On 3 December 2022, Commonwealth Alumnus Abass Isiaka marked International Day for People with Disabilities (PWDs) by delivering an awareness event on the topic, ‘Imagined possibilities: Disability sports and inclusive higher education’, at the University of Ilorin (UoI), Nigeria. The activity promoted the 2021/2022 ACEF theme, Sports for Development.
The activity was designed to address the underrepresentation of PWDs in sports and explored the barriers to participation at higher education institutions (HEIs), how sports can be adapted to increase participation of PWDs, and the role of the 2019 Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act in Nigeria in improving access to sports for PWDs.
The event hosted more than 130 participants, including students with disabilities, coaches, support staff, university sports officials, principal officers from the UoI, and representatives from special needs schools in Kwara state.
Abass Isiaka is a member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth and is pursuing a PhD at the University of East Anglia. His doctoral study focuses on the institutional ethnography of disability inclusion policies in Nigerian Higher Education (HE) using a decolonial lens. He is interested in inclusive education, HE policy, internationalisation, decoloniality, and development.
The need for inclusive sports and education in Nigeria
In recent years, significant progress has been made in promoting inclusive education, with several policies and initiatives implemented to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, have access to HE. In 2019, the Government of Nigeria passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. A recent evaluation, however, has revealed relatively low national awareness of the Act amongst PWDs and concerns that the Act does not adequately make provisions for disability sports and inclusive education.
As per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2011 World Disability Report, it is estimated that 15% of Nigeria’s population has a disability. Unfortunately, many of them face stigma, discrimination, violence, and a lack of access to healthcare, housing, and education. This highlights the need to sensitise people about the Act and how to pursue their rights.
Commemorating International Day for People with Disabilities
The overarching theme of the 2022 global observance was innovative and transformative solutions for inclusive development.
Sports has been identified as a key sector to promote good practice in achieving equity for PWDs. By highlighting people’s skills, rather than their disability, sport reduces the stigma and discrimination associated with disability and can transform attitudes and mis- and pre-conceptions. For the individual, sports can empower them to realise their full potential, acquire social skills, become self-reliant and independent, and act as agents of change.
To plan the activity, Abass coordinated with several stakeholders, including the Directors of the Centre for Supportive Services for the Deaf (CSSD) and the former Director of Sports and a member of the Nigerian University Games (NUGA). To ensure the event was accessible for both online and in-person attendees, Abass worked with sign language interpreters and recruited volunteers to support access for wheelchair users.
The hybrid event included keynote speeches and plenary sessions led by experts in sport and disability inclusion in the Nigerian HE sector. You can view the full list of speakers at the end of the report.
Abass delivered opening remarks followed by a welcome speech by Professor Afusat T. Alabi on behalf of the Vice Chancellor of UoI. In her speech, Professor Alabi highlighted the services offered by CSSD to support students with disabilities.
The keynote speaker for the event was Professor Tajudeen Olanrewaju Ibraheem, Director of Sports, UoI. Professor Ibraheem spoke about the use and application of the term ‘disability’ in local communities and detailed the challenges people with disabilities experience in accessing education. Despite these challenges, he highlighted the exceptional contributions of PWDs to society.
Professor Ibraheem drew attention to the need for HEIs to invest in coaches for athletes with disabilities and para-professionals to complement the existing sports services and affirmed that having the least restrictive environment will allow students with disabilities to participate actively in the university community, as is their right.
Engaging plenary sessions on disability and sports
Following the keynote speech, participants were invited to three plenary discussions.
Commonwealth Alumnus Aaron Akpu Philip (2016 Commonwealth Split-site Scholar) led the first plenary session on, ‘A Brief Overview of the National Disability Act in Nigeria and its journey so far’. As a public health researcher, Aaron shared details about the Act and highlighted its positive impact and ongoing challenges for PWDs. These include a lack of data on PWDs, poor implementation at the government level, and low awareness. Aaron stressed that to implement the Act fully, it is essential to address these limitations through collaboration across critical sectors such as education, health, and sports.
The second plenary session was on, ‘Participation of Students with Disabilities in Sports: Thinking Through the Barriers’, led by student leaders from UoI, Sunday Onuche, Victor Oricha, and Tosin Afolayan. In this session, panellists discussed their experiences of accessing sports in HEIs.
Onuche, a visually impaired person, recounted the lack of access to sports during his academic life. Oricha highlighted the challenges faced by deaf students in participating in sports, including a lack of sign language interpreters, and Afolayan reiterated the need for HEIs to invest in resources and facilities to support students with disabilities to get involved in sports.
Through an engaging Q&A, panellists and attendees developed a list of recommendations to support students with disabilities including, organising an awareness programme for non-disabled students on integrating PWDs in sports, creating an annual sports league for both non-disabled students and students with disabilities, and assigning leadership roles within sport to athletes with disabilities.
The final plenary session addressed, ‘Transforming Nigerian Universities for Disability Inclusion: Perspectives from Practitioners’, and featured sports coaches, professors, leaders from disability communities, support service practitioners, and disability law advocates.
The panellists reflected on what the Act means to them in their daily work and engagement, and agreed that through the Act, PWDs now feel recognised and respected as a community in the society.
Outcome and impact assessment
Following the event, participants were asked to submit feedback on the effectiveness of the awareness activity.
60% of attendees appreciated the opportunity to openly engage in the Q&A discussions during the event to find out more about what they and HEIs can do to support PWDs in accessing sports. There was positive feedback to deliver more events in future to raise awareness of inclusion in sports.
“We need to include more people with disabilities from different institutions in Kwara state to attend the programme.”
Overall, the activity raised awareness and facilitated discussion on inclusive education and disability inclusion in sports. Participants felt they were better equipped with information to seek social justice for PWDs, and the activity provided an opportunity for students with disabilities to share their experiences. Academic staff in attendance reported feeling motivated to conduct collaborative research on how HEIs can support students with disabilities in sports.
Abass is now liaising with the Nigerian University Games (NUGA) representatives at UoI to propose the inclusion of parasports in the list of sports represented by NUGA.
Abass Isiaka is a 2018 Split-site Commonwealth Scholar from Nigeria. He completed an MSc in Education, Public Policy, and Equity at the University of Glasgow.
Professor Afusat T. Alabi, Director, Center for Supportive Services for the Deaf, UoI;
Professor Tajudeen Olanrewaju Ibraheem, Director of Sports UoI;
Aaron Akpu Phillip, PhD researcher, Queensland University of Technology,
Victor Oricha, Sign language coach and President of the Association of Students from the Deaf Community, UoI;
Toyosi Afolayan, Sports Secretary, Students Union, UoI;
Emmanuel Sunday Onuche, Founder of Vision-link Initiatives and President of the Association of Visually Impaired Students, UoI;
Dr Azubike Onuora-Oguno, Senior Programme Officer, Disability Law Advocacy Project, UoI;
Abdulkadir Abolore, Veteran Athlete with Disabilities and Member of Kwara State Sports Commission;
Professor Olufunmilola Dominic, former Director of Sports UoI;
Alhaji Suleiman Saka Dagbo, President, Nigerian Deaf Sports Federation;
Isarinade Julius, Deputy Director, Centre for Supportive Services for the Deaf (CSSD), UoI;
Dr Igbayiloye, representative of Disability Law Advocacy Project, Faculty of Law, UoI.