Bukola Ayinde is the mother of a girl with cerebral palsy allegedly abused by her therapist. She talks about the current state of her five-year-old daughter among other issues with GBENGA ADENIJI
What is the current condition of your daughter with cerebral palsy captured in a CCTV footage that went viral on the Internet in 2016 while being allegedly assaulted by her therapist in school?
My daughter, Nimi, is a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; apart from that, she is fine. Judging by what she has been through, I would say she is indeed a strong girl.
What further steps did the Medical Rehabilitation Therapist Board of Nigeria take after the matter went viral?
Well, they felt I was trying to put them in a bad light and thereafter, I didn’t get any other communication from them. Our lawyer wrote the board a letter asking them to give the US Consulate some documents but they replied that the right department would do it but no department got in touch with us. I was informed that the ministry of health set up a panel to investigate the matter but the outcome of that panel has yet been made available to us.
Some people petitioned the US embassy over the matter when the therapist reportedly travelled to the country. What did the embassy do about it?
The US consulate contacted us. They said they would make their own enquiry. Later on, I was informed that since she was no longer in the United States, the matter was no longer within their jurisdiction.
Do you think justice has been served on this matter?
The matter has not been handled properly by the appropriate authorities in Nigeria. Nevertheless, justice for me is that that the lady in question is not allowed to work with vulnerable people. For now, that has been achieved.
Does your daughter still undergo therapy and attend school?
Yes, my daughter has her therapy sessions three times a week. Her therapies are conducted at home; in the sitting room. I sit in for her sessions and when I am not available, her caregiver sits in for her session. She is not left alone with her physiotherapist. After the incident with her former physiotherapist that took place at her school, I withdrew her from school. I decided to undertake home school her. I did that for some time before I was advised by a friend not to allow one incident to discourage me from allowing my daughter to go to school with her peers. I decided to give it another chance, though I was very skeptical. I am glad I did. She is doing very well. She has friends in school and she is an above average student. That for me is amazing because we were told she may never be able to learn.
As a mother of a child with special needs, what would you say is responsible for the abuse of vulnerable children?
Generally vulnerable children are easy targets of any form of abuse. They cannot defend themselves. A child, who is non-verbal, will not tell you that he/she has been beaten or sexually assaulted. Unless you discover by chance, it may go unnoticed.
When dealing with children with disabilities, abuse can come in diverse ways. In Nigeria, some people believe that children with disabilities are evil and demonic. Some say that parents, who have these children, have done some wrong things and they are being punished.
When parents lock a child up in the house because the child has disabilities, that is a form of child abuse. Some children with disabilities are not allowed to go to school, get medical help or interact with anyone outside the home. That is also a form of child abuse.
Another form of abuse that we don’t often talk about (as much as we should) happens within the walls of some religious centres.
Children with disabilities are termed demonic and are made to undergo certain inhumane forms of deliverance. Some religious leaders chain children to the ground and beat them asking the helpless children to denounce any form of association with demons. Some starve the children and literarily wait for them to die.
Another area I would love to point out is in the area of professional care for children with disabilities. Nigeria does not have a good number of professionals in physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and paediatric neurology. Therefore, a lot of quacks have filled the gap. This has caused a lot of mismanagement of disability cases. The government parastatal in charge of managing rehabilitation therapists need to come up with a better strategy to sanitise the system.
How can parents know if their child is being abused?
As a parent, you have to be very observant. Abuse can come from anywhere – the school, at home, in the church, among friends and even within the family. Make it your business to study your child. If you are observant, you will see the signs. In my case, though my child was non-verbal at the time, she became withdrawn. Before the period of abuse, she would smile at people and make friendly facial gestures. All that was not there anymore. There were some days in the morning when I got to her school to drop her off and she would start crying. That was a pointer that something was wrong but it never occurred to me that her physiotherapist was assaulting her.
What role do you think government can play in checking child abuse especially with regards to children with disabilities?
There is a prevalence of ignorance in our society about children living with disabilities. Some people do not consider them as normal human beings. The fact that a person has developmental disorder or a disability doesn’t make them abnormal. They are human beings like you and me. They should be accorded respect and dignity.
The government needs to sensitise the public to change the current social perception of children with disabilities. The government shouldn’t delay in signing into law the disability bill. When the government provides medical and rehabilitation centres where children with disabilities can be cared for adequately, some form of child abuse will be reduced. Cases of child abuse that have been reported to the authorities should be investigated and the matter properly handled to serve as deterrents to others.
What is the focus of your newly formed initiative on kids with special needs?
Diary of a Special Needs Mum Initiative was founded based on my experience as a mother of a child with cerebral palsy living in Nigeria. The journey has not been easy; it is like walking through a maze. You are trying to find the best way to help your child. It is almost like you against the world.
You have to adjust your financial budget to accommodate the medical and therapy expenses your child will require. You need to set aside money to buy certain rehabilitation equipment that your child will need. You need to look for the right school for your child. The family needs to guard themselves against social stigma. In a lot of cases, the fathers are no longer on the scene.
My initiative was formed to encourage and support mothers who have children with disabilities with a focus on cerebral palsy.
We also propagate the need for inclusive education for children with disabilities. The fact that a child has cerebral palsy doesn’t necessary mean that a child has learning disabilities. When you put the child in a special school, how do you want to integrate him/her into society? There are no special universities, no special working environment and no special countries. My child has cerebral palsy, she was categorised as a stage five (being the highest level) based on severity yet, she is doing very well in school.
We also educate the public about disabilities. I strongly believe that if we demystify disabilities, then we can make progress in their management. I write articles for newspapers and online magazines on disability and related issues. I am having a book presentation next month, April. I have written three story books to teach about disabilities with a focus on cerebral palsy. They would also teach children to show love and empathy to children who are different from them.