Fellow Since 1993
Independent Living Programme
This description of Foluke Idowu's work was prepared when Foluke Idowu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.
Foluke Idowu, herself a victim of a paralyzing car crash, is facilitating self-actualized, independent living among disabled Nigerians.
The New Idea
Foluke Idowu's Independent Living program enables disabled people first to discover and then to do what they can do for themselves. The first step in her carefully worked-out program engages a disabled person in a process of "self-advocacy" that helps the person to come to terms with his or her particular condition. Once the person learns some effective techniques, he or she is encouraged to practice them in the next step of "community advocacy."Community advocacy involves working with other disabled persons to participate actively in community life and politics, both as an end in itself (participation is self-affirming) and as a means to educate the larger community about the potential of disabled people to be vibrant and self-reliant members of society.Persons going through this progression of activities and mastering the techniques taught by Foluke invariably lead fuller and more productive livesnot only in the social-political sphere but also economically and even spiritually. The fact that these persons have become self-empowered is a critical part of Foluke's strategy to extend the benefits of her program. She recruits the graduates of her program to help other disabled people realize their potential. Graduates of her program become role models and counselors for those coming in to the program. This is, in Foluke's view, implicitly and explicitly superior to disability programs based on the authority of able-bodied "experts."The big next step for Foluke is to integrate her program for empowerment into community life. Toward this end, she reaches out to the families of disabled persons and existing groups that undertake projects for the disabled. She envisions the creation of "community-based independent living groups," which will demonstrate to communities what genuine integration of disabled people into family and community life could be. To form these "Independent Living Centers," as she calls them, Foluke has designed a model educational facility that will train disabled and non-disabled people, young and old, together.
Viewed as objects of shame or "cursed" people, disabled Nigerian individuals are the victims of various types of discrimination within their communities. Some disabled children have even been killed by relatives. Most public buildings are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Artisans will seldom accept the disabled as apprentices. Social life and marriage are difficult.Those who have spinal cord injuries are particularly disadvantaged. When their relatives learn that they will never again be able to walk, they are often abandoned in hospitals. Lacking rehabilitation programs or even information about alternatives, some remain hospitalized for a decade or more.Disabled people who are not hospitalized or isolated in institutions live at home, within the community. When disabled individuals are not provided with the training, skills and human support they need to realize their full potential, they often move to the cities and become beggars. They lose hope and dignity and become even harder to rehabilitate.Given the discrimination faced by Nigeria's disabled population, many people who were born and grew up with a disability have lower aspirations, and those who became disabled as adults go "underground" after being disabled. Nor are there countervailing sources of encouragement or positive role models generally available. State health services are grossly inadequate and the more invisible emotional needs of disabled persons do not get much attention even from the established disability bodies, many of whom continue to be run rather paternalistically by the able-bodied.
Foluke's core premise is that to be of meaningful help to the disabled one must focus on the root issue: self-esteem. Foluke often speaks of "stubbornness" and "aggression" in reference to the inner strength a disabled person must develop to pursue one's concerns, attend public forums and thrust oneself into the public's attention. It is this spirit of determination that she wants to foster, and in so doing eradicate low self-esteem.Her strategy deploys self-actualized disabled persons to teach disabled persons with low self-esteem some effective "self-advocacy" techniques and to take them through a carefully designed sequence of steps that enable them to discover how much they can do for themselves. As the latter stages of the process involve increasingly visible public interventions, Foluke's Independent Living program also educates society in a direct and powerful way. To implement her vision, Foluke has expanded and re-vitalized existing organizations, such as the National Association of Spinal Cord Injured People, and created new ones, namely, the Oyo State Joint Association of Disabled Persons. Whatever the institutional vehicle, her trademark modus operandi is clear. When she arrives at a place she meets first with local government leaders, their community development departments and respected citizen leaders to introduce them to her work and vision and to ask their help in identifying the disabled people in each area. Thus, when she meets the disabled she has already engaged the community leadership in thinking about and acting for the disabled. Next, she invites the disabled people of each community to meetings and encourages them to form one or more support groups. The groups meet to discuss common problems and experiences with discrimination and to help each other find solutions. Foluke and her team of empowered disabled counselors facilitate this process.Through this dialogue, disabled people begin to realize that a change in their own attitudes can effect real change in their lives. As they gain the confidence, they are encouraged to become involved in their community's political and social life. They join community meetings and organizations to become knowledgeable about politics and relevant issues, and to hone the skills required to occupy their new activated role in society. Although Foluke cautions that change in public attitudes will not happen overnight, she has seen that once disabled individuals have become familiar figures through such participation and media exposure, their opinions gain a wider acceptance.At some point the disabled groups choose a specific project to give direction to their efforts. They go out to access existing resources to implement the project. Completing a project is an important step in coalescing both their newly gained sense of individual worth and their capacity to work as a group.The groups are encouraged to reach out to neglected members of the disabled community, especially those recently injured who may still be languishing in hospitals. Foluke's initial efforts involved a path-breaking counseling program for spinal cord injury victims still in hospitals. Never before had other disabled persons systematically reached out to injury victims in Nigeria, and Foluke intends to make this simply-organized service a standard feature in every Nigerian hospital through the agency of local groups employing her method.The groups produce leaders, of course, and as they do Foluke and her teams recruit them to assist in spreading the method. These new leaders are trained to approach new communities and begin the process all over again. In this way, Foluke explains, the program will spread across Nigeria in a few years. She is preparing a leadership training manual to support the expansion process. Foluke is also working on parallel national-level strategies that reinforce the locally-based Independent Living program. She organized a Disabled Festival to bring together disabled people from around the country to generate funds, create awareness of their accomplishments and discuss common problems and goals. Because sports events are unifying events on the local, national and global level, she has organized the first national football (soccer) competition for the deaf, hosted by the Oyo state government. Foluke also directs special attention to disabled children's issues through special workshops and education efforts. She believes that many disabled children could be more independent and involved in their communities if their parents were better educated about disabilities. Parents must be taught to encourage their children, demand exercises and teach practical skills such as how to make simple mobility aids from material found in the community. Foluke is establishing a communication network of parents and professionals to discover and assess individual innovations.Foluke is working in conjunction with Ashoka Fellow Cosmas Okoli to lobby the government to create a Disability Board to help facilitate adoption of her programs in lagging communities and pursue other measures to promote quality education for disabled people through public policy.Finally, Foluke is in the process of establishing a model Continuing Education Center, where disabled individuals will learn side by side with those without disabilities. Foluke believes that disabled people should not isolate themselves, and that they need to interact with both disabled and able-bodied peers to prepare themselves for leadership in the public arena. Once piloted, Foluke plans for Continuing Education Centers to be set up throughout the country by the graduates of her Independent Living program.
Foluke has come a long way since the car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. After a period of depression following her injury and the deaths of other spinal- cord-injured patients around her, Foluke transformed her life into an energetic, creative and spiritual one. In addition to starting her own weaving and tailoring business, she began to reach out to others in similar situations and saw the opportunity to improve the lives of other disabled people and even to entirely transform the way Nigerians view the disabled. Prior to her accident, Foluke had been trained in accounting at the Polytechnic in Ibadan and was holding a job as an executive-level accountant at the University of Lagos. She says that having found such fulfilling work in her advocacy for the disabled, she could never again return to straight accounting.