• Monday, May 20, 2024
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Adenike Oyetunde-Lawal, advocate for people living with disabilities

Adenike Oyetunde-Lawal, advocate for people living with disabilities

…From being former SSA to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu on PWD, still in his cabinet, now as general manager LASODA, the advocacy continues

Adenike Oyetunde-Lawal is a lawyer, a qualified alternate dispute resolutor. She is qualified human resource personnel, an emotional Intelligence coach and holds a diploma in special needs education. She has earned several certifications in Understanding autism, asperger’s and ADHD from the University of Derby.

She was nominated for several media awards, winning some and getting other recognition on the job as a multimedia personality.

In 2017, Adenike was a speaker at TedX Gbagada, Lagos, speaking on Philanthropy and the role of empathy in human society.

Her passion, which is driving conversations around the plight of disability in Nigeria, led her to establishing the Amputees United Initiative, a social group specifically for amputees.

Her work has earned her several platforms, from hosting events to moderating several sessions and being part of many panels. She is confident, outspoken and selfless.

She was the Senior Special Assistant to the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-olu on Persons With Disability (PWD). After seeing her commendable work as the SSA, in December 2023, she was appointed as the General Manager, Lagos State Office of Disability Affairs (LASODA) where she is currently working on the rights of people with disability.

A GoalKeeper (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), using advocacy to push for and encourage the inclusion for persons living with disability in Nigeria, Adenike is vocal about having an inclusive state and society. She fights for the rights of people with disabilities. She is an author of a self-titled memoir – Adénìké.

Share your childhood memories and impact till date with us

I grew up as an only child of both my parents, which means that I grew in a single-child only household.

However, I remember growing up around neighbours who had many children and were from both genders. I keenly observed that they were domesticated in the same way as there were no house chores for a specific gender, it was the same for both. This resonated very strongly with me as I grew.

I grew up knowing that men could cook, men could sweep, and men could mop. I saw that women could be on the farm too. We also had our house garden. I grew up in an environment like that. I grew up in an environment where my neighbours helped with homework. My neighbours accommodated us. Thankfully, I was not abused either by neighbours or their domestics.

That’s how I grew up and daily it inspires me to want to have friends over or go to my friend’s houses and be with their kids, and also understand that there are no gender roles.

Tell us your inspiring survival story

I am one loved by God. I am very beloved of the father and because of that, I share a story of an almost 20-year journey post-cancer experience where I lost my right leg above the knee to bone cancer. I have a story of dedication, the tenacity of love from God, and I’m excited about the world, of love for food and people, and spending time with God.

I believe very strongly that these and a lot more helped with my survival instincts in the tick of my cancer journey. So much so that I was resilient and resolute that I would not die from the cancer experience. I was so certain about it and I was very sure that I wasn’t going to die. I cannot say why or how because I didn’t know a lot that I know now about the love of God, but I believe very strongly that even the community helps because there were a lot of people who consistently continually showed up and by that, I mean they prayed, and were very resolute about my surviving, and I believe very strongly that this has in turn informed and influenced my survival story from cancer amongst many other things that I have consistently and continually survived.

Skilled in alternate dispute resolution, what are some of the key abilities and techniques you use?

The beautiful part about that qualification is that I do not find myself resolving disputes in the four corners of an office as a professional negotiator, but what I see that has helped me through the years of my qualifying as a lawyer and being in the media and now managing a group of people is that, it has helped me to identify personalities early on and also know where to place who, where, and that way it has helped when conflicts are presented to me.

I am better able to easily identify the skills of each individual and their personalities with the complaints that have been presented before me. I’ve also tried to adopt a very beautiful skill of fairness such that when you bring a matter to me, I’m very quick to ask that you pause and then invite the person whose complaints you have brought.

Because again, the human body and human person are very susceptible to narrating stories to favour us and paint us as victims when in fact, quite a number of the times, we realise that we are contributory to our victimhood as is, and sometimes also inflict pain on the other party.

So, fairness is one tool I try to deploy at every opportunity that I get. And from that standpoint, I’m better able to use all the other skills, negotiating, conciliating, and most importantly, as an avatar, I’m able to see it as an umpire and decisively advise the parties concerned.

How do you incorporate your emotional intelligence coaching experience into your work?

The beautiful thing about emotional intelligence is that it gives you a circumspect approach to everything that you encounter, even at the moment when you are being emotive and you are not being rational in analysing people or circumstances.

Then as a lawyer, you want facts, and sometimes in your gathering of facts, you may be emotive. However, when you have gathered yourself together, you then remind yourself of how important it is to not only be emotive in your dispersing of your duty, your rules, or the task that you are concerned with, but most importantly, in ensuring that as fast as you are possibly able, you get to the bottom of the matter, that is, the causative factors must be easily identifiable, and that way, you are better able to use your intelligence emotionally in ensuring that as you resolve the dispute, you get to a point where, in court they say, without reasonable doubt, you have been able to advocate fairly.

Can you provide some examples of how emotional intelligence has helped you achieve better outcomes?

I see across my life’s journey that all of these skills have been able to come alive. I’ll give you an example. When I was on radio, we would have call–in shows. Sometimes, those shows can be very, very, very deep.

You know, subject matter discourse, especially away from political topics or political shows, shows that have to do with the human angle of life. In those instances, one is on the spot and better able to delve into all of these expressions, thereby giving on-the-go counsel, on-the-go opinion and on-the-go advice. Interestingly, I know that one of the things that people attest to is the fact that I’m a person of wisdom. I know very strongly that outside of all of these paper qualifications, the person who makes it easier and most certainly assertive is the person of the Holy Spirit.

How do the different aspects of your background as a lawyer, skilled in dispute resolution, emotional intelligence and a disability advocate complement each other and inform the work that you do?

Every single one of these expressions is intertwined. Now, I have to directly manage about 50 people, an average of 50 people. Imagine that when cases or matters are brought up, either consensus of the work or interpersonal relationship, my lawyer skills come to bear.

When there are issues with interpersonal difficulties, differences, mismanagement, my dispute resolutor cap is on alongside the emotional intelligence part. And then as a disability advocate, imagine the extent of dispute and issues that we have to adjudicate on, and that is brought to us on a daily if not weekly basis.

All of these skills complement each other. Not one is better than the other. Not one is left to pick up the other. I know very strongly that my life’s journey has been one that has been divinely orchestrated by God, to bring me to this space where I am at this point in time in my life. Understanding clearly that whatever expressions that are evolving to every single one connects.

What are some of the unique challenges you face in juggling these various professional responsibilities?

What is common in all these three domains at the moment is the fact that human beings are the ones that one has to administer, supervise or adjudicate between or amongst, and human nature is such that very interestingly enough, emotions can come to bear at any point in time.

So, trying to understand as many personalities as one is able to experience or even envisage is one of the best ways that I have been able to juggle all these responsibilities. Managing my time has become a very important aspect of these roles because by nature, I am an empath, and I want to carry everything that is brought to me even the ones I find out myself.

It’s very exhausting, but I am learning as little as switching off my phone, or leaving my phone on silent when I get home. Also, understanding that certain responsibilities I may not have the capacities for, and being honest with the individuals and saying at this point in time, I can no longer handle matters of this nature.

Priorities are very clear to me, God, family and community, and because of that, I am better able to know which balls are glass balls or which ones are plastic balls, because there will come some time where some of these balls will have to fall, but I have to know which ones are what, and which ones I can allow fall, whether directly or indirectly at certain points in time.

If I am being factual, these are all doable only through the strength of the Holy Spirit, because when I even have to fall glass balls, take for instance, I can’t show up for a loved one, I am now better equipped with owning up to the fact that I cannot show, sometimes even giving the heads up before the day.

How do you stay up-to-date with the latest developments and best practices in areas like dispute resolution, emotional intelligence, and disability rights advocacy? What resources or networks do you rely on?

You stay up-to-date by staying up-to-date. No man is an island and there’s so much information around the realities that even with human nature and human behaviour, we are still evolving.

Belonging to certain groups also helps a lot. I think that the one that I have not been very active with maintaining is the dispute resolution part. I do not recollect being active in any group per se.

However, what that then does is that, on Instagram for instance, I have like two or three accounts that help with on-the-go information, help with catching up to speed with what is trending in areas of this sort and the network of people.

Emotions Doctor for instance, of Emotion City, has a very thriving active and very deliberate community of people, who have trained with her, and so you are brought up to speed with all the newest and latest development and trends as the cases arise.

I believe very strongly that the people you meet per time and the places that you go also expose you to these trends, so that you know when you are playing catch-up, and you can also be a little lenient with yourself in terms of allowing yourself to evolve as the case is.

What advice would you give to other legal professionals who are interested in expanding their skill sets and taking on additional roles beyond traditional legal practice?

Evolve- it is really as simple as that. The legal profession in Nigeria is a very interesting profession, so much so that advertisements are not allowed. Then when you go to even some African countries, you see on their televisions, they have advertisements, they say, I want to hit you today, call us, we can help you with claims here and there.

I strongly believe that it’s time for us to evolve. Let’s start with our outfits. It is so hot. There’s global warming and climate change. Why do we have to always wear the wig in the hot courtrooms? Why? But jokes apart, honestly speaking, the truth about it is that one must always understand that evolution is inevitable.

So, evolve and be smart with how your evolution does not hamper others. In Nigeria for instance, you must adhere to the rules of professional conduct or ethics, otherwise, the legal professionals’ disciplinary committee will take you up on it, even though you had the intent of evolving. Don’t forget that where you currently practice, those things might not be allowed.

Evolve in such a way that you can actually still practice in Nigeria as the case is.

Provide a number of your key responsibilities and priorities of the Office of Disability Affairs in Lagos state

As an agency, our key responsibilities are:

1. Issuance of guidelines for the education, social development and welfare of persons living with disability.

2. We collaborate with relevant ministries, parastatals or corporate bodies issuing codes and directives for designing and buildings so as to make them accessible to and usable by persons living with disability.

3. We see to the registration and coordination of associations of persons living with disability.

4. Re-orientation and education of the public on the right attitude towards persons living with disability.

5. The agency collects and collates data on persons living with disability and ensures proper government planning for persons living with disability.

6. Receipt of complaints from persons living with disability on the violation of any of his or her rights; investigate, sanction in appropriate cases of violation.

7. The agency liaises with other ministries and all other government agencies to ensure that the peculiar interests of persons living with disability are taken into consideration in every government policies, programmes and activities.

In summary, we ensure compliance with the provisions of the special people’s laws.

What are some of the main challenges and barriers that persons with disabilities face in Lagos state?

Number one is perception meets reality. We have quite a lot of work to do with the educating part and unfortunately, acceptance is also a huge problem. You know, the funny thing about it is, people who wear glasses do not classify themselves as persons with disabilities, when in actual fact, you cannot see without those pairs of glasses. You cannot, unfortunately. It’s why there are stereotypical perceptions, labelling, societal discrimination or stigmatisation and psychosocial impact of understanding what it means to be a PWD.

Another thing is the popular access, you know, at every level. How do we tackle it? Our aim is to bring awareness to these, to spotlight these concerns, and once we are able to spotlight them, we are better able to equip ourselves with the understanding and knowledge of what it means to relate with or interact with a person with disabilities, such that a person with albinism, for instance, understands that when they go out, no people are making fun of them. Even a dwarf, or a person with spina bifida concerns, or a person with hydrocephalus and has survived. But unfortunately, quite a number of them are wheelchair bound.

We bring awareness to some of these categories that I rightly mentioned, ensuring that the individuals themselves accept their realities. Their families and loved ones are also accepting of this labelling, because labelling has become an obvious challenge for loved ones, where because of the labelling, people do not accept what it is that has been told to them by the medical professionals. Finally, we also try to ensure that we are better able to inform PWDs that yes, there is ability in disability but there is also inability. Accepting the confines within which you are better able to optimally perform is key.

How does your office work to raise awareness and educate the broader public about disability rights and accessibility issues in Lagos?

My office raises awareness through several forums. One is exactly what I’m doing with this interview, so that people are better able to not only know about my own personal reality, but also understand that there is an office, whose responsibilities I have highlighted above, and the truth about the whole concern is that, we are trying our best to wrap up with public awareness materials or toolkits so that we can push that out into the general public and people can remain aware of who we are, what we stand for, and those that we are here to protect or fight for. Education through periodic stakeholder involvement, liaising with Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), collaborating and supporting non-profits is already in this space.

These are just some of the areas that we continue to push for awareness when it comes to the broader public as the case is, in terms of the rights of PWDs in Lagos State.

Can you describe your office’s approach to collaborating with other government agencies, NGOs, community organisations to advance the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities?

One with the MDAs is to emphasise, enforce and to remind them of their core responsibilities to ensure inclusive budgeting and inclusive execution are not just back burner conversations, but become front burner realities. Secondly, with non-profits, one of the best things to admit, first and foremost, is the reality that the government cannot do it all. Government will try her best in enforcing, ensuring that the environment promotes opportunities of this nature, however, the government comes to the table with non-profits that are already in this space, and then participates extensively with collaborative efforts that they have given to us.

The instrument of the Office of Government is very powerful, especially when it comes to reach and as it concerns non-profits. Furthermore, the nature of collaboration differs from cause to cause, from non-profit to non-profit, and from subject matter to subject matter. Because, for instance, sometimes it might be partnering for funds, sometimes it’s partnering with simply the instrument of the office.

We are also open to perusing the intent of certain non-profits in ensuring that they truly have the best interest of PWDs.

In your role as GM, how do you ensure that voices of perspective of persons with disability are meaningfully represented in the office’s decision making and policy development processes?

We try our best to listen, even when or if some of the suggestions or contributions may not benefit a larger spectrum of PWDs. We try our best with ensuring that, at the minimum, we listen and we give a sense of belonging to PWDs. We also try to ensure that as many concerns as are presented to us, they are attended to, in the same velocity, frequency, and with the same energy as any concern. We also make sure that we are at the moment, trying to clear off quite a number of backlog. It’s been on-going but we’re certain that once we can move past that, we will be open to better collaboration and participation in executing and implementing the Lagos state special people’s laws as the case is.

What are some of the key performance indicators or metrics that your office uses to track progress and measure the impact of your work?

The number one key indicator will just be impact-filled lives. Moving PWDs from where they are to where they ought to be, which is why a lot of it must, unfortunately, be on a per-case basis. The nature of disability differs from person to person, and unfortunately, what that does is, even when we set rules that are universally accepted across boards, the measuring tool for impact assessment will be the biggest feedback that we need with measuring that, truly, the lives of the persons concerned has improved.

The impact often might be as little as the mental or psychosocial acceptance of the new reality of disability by the PWD or their caregivers, and as simple as that sounds, it changes the discourse a lot of times.

The other thing is that, especially in cases of abuse, (and by that I mean physical and sexual), no longer are we open to just tapping people on the wrist as a reprimanding act, we are now going full on prosecuting. Family members sometimes are insistent on not wanting to persecute, but, we’re now at that space where we’re telling them, these are crimes against these individuals and the state, so we are going to take them up without coercing you.

Again, a lot in terms of intimidation, and we see that often when it comes to sexual assault cases. We are also encouraging people that the measure of our impact and progress will be that an abuse occurred, yes, but evidently, prosecution followed.

What are some of the main legislative, policy, or budgetary priorities that your office is currently advocating for with the state government?

With the legislative bit of this question, I can tell you that we are in the process of amending our law as is, so that we can better cover for a lot more lacuna that has been noticed. By doing so, we are working towards ensuring that we cover for the rights of PWDs as is by law.

With the budgetary priorities, I will be honest to say that, yes, there’s a lot more in terms of budgetary allocation that is needed, but the beauty about it is, if we’re being candid, the inflation has also eaten deep into our realities.

When it comes to assistive devices, for instance, you realise that the cost of what assistive devices used to go for two years ago is not what they go for now. This has impacted deeply into the realities of the budgetary provisions that the law has enabled us with.

Also, we are pushing extensively and, you know, at all corners, ensuring and advocating for inclusive budgeting so that the cause of PWDs becomes a front burner reality as is for many offices, ministries, departments and agencies, at least in this context.

How does your office work to support employment and economic empowerment of persons with disabilities?

We recently only just forwarded some of our compiled CVs to non-profits whose biggest goal is to increase the economic realities of PWDs, and one of the biggest tools again is acceptance. Acceptance meaning that, PWDs need to accept that not every PWD will be in wage deployment or paid employment as some PWDs will have to have their assessment done, and then we are better able to see the realities of whether they can stay in paid employment or they can go into the technical or vocational bit of it because a number of PWDs eventually will become employers of labour themselves, and if that is where we are headed to, which is my biggest hope, then imagine that the predicament of PWDs begins to brighten as more PWDs will be equipped with the tools for employment.

Also, there are quite a number of vocational and training going on across the state, and the state government has increased their vocational schools, so much so that there are vocational board centres and the governor has only recently appointed an SA on this. This means that all hands are on deck at the state level, and at private level, vocational trainings, vocational schools will be one that we are encouraging PWDs to go to, but outside of that, one of the challenges that we know that we will face is patronage. We are also saying, before we go full on this, we are encouraging Nigerians to please engage PWDs, be their customers, patronise them, and in turn what we are also telling the PWDs is to provide excellent service, as that is an easy sell for us as we try to encourage more people to support their causes.

Can you share your vision for the future disability rights and inclusion in Lagos and what steps your office is taking towards that vision?

I must state at this point that the agenda of my principle, which is THEMES+, the plus indicates for youth empowerment, social inclusion and gender equality.

Disability and disability concerns fall across these three core areas as they do all the other arms of things, but more specifically with the ‘plus’. Also, because of that, my biggest goal and vision will be to see a Lagos where truly no PWD is left behind, where we are equipped with the right tools and understanding, where individuals who own properties, and facility owners, understand without batting an eyelid that truthfully PWDs of various kinds can access, come to and get value for service at these places.

The vision for Lagos is a place where, once your child and your family have an interest in education, even as PWD, they get the best of it. A Lagos where indeed a person with cerebral palsy, a person with down syndrome, a person with visual challenges or blindness, a person with hearing challenges, every single one of these categories, or even a dwarf and so on, can beat their chest to partake in these laudable services rendered by the state, an assurance letting them know that truly, the predicament of their realities have changed for good in Lagos state.

A vision of Lagos where our education truly will be encompassing, not just at the state level, but more national level, where the curriculum will cover neurological and intellectual disabilities as well.

That is my vision. A Lagos where assistive devices will not just only be coupled together, but also manufactured and manufactured locally. A Lagos where, when it comes to even importation of assistive devices, tax rebates, and so on, are given to these importers as the case is. These are just some fractions of where I hope that our Lagos gets to in the nearest possible future.

Your swift intervention on the KFC issue where a PWD was treated poorly is indeed commendable. What is the update on that matter?

We await the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) to officially release their reports because, what we did was to partner with them knowing fully well the magnitude of fine that was spelled out in the law for a brand as big as theirs.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for the brand to assuage several things. I believe very strongly that once the NCPWD is done and ready with the statements, it will be public knowledge. Again, we had to bring them in and they also have taken it up as well.

Meetings have been held with the brand in the agency as with officers from the National Commission. I will also give a huge shout out to the executive secretary of NCPWD, the MD of FAAN and every officer that was involved in that matter, and to ensure that we put out a statement and a strong order statement that abuse will no longer be condoned here in Lagos or even in Nigeria across the board.

From SSA to GM, how was the transition for you?

I am still transiting. The transition is going to take long but the reality about it is, it’s a daunting responsibility. I’ll be honest with you, it calls for a lot more empathy, a lot more emotional intelligence, a lot more lawyering skills as well as dispute resolution, but most importantly, it’s a time for impact.

I’m one person who believes very strongly that there are no coincidences with God. Everything is divinely orchestrated by God and that He has put me here at such a time as this, He has need for me and He knows that I’m better able to deliver what it is He wants for the agency in the next season of this agency’s existence.

Personally, I’m excited about the future. I’m very open to partnering with people who genuinely want to partner because I’m a person of spirit and I have the Holy Spirit. I’m better able to know who just wants to come around for self-aggrandisement, away from impact, and I am better able to know with understanding how to go about it. What am I grateful for? I’m grateful for life, I’m grateful for opportunities, I’m grateful for family, I’m grateful for inner grace, I’m grateful for salvation, I’m very grateful for salvation.

Concluding words

Disability is no fault of anyone. In the twinkle of an eye, anybody who never recognised or was associated with disability can actually wake up and that’s it. It’s why it cannot be a back burner conversation any longer.

Please look at people first as humans, look away from the labelling and disabilities that they have. Understand that life is beautiful once we ourselves make it beautiful. For a person like me who believes very strongly in Jesus, we know for sure that every beautiful gift perfect, full, rich comes from God.

Support families that have children with needs, special needs. Let your organisation reflect truthfully in the core of inclusion, and don’t just use it as a buzzword. Let your facility be accessible, let your business be acceptable.

Adapt to where there is a need to. Encourage PWDs to live optimally and remember that at the end of all our lives, God will ask us what we did with what He gave to us, and then we now start to talk and you forget that at no point in time did you ever get involved or help encourage any PWD.

Remember that life is beautiful. Let PWDs also benefit from this beautiful life. If you’re a policymaker, ensure that the policies reflect the true core of inclusion, equality and equity. If you are in the private space, ensure that you stand for all of these and more, and if you are a parent with a child with special needs, I applaud you and I say well done.

If you are a person with a disability yourself, honestly, I give you double respect and I say, go for it, live to the optimum, be the best you are able to and know it is okay to lean into assistance. Let people support you with all it is that they’re able to, and take it up from there.