by Opeolu Akinola
Does disability necessarily turn folks to beggars? I am wondering about this as I recall the treatment meted out to the persons with disabilities who expectantly assembled to honour His Excellency Mr Akinwunmi Ambode’s invitation to an empowerment programme on Wednesday, August 9, 2017.
Defying difficulties of commuting on the Lagos state public transportation system and the rather wet weather, the visually impaired, the physically challenged, hearing impaired and persons with Intellectual disabilities with their parents and friends turned out in their numbers (among these were a sizable number of Al-Majiri beggars).
Sighted persons who were at the venue expressed dismay at the less-than-expected decoration of the venue and crude packaging of seating arrangements. It was not surprising that His Excellency did not turn up but was “ably” represented by his deputy, a woman who was embarrassed by the lack of organization at the event. She left with a demeanour that spoke volumes. And immediately after she did, serving lunch stopped and the event was all but concluded midstream.
I have written a longer intro than I intended but it is important for us to understand the background to a story. Many articles came from that event and one (author still unknown as it was copied from a friend’s wall), indicated that the government angle was that they empowered 500 “beggars” with one hundred thousand Naira each to start businesses and get off the streets. C’est dommage, it’s such a pity! This reeks of an uneducated, unenlightened charity model on the part of the writer and whoever sponsored that mainstream news story.
Every business founder knows that giving out a business grant without verifying entrepreneurship plans and skills is the same as throwing money down the drain, literally. I am not aware that anyone has received the said sum, perhaps of important mention, documentation shared at the event bore about two hundred (not five hundred) names of beneficiaries.
The scheme was started as an interest-free loan to disabled entrepreneurs to help boost their businesses and then return the funds that will be used to empower another set. However, somehow, government people could not imagine People With Disabilities, PWD being able to run sustainable businesses, hence the slashing to one hundred thousand Naira (about two hundred and fifty Dollars) per beneficiary and conversion from loan to grant.
I am a person living with disability. I am blind. I started a musical group named Pain and Pleasure Band back in 1996 that, at its peak, had eleven blind members and three sighted members. That band started out with two acoustic guitars and, at the time I quit leadership and left the group in 2010, we had built assets worth well over five million Naira. We were the envy of all other bands in Ikorodu and had patronage as far afield as Abuja and Benin, sometimes playing two live shows simultaneously as we had two complete sets of musical equipment. That same band was actually on stage at the August 9 event! I am not unique in my entrepreneurship prowess. I know persons living with various disabilities who run successful food canteens, fashion houses, beauty lounges, transport businesses, finance houses, entertainment outfits, media concerns, farms, manufacturing facilities, engineering firms, law chambers, schools, faith-based organizations, online businesses and an endless list of other thriving ventures. Some of these honourably applied for the loan, meeting all conditions and putting in for over one million Naira support which they intended to pay back with proven track records that they indeed could do so.
We were all insulted by the decision to compress our worth to one hundred thousand Naira by people who can not imagine us thriving beyond them on a level playing field. Although this portrays a gloomy present and a difficult future for true empowerment of persons with disabilities in Lagos State, I still wish to know the exact position of His Excellency whose body language has always suggested objective support for the disabled. I hinge my position on his emphasizing that persons with disabilities, apart from benefiting from the Disability Trust Fund of five hundred Million Naira launched on May 29, 2016, were eligible to access other mainstream government schemes such as the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF). My feeling is that the crew in charge of implementing his plans either lack the knowledge or the commitment to execute in line with his better wishes.
It takes a heart of tungsten to witness without compassion the dejected look on the faces of the disappointed PWD as they dragged their weary bodies homewards on that Wednesday that will linger long in our memories. I will only reiterate what I keep harping: a society can only develop when all citizens are empowered to be productive, disabled or not.
Sir/Madam, kindly help me interpret the body language of the Lagos State Government. They want beggars off the street and therefore, only recognize and reckon with Disabled Persons Organizations that are duly registered with the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs (LASODA) as well as institutions, homes and agencies offering services to persons with disabilities. This was reflected in the May 29, 2016, party with His Excellency, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode at which all the above-mentioned were represented and the disability trust fund was officially flagged off. However, after communicating the empowerment grant of 100 thousand each to beneficiaries (whose numbers were drastically reduced by about thirty to forty per cluster group), the government went on the streets to pack beggars for the donations, using them to fill out the depleted ranks of registered persons. The defense is that the money given to the beggars will keep them off the streets, but simple logic impresses that somebody who earns over twenty thousand Naira per day on the busy Lagos streets will never settle for a final settlement of one hundred thousand Naira, what they can earn in five days apart from alms of food and clothing. The beggars are, of course, not registered with LASODA, so that the registration, which was a prerequisite for accessing the empowerment programme, was waived arbitrarily by the same government that imposed it.
I do not begrudge the beggars their largesse but I worry about the effect this will have on such persons with disabilities who have been abandoning begging activities to live honourable, productive lives. Whatever cheap publicity the architect of this ruse had in mind cannot justify the collateral damage made against changing the mindsets of beggars to align with government policies of rehabilitation and vocational training. Does anyone have an opinion more enlightened than mine? Kindly give it.
Itesiwaju Eko lo jewa logun!
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