Disability made me realise other potentials – Amina Audu, lecturer with spinal cord injury

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Amina Audu.
Amina Audu.

Amina Audu is a lecturer at the Department of Educational Foundations, Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State, and the founder of Rebuilding Hope on Wheels Initiative, a movement for persons living with disabilities with special focus on persons with spinal cord injuries or dysfunction. The disability rights advocate, who hails from the Tsafe Local Government Area of Zamfara State, shares her life lessons and passion with Alexander Okere.

Alexander Okere: How did you lose your ability to use your legs?

Amina Audu: I was 13 when I was involved in a car crash and sustained a spinal cord injury. One of the tyres of the vehicle burst and since I didn’t use the seat belt, I was flung to the windscreen. It resulted in four fractures in my back, collarbone and femur. The impact of the crash left me in a coma for three days and when I woke up, I was transferred to the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Dala, Kano State.

AO: Since the accident happened when you were in your teens, would you say it affected your childhood or interaction with your peers?

AA: My accident didn’t really affect much of my childhood. I cried, of course, when I was told I was going to start using a wheelchair. But I went through the most amazing phases of spinal cord injury rehabilitation which made me get my self-esteem and confidence back.

I found out other potentials I had like archery, wheelchair basketball and cooking. I learned to love myself and respect myself. Spinal cord injury rehabilitation was the best thing that happened to me during my recovery.

One of the challenges I faced was having to repeat a class because I was away from school for a whole year. That gave my friends an edge over me, not only in class but also in periods we could meet and play. But my new friends were awesome and even after more than 30 years, we are still very close. As a child, one or two kids were nasty but I had a foul temper so they had to stop.

AO: What was your aspiration as a child and do you think your condition affected it?

AA: I didn’t see my injury stealing anything from me. Maybe it was because it happened much earlier in life. I wanted to be an artist and even got admission at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, but I was not allowed to go because I was told I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself. I cried and ended up at a college of education in Sokoto, where I studied Fine Arts. I was the best student in my set.

AO: What kind of support did you receive from your parents and siblings?

AA: My parents are the most amazing people I know. May Allah bless them! Amin. They made sure I had the best care possible. My mum was a retired nurse. May Allah bless her soul; I lost her some weeks ago. My dad was a permanent secretary. They believed in me from day one. They encouraged me to be independent and love myself. My siblings were great too; one of my brothers invited me for picnics which were very common in Sokoto then. I later went back to my secondary school, Federal Government College, Sokoto. My dad just had ramps built for places that I needed access to, like classes and the toilet.

AO: Did you face discrimination at school?

AA: I had my first degree in Primary Education and a master’s in Sociology of Education at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. Coping in university was a bit more difficult but I made friends who were eager to help. They carried me up and down the stairs or even pushed me around in my wheelchair. A lecturer once said he was not bothered about holding his lectures downstairs, that if I cared enough, I should have a loudspeaker to be connected downstairs so that I could listen to his lectures from downstairs. That really pissed me off.

AO: Were there times people cheated you or tried to take advantage of your condition?

AA: All the time! And even now, people easily take my kindness for granted. They take advantage of my condition. At first, after my accident, extended family members started inviting a herbalist to come and heal me. I didn’t like that.

AO: So, how do you manage discrimination now?

AA: I just ignore it, especially when I got to realise that people discriminating against me have no idea what they are doing. So, I just keep my cool. Just recently, a friend was refused accommodation in a hotel in Kano. But it’s being investigated. It’s only when the law protecting the rights of persons living with disabilities is put into practice that people will realise how grave an offence it is to discriminate based on disability.

AO: It appears not many Nigerians know how to relate with persons living with disabilities. How best can this be done?

AA: Interacting with persons living with disabilities is totally normal and should be done exactly like you would to others that don’t have a disability. For example, it’s advised not to ask stupid questions, stare and keep saying stupid things, like telling them how inspiring they are. Our etiquettes are quite simple; we just want polite ways of interaction.

AO: Since we learn from experience, do you think your condition has taught you anything about life?

AA: Living with a spinal cord injury has taught me quite a lot about life. It taught me not to feel sorry for myself but love myself. It taught me to take care of myself. Spinal cord injuries have a lot of complications; hence, one needs to know how to manage them so that they do not affect one’s well-being and participation in society.

My condition also taught me to be patient with myself and others. It taught me to be patient, and be able to know who truly believes and cares about me and the fake ones – people who would decide to walk out on you. This is because some things just take time and it’s only with patience that you would be able to know the way forward. It has helped me to be focused and think about how I can help the little way I can.

AO: Are you involved in any form of advocacy for persons living with disabilities?

AA: I founded a disability rights movement for persons living with disabilities, with a special focus on persons with spinal cord injuries or dysfunction. It’s called RHOWI, which stands for Rebuilding Hope on Wheels Initiative.

The reason I concentrate on persons with spinal cord injuries is that they are the most under-represented and have enormous health and societal challenges which they, their families and the general public need to know about and consider.

I am also the Executive Director and our head office is within the premises of the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Kano. I also belong to other disabled people’s organisations for persons living with disabilities and they include the Initiative for Disability Inclusion and Diversity, Network of Women, Network of Disabled Women, and the Spinal Cord Injuries of Nigeria. I am a lecturer at the Department of Educational Foundations, Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State.

AO: How would you assess the welfare of persons living with disabilities in Nigeria?

AA: The welfare of persons living with disabilities is zero in Nigeria, especially when compared to the estimated number of over 25 million. There are no support systems that cater for persons living with disabilities; if that happens, a lot of burdens would be lifted off the shoulders of their families and guardians. Just like orphans, persons living with disabilities ought to be included in social systems, whether they are close to the government or not, to survive.

That is why we have a lot of beggars because that is how they feed, clothe and buy medicines for themselves. This huge number of people is mostly forgotten in development issues, increasing the level of poverty amongst persons living with disabilities and their families. Many are looked down upon because they are seen as a burden. But if the social support systems accommodate them, they are sure to participate and contribute to society like everyone else.

AO: So, how can persons living with disabilities live a life of purpose amid inadequate support from the government?

AA: It’s the government’s responsibility to cater to their needs, not on the basis of charity but human rights. This can touch the life of every person. Right now, it’s a rat race. People are not aware that there are still some differences in persons living with disabilities.

Although as humans, we are the same, we are different in our struggles and the government and public need to be aware of this. Many are left out and they die in desperation. Now, it looks like only the strongest survive, which shouldn’t be the case. Nigerians living with disabilities deserve to be provided for accordingly.

However, persons living with disabilities should strive to succeed, regardless of the difficulties. Life is full of challenges anyway. So, let them be strong and get to the top, no matter who is looking down on them or trying to stop them.

Our diversity should bring us opportunities which will make us collaborate and not compete. Those that have experience should mentor those who are new to such an experience. Persons living with disabilities should also be original and not steal each other’s ideas or claim false victories.

AO: Many PLWDs face difficulties relating with persons of the opposite sex who do not live with a disability, what is your experience in this regard?

AA: It really doesn’t affect me. I am closer to my male friends. Back in university, they were the ones pushing me through the heavy Sokoto sands and carrying me in my wheelchair to the lecture halls upstairs or taking my wheelchair in and out of the booth.

AO: Are you married?

AA: Yes, I am married. My husband and I met at a shopping mall in the United Kingdom, exchanged numbers and that was it. He does not have a disability. We have quite a normal relationship. We are also the best of friends.

AO: What was your impression when he proposed to you?

AA: I was initially not interested in getting married then because my heart was broken previously. My priority was to get a scholarship and go for a doctorate.

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