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‘How my down syndrome-suffering son became an Olympics hero’

By Bose Adelaja

How will you feel as a young woman when the first fruit of your womb turns out to be  physically challenged? What will be your reaction if the situation demands that you give up your profession as a medical doctor for teaching, for the sake of the child? How painful will it be to serve such a child all through your life?

Imagine starting your life afresh after you have attained a level in your chosen field, as a graduate, what will you do if the situation warrants that you go back to the Kindergarten in order to guide the child?

This might look unreal but it is the true life experience of a medical doctor turned teacher, Dr. Alero Roberts, mother of a down syndrome patient, Damola Roberts.  As a graduate, she was enrolled together with her son up to the secondary school level in order to be a guide for him.

Damola, the first child in the family of three, could not talk to Sunday Vanguard because of his disability but his 50-year old mother gave a vivid account of the 25-year old journey.

It all dated back to 1985 when Damola was born to two medical doctors, Dr. and Dr. (Mrs.) Shehu Roberts. As he grew up, his parents discovered he could not walk, talk or do many things like his mates. After diagnosis, Damola was confirmed to be a down syndrome patient, meaning he will remain intellectually disabled.

The mother took a trip with her son to the United Kingdom (UK)  to seek medical solution  to the challenge where the doctors report said there was no hope for the child.

Damola and his mother

‘’The doctors in UK told me he would never walk, and I came back to Nigeria with the doctors’ report in order to give room for a collective decision in the family. The family’s support has been a lot of encouragement to Damola. We have to develop coping strategies that will enable him learn what you want him to learn. For instance, in order to make him become a functional member of the society, we have to teach him how to dress himself, eat, greet, walk or comport himself in decent manners especially on general cleanliness of the body. At the end of the day,  both of us were enrolled in a Kindergarten to make learning easier for him,’’ Dr. (Mrs.) Roberts recalled.

Having developed the coping strategies for the boy, fate, however, smiled on him at the age of eight and this premiered his journey into the Special Olympics. ‘’In 2003, he became part of the Special Olympics  movement, a Federal Government initiative, and the director came looking for him. That was the first time the Special Olympics International took the World Summer game from the United States of America, USA, to Ireland.

This propelled their visit to Nigeria as the biggest country in Africa, to form an Olympics  team; they wanted individuals who had already secured an international passport and will be eligible for  visa. Their first port of call was the Children Development Centre where Damola was a student. Their belief was that any child who has passed through the facility will be eligible for the competition and this gave him an automatic offer to travel to Ireland with three other children from the centre,’’ said Dr. Roberts.

Although Damola cannot talk at 25, gradually, he has developed his talent in swimming which now makes him compete favourably with his peers and, by September 2011, he will travel to Athens in company of other athletes to compete at the World Summer game.

According to  the  mother, ‘’This opened our eyes to the opportunities in Special Olympics; every athlete has  equal chance of being selected to be in the Nigerian team.

The game does  not have first, second and third positions; so, everybody who participates  is recognised and exposed to the whole world. Not only this, he now leads the aquatic team to the Athens World Summer game and he can do 40 laps at the Olympic  swimming pool of Airport  Hotel’’.

On how Damola has been able to attain his present height in sports, his mother has this to say, ‘’Already, my job has been affected and I cannot practise  medicine any longer. I now lecture in a university to allow me look after him and his two siblings. Persons with disabilities must not die in silence, they must go out and look for the resources around them because manna cannot fall from heaven.

“My desire for him is to get more opportunities at local, national and international levels. Don’t forget that Damola is a special child such that whether one takes him to Lagos or Athens, he does not know the difference. All he knows is that he is competing.’’

‘’The major challenge is finance but I have learnt to come up with fund raising ideas, to leverage on what I have. One has to find a suitable venue for training, pay for the coaching, transport to and fro the venue on daily basis. Also, such a child must be well fed and catered for before he can have the strength to participate in the training,’’ she added.


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