Why some parents are accused of abandoning their disabled children in special schools in Nigeria

Samad Ipadeola (second from right) is pictured alongside some staff members of his school. To the right of Samad is the hostel matron, Mrs. M.O. Ogunkunle. To his immediate left sits his class teacher, Adebunmi Olujide, and to his far right is the hostel manager. Photo provided by Toheeb Babalola, used with permission.

By Toheeb Babalola

One Monday morning, in the last week of September, I visited the Ijokodo Special School, in Ibadan, Western Nigeria, where children with Down syndrome are educated and rehabilitated. The purpose of my visit was to gather information for a story that could be featured during World Inclusion Day, which is celebrated globally every October 10.

While there, I noticed a particular pupil addressing and assigning roles to other pupils and making sure that no one was left behind without a role. “If you do not sweep, you will not eat,” he gently told them. I wondered how this vibrant boy was isolated at this school? 

I found out that the boy was Samad Ipadeola, a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome, who was abandoned staying at the school's hostel. Despite his slow learning abilities, Samad is a bright and engaging young man with leadership skills. However, his parents have shown little obvious interest in his future.

According to the school's records, Samad Ipadeola was born on January 3, 2007, and his slow learning disability became apparent by the age of six. His father is a wholesaler of motor tyres at Ogunpa market, a popular market in Ibadan, while his mother engages in trading.

During his childhood, Samad's parents often locked him at home when they went out for their business. There was even a time when he managed to escape and ran away from home, leading to sleepless nights for his parents as they searched for him within the city. He was missing for months. 

The headmistress of the special school, Olaoye Bolaji Olatundun, shared the distressing account of how Samad was found: 

I was told by his parents that Samad was once lost and they searched for him for months. He was seen among Hausa people at Sabo begging for alms. When his parents attempted to give him alms in that location, they held him and informed the leadership of Sabo before taking him away. They now decided to bring him to school and lodge him at the school hostel.

Sabo is a Hausa community where street boys and other homeless children are taken in and live.

Samad’s class teacher, Adebunmi Olujide, testified that Samad was one of the brilliant, responsive boys in a trainable class and not depending on any support before he could perform some tasks. Apart from academics and vocation, he possesses leadership abilities, Olujide said:

Samad is performing well in class. He is very active in sports activities which we organise for them every Thursday. Though he is a slow writer, he can speak and respond to questions in class. I can boldly say that his leadership ability is top notch and give him a chance to exhibit it.

The school classifies pupils based on the level of their condition. There are “severed, profound, trainable and educable classes” — the severed and profound classes are occupied by pupils with the highest level of impairment, while the trainable class has pupils with medium intelligence quotient IQ. Samad is in the trainable class. 

Samad and other pupils stay at a boarding house, which was constructed by the Oyo State Government within the school compound, and they receive free meals under the Special Education Department at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. However, because of this programme, many parents leave their children at the hostel without looking back till the end of the term, as Olujide explained:

The parents of all these children don’t care about them, they always want a place to drop them and go. When it is time for holiday, some parents do not bother to come and pick them. The matron will always continue to call them but they will not pick the call. The parents have negative perceptions about these children because they doubt their future. 

According to the hostel matron, Mrs. M.O. Ogunkunle, Samad's mother visits once a month and his father once a term. 

Toheeb Babalola alongside some of the staff members of Ijokodo Special School, in Ibadan. Photo provided by Toheeb Babalola, used with permission.

I asked for and was given, Samad’s parents’ phone contacts, and I first called his mother. Responding to my question about Samad’s rehabilitation status, Mrs. Ipadeola said, “I do come to see the matron, but I do not know his rehabilitation status, which is why I’m yet to know our next plan for him.”

Three days later, I also called Samad’s father, who said, “The only mistake we made was that we did visit the matron but not their teachers and headmistress. We did not intend to abandon him there.”

In a gesture of remorse, Samad's father visited my house in Ibadan, and together we went to the school to meet with the management. During the meeting, he sincerely apologized for neglecting his son.

An article from Disability Africa pointed out that numerous families opt to enrol their children in institutions like special schools, driven by a belief that it is in the child's best interests. This decision often stems from genuine care and a desire to provide the child with the most fulfilling life possible. Take, for instance, the case of Samad. Samad's father is financially well-off and fully capable of supporting his son. During our conversation, he shared that Samad's siblings attend esteemed universities and colleges. Initially, Samad was enrolled in a regular school. However, because of his condition, they found it necessary to place him in a special school, where his unique needs could be better addressed.

The newest UNICEF report published in 2022 established that over 240 million children out of the 8.1 billion global population are living with disabilities. According to the United Nations, more than 80 million Africans live with disabilities. Altogether, persons with disabilities (PWDS) are considered to be the world’s largest minority.

The World Bank Group’s assessment highlighted that Nigeria, the most populated country in West Africa, recorded 29 million persons with disabilities in 2018. And that 9 percent of children above the age of five have some level of difficulty in seeing, hearing, walking, communication and cognition.

No person on earth was born without one or two disabilities. Disability comes in two forms: temporary and permanent disability. Temporary disability comprises injuries which take a little time to heal and leave scars behind on the body parts. Permanent disability consists of inbuilt and accidental impairments such as hearing, mobility, sight and intellectual impairments. They are physical and mental impairments and have no convincing assurance for rehabilitation.

Either with or no disability, everyone in the world ought not to be deprived of his or her fundamental human rights — right to life, movement, expression, education, employment, and association, among others. However, many children, just like Samad, are mostly ill-treated and stripped of their rights in the world.

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