Student wants to create opportunities for disabled Nigerians

At 14, Ajoke Alonge could no longer walk. Struck down by a genetic malformation of her spine, the young Nigerian saw her future reflected in the faces of the young disabled beggars lining the streets of her village.

“Children with disabilities in Nigeria are pitied; they are exploited and socially abused,” says Alonge. “There are no policies, no services to help the disabled.”

With a positive spirit and help from a home for disabled people, young Alonge broke free from the future that befalls most Nigerians with disabilities. The Cheshire Home in Ibadan made it possible for her to renew her studies after a four-year lapse and continue on to the University of Ibadan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in social work.

And the Ford Foundation made it possible for her to continue her studies at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work(GSSW), where she will graduate this spring.

“Ajoke is a strong advocate for the underprivileged, and she makes things happen,” says GSSW Dean James Herbert Williams. “GSSW is very honored to have her as a graduate.”

Though she was grateful for the opportunity to attend college, she remembers the challenges as well. In Ibadan, there were no transportation services to take her to classes and no elevators or ramps on campus. Classmates had to carry her to a second-floor classroom each day.

From challenges come opportunities, however, as Alonge became a spokesperson for Nigerians with disabilities. She founded Creating Opportunities from Disability in Nigeria (CODING) to raise money for school fees and medical support. And she lobbied the Nigerian government to improve living conditions with legislation similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation, which she is still working to pass, would ban discrimination of those with disabilities and ensure access to transportation, public buildings, employment and education.

“I believe I can improve the lives of people with disabilities in my nation,” says Alonge.

The Ford Foundation recognized her efforts with a scholarship to study abroad. At GSSW, Alonge completed a comparative study on the treatment of the disabled in the U.S. and Nigeria. She says she has learned the skills necessary to continue her fight for the rights of disabled Nigerians at home.

The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition supported her work in the U.S. and helped her gain U.S. nonprofit status for CODING, which allowed her to raise funds to send to Nigeria. She also has produced videos aimed at changing the image of her fellow Nigerians with disabilities and promoting education for youth with disabilities.

“I want to encourage them not to give up,” says Alonge. “If the mountains don’t move, you climb over the mountains.”

Her next mountain to climb is to return to Nigeria, open a residential facility for people with disabilities and continue to push for changes in disability legislation and the attitudes of her fellow Nigerians toward people like her.

“Education is our common weapon,” says Alonge. “Together, we can raise the common voice.”

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