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“Harnessing potentials of PWD has economic value”

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By Moses Nosike

Air Vice Marshal Femi Gbadebo, an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) retired from active service in 2008. Presently he is the founder of Benola, a Cerebral Palsy Initiative which has been in operation since February 2013 and since August 2016, the Initiator of FG Talks, a platform through which he uses lessons learnt from his life experiences to help others cope with the realities of life. In this interview with Saturday Vanguard, he reveals the economic values accruing when we patiently take time to harness potentials embedded in those our children, relations living with one disability or the other. Excepts:

Mr and Femi Gbadebo

When Benola initiative is mentioned, what comes to your mind?

Many people keep asking why Benola is an Initiative and not a Foundation. I have a background in military where I served for quite some time as an Instructor Pilot on Fast Military Jet Aircraft. However, apart from spending the better part of my career in the military teaching young officers to become military pilots, at a later stage I moved on to serve as Directing Staff at the Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji and the Defence College, Abuja, where I taught Military strategy, Administration and higher levels of Management.

At various times, I also held staff and command appointments up to the highest levels of the Nigerian Armed Forces. In essence I am a teacher, and what that has put in me is an understanding of the need to do things right. The idea of running an NGO was suggested by friends who felt my wife and I had done a wonderful job raising our son living with Cerebral Palsy and apart from the fact that we speak publicly about him, don’t appear to have any issues about him.

In order words, we have a robust life despite the challenge and it was all because we decided very early in his life to give him the best treatment with whatever little resources at our disposal. After due consideration and since I’m now retired and didn’t want to work for anybody anymore, not because I had the money, because if I must tell you the truth, I’m one of the few officers who never did a contract throughout my career, I agreed and Benola, a Cerebral Palsy Initiative was born and officially presented to the public on 26th February 2013. The truth is that I am not a businessman and really don’t understand the rudiments of business. But as a teacher, I am in my element and I know deep in my heart that I can help Nigerians and the business community by putting those things that I learnt in the military an my flying career, namely human and resource management as well as life values at their disposal.

However, my experience while trying to provide consultancy services was that there is a latent distrust of the military among Nigerians which makes it difficult for me to achieve my objectives without first effecting a change in mind-set for such people.

But as a teacher and somebody who had a long career in teaching, I was confident that if given a week or two I could take any topic and turn it into a presentation that would be of interest to any audience and so, I tried getting a few friends to allow me use their platforms but somehow, I succeeded with some of them but never received a follow up invitation.

There were instances where I talked about stress management and somebody in the audience would question my competence since I wasn’t a doctor and that started to become a problem. I also considered teaching at another high level, like post graduate students and approached the authorities at Lagos business school, who were somewhat reluctant because I’m not from the academia and like most people, they couldn’t understand what a military man had to offer such an audience.

Eventually someone suggested I did a course there and which I did by attending the Owner Management Programme OMP-15, with a variety of business people from different business background for six months and got to really understand the different between military and civilian outlook to leadership and management. I also came to understand the importance of the need to be well grounded in ones chosen field and properly branded to help market yourself or organisation. That’s how the idea of an NGO with special focus on advocacy came into being and we started working to put everything together.

Are you saying that if proper attention and training is given to people with disability, they can still harness their potentials for economic values?

I attended a conference in the US in 2014 and a gentleman presented a paper that blew my mind and the essence of that paper is that life, the next big thing in business in disability. There was a time when it was about apartheid, then human rights, then it moved on to gender issues, like women’s rights, gay rights.

So, the next big thing in business is disability, and since he said that in 2014, I have been following disability issues nationally and internationally, and I will tell you, whether it is in fashion, business, music, entertainment and the movies, the openings for persons with disability (PWD’s) has increased tremendously and continues to do so by the day.

Indeed, in the last one year, it has become clearly evident at least in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt that disability is now big business. To properly understand what I mean when I say big business, one must start with the numbers. World Bank estimates puts Nigeria’s population at 195 million with a conservative estimate of moderately to fully disabled people at 29 million and when we consider that each PWD has at least two individuals (Father and Mother) who care for them along with other family members, the number of those who are affected by disability increases remarkably. What that means for places of business like restaurants or hotels, is that if such a place is not accessible, such individuals and their families who can afford to go there would be forced to go elsewhere resulting in loss of business.

Also, for this huge number of PWD’s, provision of assistive devices like wheelchairs, canes for the blind, hearing aids, accessible clothing, etc. create huge business opportunities. For the banking sector, access and assistance in the banking hall as well as their ATM Machines would be great game changers.

When you consider that you don’t even have to speak to be able to change lives anymore, computer technology, voice technology, all these things now make it possible for an individual who are unable to speak or do a lot of things their own to show the brilliance of their mind.

If as a Nation we fail to provide opportunities for these special people to be trained, we are losing serious opportunities for them to contribute their quota to the growth of the Nigerian economy.

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