By Godfrey George,
Abubakar-Umar Jalingo, a 65-year-old lawyer in a wheelchair from Taraba State shares with GODFREY GEORGE his triumph over polio and issues about disability rights
Tell us about yourself
I am a disability advocate. I wasn’t born with a disability. I contracted polio at a young age and became a person with disability as a result.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I felt devastated as many children who had my condition would. I had a very supportive family who helped me, but it was not easy at all. It was a really difficult time for me. I am really glad that I scaled through it to be where I am today.
What schools did you attend?
I attended primary school at the age of seven in 1965. I attended Muhammadu Nya Primary School, Jalingo, Taraba State. After a few years, I moved to MCBride Primary School from 1972 to 1975. It was a missionary school. I was transferred after some time there to Government Secondary School, Maiduguri, Borno State, for my secondary education. It was also under the missionaries in the late 1970s. I then proceeded to University of Maiduguri, where I studied Law and got an LLB in 1982. I attended the Nigerian Law School in 1983 and was called to the Nigerian Bar a year after. I am happily married with seven children and I am a grandfather of five.
Many people with disabilities experience discrimination and stigmatisation at one point in their lives or the other. What is your experience in this regard?
There is a lot of experience. In fact, it was because of my family background that I was even enrolled in a primary school. My father was a minister in the First Republic. I was meant to go to Capital School, Kaduna, for my primary education but because of my disability, I was taken to the village to be enrolled in a local primary school. After primary school, I passed the common entrance examination. On the interview day, I was the only person using a wheelchair. When I got to the hall to be interviewed, the chairman of the panel came out and pointed at me. He said they could not interview me because they did not have a facility for ‘people like me’ in the school.
So, I was left to stay under a tree and watched the interview go on despite being the son of a minister. I was rejected because of my disability. It was a lady from a missionary school who saw me and came to me; she asked me how I intended to move if I was admitted to study in their school. I simply told her that I would crawl. I got down from the tricycle and began to crawl, demonstrating to her how desperate I was to go to school. She was moved with compassion and that was how I got the admission to the missionary school. Upon graduation I was supposed to study at Bayero University, Kano, but I had to attend a pre-degree programme for a year before I was admitted fully into the university programme.
Did you experience discrimination at the university?
After I was admitted, I went to the school and the coordinator of preliminary studies told me that they were not informed that among the students who took the exam, there was someone with a disability. He told me blatantly that the facilities were not suitable for me and that he didn’t think I would be able to cope. I was rejected and transferred to a school in Yola for a two-year preliminary programme. When I returned to my uncle in Kaduna and told him what happened, he took me in his car and we went back to Bayero University, Kano. This was around 1977. We met the vice-chancellor, who said the coordinator did not inform them and it was such a ‘big policy issue’ at that time that he alone could not have taken the decision. My uncle said if the problem was about movement, he would make arrangements for people to lift me to the venues of the lectures and all that.
The VC accepted me on that ground and my uncle employed two men whose job was to lift me from one place to the other since most of the structures at BUK then were not bungalows. It was too embarrassing for me that I had to voluntarily leave (the school). People looked at me differently. It was like I was not a human being. I felt it with the way they stared at me. I had to apply to the University of Maiduguri, Borno, and that was where I finally felt some comfort. This was because the school’s structures were bungalows. That was where I completed my programme. I have a lot of bitter stories and a lot of experiences of stigmatisation.
Do you know I am a prince of the Murhi Kingdom in Taraba State? My father was an Emir. I am the first son of my father’s 86 children. By right, I am one of those who were supposed to be considered for the Emir position in my clan, but because of my disability, I was not given that chance.
How do you handle discrimination?
It depends on the type of discrimination. There are some you can refuse or rebuke; there are others you can do nothing about but just let them be. I remember when I went to see one of my friends and the security guard in his house refused to allow me in. I overheard him saying that people like me in wheelchairs were paying for our sins. He said it was because of our bad hearts and wickedness that God was punishing us. I heard all that but said nothing. All I did was try to stand where my friend could see me. Fortunately, he came out and saw me. He came out of his car filled with escorts and asked why I didn’t come right in to see him. I just smiled and told him that I just got there. I didn’t tell him what the security men had said. I just told him what exactly I had come for. We face a lot. There are times we may see a girl and want to approach her, but won’t because of how she may react.
You said you were happily married. Was it difficult for you to tie the knot?
When I was enrolled in primary school, I was the only person living with a disability in my class. Up until university, it was like that but because of the relationship I have had with able people, I forget that I am not one of them. The type of life I lived was the type that not every person with a disability could. I am very confident about myself and interact freely. Hence, I built confidence and courage over time to approach ladies and tell them my feelings. I met a few ladies before my wife and I could tell those who really cared for me and those who just said yes because of pity. Some acted like they were okay with the disability, but deep down, I knew they were lying.
How did you know your wife was the right one for you?
It was God. God did it for both of us, and we have lived together for a long time. I have grandchildren already. That is what God can do.
Are you a practising lawyer?
Yes, I am a lawyer. I practice law to some extent, but I don’t know what to call myself today. I was a state counsel in Gongola State (now Adamawa). I was also on the bench. I was a one-time Area Court judge in the former Gongola State. I was also a registrar at the High Court of Justice in charge of the Jalingo Division before I became the company secretary/legal adviser of the Taraba Investment and Properties Limited. I held that position until 1995 when I resigned and became a businessman. I became a Jack of all trades and master of all.
Sometime in 2005, I had a sharp thought of being a disability advocate. I was about to go for Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca) that year when I learnt of the Disability Rights Bill being fronted by a senator. I thought it was good and I felt that I should be a part of getting that bill to work out for all of us. The feeling intensified when I got back from Mecca. So, I visited a friend, who was a member of the House of Representatives, and he told me that they were working on a bill around people with disabilities. He wondered why I hadn’t come around to join in the advocacy like others. He asked me to meet him in his office the following day, which I did. From there, he took me to the Majority Leader, surprisingly, I was appointed as adviser to the National Assembly on Disability Matters. At that point, I began to realise that it was serious business and it was beginning to look more beneficial than I had earlier imagined. I didn’t know much about disability then, although I am disabled and polio-stricken. But because of integration, I often mixed with people who are not living with disabilities, so I didn’t know much about others of my kind.
I didn’t know what was happening with them and all of that. I asked myself what I could offer with my appointment as an adviser to the National Assembly on Disability Matters. So, I decided to learn more. I spoke to someone about my new role offer and told him that I didn’t know much about the position. He simply told me to go to the Internet and read about all of it. My children often went to a cyber café then, so I asked that I be taken to the cyber café and I read a lot about it. What I learnt changed my life entirely. It was there I started reading literature on disabilities. I went beyond and asked myself why my country was left behind when in other climes, it was different. It seemed like Nigeria was ignorant of what was happening at the global level of people with disabilities.
How did that knowledge impact you?
I became too concerned. Anywhere I saw a disabled person, I would inquire if he was also conscious of what was happening. This enthusiasm spurred me to contest the position of the president of the Persons with Disabilities in Abuja. I became the first president of the FCT branch of the association. I held that position for over 10 years. That diverted me from my legal practice and interest. I even had admission to study at a university in New York for my master’s in Disability Studies, but I couldn’t get sponsorship, otherwise, I would have been one of the few Nigerians with such training today. But I formed an organisation called Disability Care Initiative and I contributed to every step that led to the signing into law of the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 by President Muhammadu Buhari, and that Act established the Disability Commission of Nigeria.
As one of the active people who fully participated in ensuring that the Disability Bill was passed, will you say the law has made any real impact on the lives of PWDs in Nigeria?
Honestly, there hasn’t been any impact because the problem is with our country. Disability is a technical field. It is highly technical. You cannot expect an able person to play a positive role in the disabled movement if they do not know what it means to live with a disability. Disability has been an academic subject in different parts of the world from diploma to PhD level. Some people have degrees in Disability Studies. Unfortunately, we lack that in Nigeria. In Nigeria, disability is only within the social development, welfare and humanitarian aspects. That is why even after we got the Act, it has been misplaced. Instead of the commission being under the Presidency, it was placed under the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, because they are still looking at it from the welfare perspective. Disability is not looked at as a fundamental human right issue, which is wrong. The PWDs have fundamental rights and they are not to be looked at with pity. We are people who need rights.
Disability is inherent in human society. Therefore, the government shouldn’t consider it as humanitarian like we need some sort of sympathy. It is a right, people must be taken care of the way they are. Society should learn to adopt a way for the people. It is not the man that is disabled; it is the society itself that is disabled. For example, for me, my hands are good. I can be a good typist, but if you give me a job in a 12-storeyed building without a lift, how will I get there? This means I won’t be able to work. But, if you create an enabling environment for me to work and be able to get into and around the building, I can be productive like any other person and contribute to society. Therefore, it is something the government should take with all seriousness, and this Act that we fought for should be taken care of. If that is done, many PWDs will be empowered to contribute to nation-building.
Do you think the disability commission was politicised?
When the bill came up, it was politicised. They didn’t look for people who were competent to handle it. Rather, they appointed just anyone. You cannot place disability matters under humanitarian (affairs). This is where the priority was misplaced. It is an abuse. We are people fighting for rights, but rather they are looking at us with sympathy. Nigerians should be encouraged to learn about disability. There should be an establishment of departments in our universities for studying disabilities. We have got the Act, but we lack the technical know-how to go about it. That is why there is no impact whatsoever. The level of awareness is still very low; people don’t even know that this Act exists so they act anyhow and treat PWDs with disdain. Disability and poverty are perceived to be the same. In those days, one was not allowed to relate with people with a form of disability, because it was associated with poverty.
I remember attending an interview and I asked for a wheelchair from the officials. Someone reported to my father and my father said I was disgracing him by asking for a wheelchair when he could afford to get me one. I told him that it was my right to be given a wheelchair and to ask to be treated better and equally.
Do you foresee a change in the way society sees PWDs?
With improvements in enlightenment and awareness, I believe there will be an improvement. It could be gradual, but certainly, it will happen. I know some people I have been able to influence by making them understand things they knew not about disability. I have been able to change their mindset. Disability is an expensive project, and that’s why even the government is running away from it. Generally, disability in Nigeria is still stagnant.