Mephibosheth is born into a royal family and like all the children born into powerful monarchies, he gets the whole nine years in terms of the perks of being privileged – nurses to cater for his domestic needs, physicians to tend to his health, servants to do his bidding, guards to protect him and tutors to train him for the throne because as one with royal blood, he is in line for succession. His nativity almost shares a parallel with that of Moses, not just because they are both born and raised in palaces but also because they experience life-changing events that redefine their perspective.
Mephibosheth wasn’t born lame, his father and grandfather were killed in war and one of his nurses, in trying to save the heir-apparent from harm and preserve the dynasty, inadvertently dropped him while running away from assailants – making him crippled for life. His disability wasn’t congenital – he wasn’t born lame at the feet, life happened to him. Same thing for Moses who was also the heir-apparent. It is recorded that, “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.” Note that he was groomed to be an orator because public speaking was a necessary trademark of powerful kings in that era, so he wasn’t born a stammerer – life happened to him too. In the school of hard knocks, an uppercut by tough times knocked out the eloquence from his mouth.
I can only imagine what it means to walk a mile in the shoes of a person with disability but I believe that on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I can use the opportunity to encourage them. Don’t let what happens to you happen inside you, especially if it doesn’t empower you. Mephibosheth allowed his mindset to shift from that of being a king’s kid to being a worthless wimp. When his father’s best friend, David, ascended the throne and invited him over to the palace, he utters very cringe-worthy words. Shuffling and stammering, not looking David in the eye, Mephibosheth said, “Who am I that you pay attention to a stray dog like me?”
To get the full import of his response, you have to interrogate the cultural context of that colloquialism. This wasn’t his being self-effacing or paying homage to the king, this was the voice of a chronic level of low self-esteem speaking. Even worse, describing a person as a dog wasn’t just a below-the-belt insult, it was a most derogatory term used in describing a bottom-of-the-barrel person, shy of calling him or her the devil. The dog in that era was seen as unbridled, unfettered and unhinged, especially in terms of its sexual promiscuity. A wise David, which for me is also a metaphor for how life responds to such mindset, then does something very interesting: he realises that Mephibosheth’s mindset cannot effectively appropriate wealth as presently constituted, so he does the next best thing – assigns someone else from his family to manage the estate of Mephibosheth’s grandfather. Notice how his dysfunctional mindset, not his disability, caused him to self-sabotage on such a huge opportunity? I know that your disability may have been caused by someone who “dropped” you, but don’t let it make you bitter, let it make you better.
Be careful what you tell yourself because overtime, you will eventually believe it, whether good or bad. Look at our Paralympians and be inspired, arguably Nigeria’s most decorated sports team in terms of medals. If you lost your eyes, don’t lose your vision. If you lost the use of your legs, don’t lose your drive. If you lost the use of your hands, don’t lose your reach. If you can neither hear nor speak, don’t lose your story or allow it be told for you!
Just pause and think about that. Like one of my friends would ask me a rhetorical question laced with some humour: “na him government name be that?” Why would this man be robbed of his identity and have his nomenclature crudely defined by his disabilities? Just so you know that this is not a Nigerian thing but a way society has notoriously reduced the potential of such persons to their physical challenges. There is a reason why they are now called Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), this is because they are first humans before they have disabilities.
Once we learn to separate a person’s potential from his or her disabilities, we can begin to inch towards “leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world” because PWDs sef be human beings. As you know, once someone loses the use of one sense, the others become very sensitive and I dare say, more effective. We need everyone and nobody should be left behind or discriminated against owing to their disability. Last month, I was privileged to work on a project on albinism and what I learnt was jaw-dropping: aside from the stigma albinos have to endure over a condition that is none of their making, in extreme cases, some of them are actually hunted for diabolic purposes.
Law + Culture = Change
To his credit, His Excellency, President Muhammed Buhari did sign into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018. Do you know that according to this Act:
- From the date of the commencement of this Act, there shall be a transitory period of five years within which all public buildings and structures, whether immovable, movable or automobile, which were inaccessible to persons with disabilities shall be modified to be accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities those on wheelchairs.
- Every public vehicle shall have functional audible and visual display of their destination within five years from the commencement of this Act.
- A person shall not employ, use or involve a person with disability in begging.
- Braille, sign language and other skills for communicating with persons with disabilities shall form part of the curricula of primary, secondary and tertiary institutions.
- Government shall ensure that the education of persons with disabilities, particularly children, who are blind, deaf or with multiple disabilities, is delivered in the most appropriate language, mode and means of communication for the individual and in an environment which maximises academic and social development.
- A person with mental disability shall be entitled to free medical and health services in all public institutions.
- All employers of labour in public organisations shall, as much as possible, have persons with disabilities constituting at least 5% of their employment?
The legalese, although commendable, has to be matched by a switch in the culture towards PWDs. There is nowhere in the constitution that says you must wear matching pyjamas this Christmas but because it is a culture that most people have accepted, hence they do so. You have to decide on your own to be an empath, and to see things through the eyes of PWDs. Over the past three years, I have better educated myself on how to best engage and interact with people from that community; it’s a small yet not-so-small thing to do in our quest for a more inclusive world.