Ending the isolation of People with disabilities: speech delivered at the Focus on Disability Foundation event on 5 December 2015

December 5, 2016

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to speak at this event in London to mark the International Day of Persons With Disabilities which is celebrated on 3rd December.  After giving my address, I had to race back to Lancaster, because reports were coming out that the city was flooded.  I managed to kame it with great difficulty, to find out that the city was plunged into darkness.  It took about three or four days for Lancaster to get back to normal and by then, there was just so much to catch up on.  Now, one year on, I present an account of what I said on that day.


First, let me thank this isolated group for inviting me to share thoughts on how to end the isolation of disabled people.  I say we are an isolated group, because the small number of us gathered here could have joined the large crowds at one of the many football matches taking place today.  The great thing is that we all live in the UK, even if a sizeable proportion of us were not born here.  Which means that we have a broad perspective on the issues under discussion.


Which is also why the first question is actually to what extent are disabled people isolated.  After all, there are international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Conventions on Human Rights.  There is also the Marakesh treaty on international copyright which means that books produced in an accessible format in one country can be used by those in other signatory states.  In the United Kingdom, there is the Equality Act, and in the US the Americans with Disabilities act.  Many in these countries would point to these legislations and say how much disabled people are being brought into the mainstream.  We have computers that have been adapted, as well as other digital and electronic aides for people with all manner of disabilities.  In fact, accessibility is so mainstream that roads, buildings, parking spaces, … even medicine packages which have Braille instructions are routinely adapted for disabled people.  People would point to Stevie Wonder, David Blunket and even the disgraced Oscar Pistorius as evidence that disabled people are taking advantage of these and entering mainstream society.


But consider this. In most countries, about 15% of citizens are registered disabled; yet, in the UK, recent figures suggest that about 60% of disabled people of working age are not in employment.  How does this compare to the national employment statistics?  Despite all these laws, only about 5% of all books produced in the United Kingdom are in a format that is accessible to people with a print disability.  Why have we stopped at enacting our good intentions?


First, people don’t realise that disability affects them.  If we did an unofficial poll, we’d probably find that most people here have relatives who are disabled; or a sizeable number of us are ourselves disabled.  Others who should be here do not admit to or see themselves as disabled.


Growing up as a Nigerian teenager, there were some books that were all the rage; they were called pace setters.  I recall a friend reading a pace setter to me.  It told the story of a village chief who was being accused of something, I can’t remember what.  By all accounts, he was such a kind and noble man.  One of the character witnesses at his trial made the point that as an important chief, he had many wives.  It was generally assumed that he had 31 wives, but he actually had 32.  The reason why nobody knew of the 32nd wife was that she was blind and nobody would marry her, so this noble chief married the girl and shut her away in his big house.  Even as a teenager, I felt uncomfortable about the imagery here, and it was not only the polygamy portrayed that worried me.  First, why should this disabled lady be so hidden that nobody even knew her as one of the wives of this great chief?  And why was it considered a kindness to her to do this?


In Nigeria (and perhaps in the UK as well) other disabled people have been recategorised as elderly and therefore their needs are different.  Age is a major cause of disability, but also the most unrecognised one.  Many elderly people walk about with hearing aids but do not consider themselves disabled.  They believe they have lived a full life and their hearing aids are a sign of their age.  Others cannot even face the fact that they now need hearing aids.  Some use walking aids, others can no longer read; but they are not disabled, just elderly.  Even as they play less part in society, they are revered for their age.  But society is doing nothing about their real need to still be relevant.


Why?  Because in our culture, nobody is permitted to be less able than others.  If I admit that I cannot see you, something is missing … incomplete.  But it was ever thus.  As a Christian, I’m familiar with the story of the paralyzed man who was healed by Jesus after staying by a pool with other disabled people for several years.  The reason he did not get his healing earlier? No one was available to take him to the pool when the angel stirred the waters.  What isolation! People crowded into a place only because they’re disabled; All waiting for their healing.


I believed Jesus healed that man as a commentary on the society which did not accept him or provide a means for his acceess to other forms of healing.  I’m not so sure it was because he was disabled, because there were many others by the pool and we only have the record of one healing.  The Bible also says that when God had made everything, He looked at His creation and it was very good.  According to the Bible, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.  It is humans who see imperfections, not God.  He picked the most isolated one to demonstrate that God does not isolate us, we isolate each other.


So, for the 4th time, it is hoped that the disability bill will pass the legislative stage and be presented to the president of Nigeria; and that after three such presentations before past presidents, this one will receive assent and become law in Nigeria.  But is it really about the law?  Laws, technology, … all these things are the logical products, the progression of a liberal mind.  They’re there because we say that we cannot be advanced and still lack these laws or facilities.  But it is time to progress from logical concepts of equality to emotional compassion.  It is time to look at disabled people as humans, not consider the theoretical framework of disability and practical implementation of objectives.


The real question isn’t why disabled people are isolated, it’s “how will I feel if I am disabled? How will I want to live? And if I’m not disabled, can I give that kind of lifestyle to those who are “? Remember Jesus healing that paralized man.  It was about enabling, raising him from what we call the medical (or even the rehabilitation) model to the social model of disability.  The experts say that the social model is about looking at the person and providing what can enable him or her.  In the end, it’s not about cold facts, statistics, figures, logical conclusions.  It’s about warm feelings, compassion, neighbourliness and inclusiveness.