New role models
32-year-old Lauritta Onye has dwarfism. She is also a world record holder in women’s shot put F40 category. 32-year-old Flora Ugwunwa is a wheelchair user. She also set a world record in the women’s javelin F54 event and clenched another gold for Team Nigeria at Rio 2016 Paralympics.
They are just three of the amazing 23 athletes who represented the country and amongst the women who aced nine medals out of the 12, which made Nigeria the highest ranking African country on the medal table at number 17 at the close of the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Just a month ago Nigeria’s Olympic team of able-bodied athletes came home with a single bronze medal, finishing at 78 on the medals table. For those who think it’s a bad year, Nigerian Paralympians have consistently outperformed the Olympians since they first began competing in Barcelona in 1992.In 2012, Nigeria failed to win a single medal for the first time in Olympic history since 1988, while the Paralympians aced 13 medals.
The Nigerian Paralympians’ success, especially in the light of Olympians’ lacklustre performance at the games, is even more remarkable considering the lack of funds and facilities. Much of the country’s Paralympic infrastructure dates back to 1990 and has seen better days. Add to this the lack of financial support, and the everyday challenges of life in Lagos that would even test the able-bodied, the fact that these athletes can make it to the games in the first place, let alone win medals and break records, is short of a miracle.
There is of course the social discrimination and stigmatisation the disabled often face in Nigeria; all in their thirties, Lucy, Lauritta and Flora are all of a generation not yet completely engaged in positive attitudes and care towards the disabled.
“People expect a disabled person to beg on the streets but they are breaking those stereotypes. Many people forget that some of these guys had a normal life before accidents crippled them,” said Are Feyisetan, Nigeria’s national powerlifting coach, and a former champion, dubbed “king of the physically challenged”, in a recent BBC interview.
Whether their disability is a birth defect or the consequence of illness or accidents later in life, there is no denying that life in Nigeria is not easy for the disabled. World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates put the number of people with disability at 19 million of the country’s population, with 3.5 million of these having very significant difficulties in social and physical functioning, with little to no support to aid their day to day lives.
While charities and families try to care for the disabled, support on the whole is limited due the societal stigma attached to disabilities, meaning those suffering from mental or physical incapacity can be neglected, isolated or completely abandoned.
Moreover, in many parts of Nigeria, even in big cities, the disabled often suffer due to public’s prejudice and ignorance, such as the commonly held belief that one with a disability is possessed by evil spirits or serving retribution for offences of their parents or forefathers.
Imagine being held back not only by the limitations of your body and the restrictions poor urban infrastructure places on you (If I struggle to navigate my way up a steep pavement or a manhole in the middle of the road, how can someone with no sight or limited mobility?), but also the limited understanding of the society that insists on confining you to a wheelchair or a walking stick, and fails to see the potential beyond. Imagine living in a world where you are denied basic care, education and transport and at times even your dignity because you are a limb short, lacking your vision, or stuck to a wheelchair?
Then imagine wheeling your chair to practice at 5 in the morning, working in a half-lit gym or ramshackle track day every single day, waiting on unpaid bonuses for months without going to Linda Ikeji…
In the light of the challenges they face almost daily, Lucy, Lauritta, Flora and their teammates are an asset to Nigeria, not only with their incredible success at Rio 2016, but with their determination, tenacity and grace.
In a world of million-dollar endorsements for faltering football stars, inflated egos, 15-minute fame monsters, isn’t it time the government and private sector recognised real talent and tenacity?
Imagine Lucy as the face of a telecoms company calling home from the next games, Lauritta in the ads of a popular beauty brand on set of her next film, Flora as the brand ambassador of a household food brand. It is only then do we create new sponsorship opportunities for the Paralympics but also create a new way of framing disability in a prejudiced society and new hope for disabled kids all over the land that there is a world out there that is ready to see them as more than their disability.