a 50-year- old mother of one, (daughter) is another victim of spinal cord injury at the centre, whose story elicits pity. Her rehabilitation journey began in 1984 when she got involved in a motor accident along Lagos- Benin road. As a student then, at one of the secondary schools in Benin, Joke was returning back to Lagos to reunite with her family after closing for the session but she never got to her destination.
The bus she was travelling in got involved in an accident near Shagamu, Ogun State, leaving her permanently paralysed from her waist downwards.
Soon after, Joke learned that she injured her C4 and C5 vertebrae and spinal cord, resulting in paralysis in the majority of her body. She spent months in traction at the National Orthopaedics Hospital and faced countless medical setbacks before she was taken to a herbal home for further treatment, all to no avail.
She narrated her ordeal, â€œI have been in this condition for 25 years now (1984). I was travelling from Benin to Lagos when the accident happened, at Shagamu area of Ogun State. When it happened, I was rushed to the National Orthopaedics Hospital, Igbobi, where I spent one year.
I was later taken to a herbal home. But after several attempts to get me healed, without any sign of improvement on my condition, I opted to be left alone to my fate.
â€œAnd since then, I have been meant to face the reality of what life has brought to me. I was a student then, in Benin City. But when this accident happened, I could not go back to school to complete my secondary education. Rather, I went to learn a trade, fashion designing. I am married, and I have a daughter who lives with me here. My husband comes from time to time to see us. Life has never been easy with me.â€
Joke who hails from Ondo StateÂ has lived in the centre for 10 years now.
I was never discouraged-Mr. Alani Akiode
I have been living here since the formation of the association. I had my accident in 1978 (31years)
It happened between Ikeja and Agege area of Lagos, while I was returning from work. Then, I was residing at Agege. I have learnt to cope with my condition. Itâ€™s not as if itâ€™s quite interesting. But I have picked up courage and moved on with life. Even up till today, I have not been able to meet my wife. I donâ€™t even have plans to marry again.
Though, I work with the Ogun State Sport Council. I donâ€™t think I have that kind of money to keep a woman in my house, given my condition.
For years now, I have been shuttling between the centre and Ogun State. My condition never gave me any discouragement because I still relate well with the outside world. I have always been courageous, despite the fact that itâ€™s a condition that needs consideration before one decides to go into marriage.â€