Ndifreke Andrew-Essien is the founder and Executive Director of FAECARE Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. A Mandela Washington Fellow with several academic qualifications, she told Eric Dumo how a terrible accident leading to spinal cord injury, changed her life

You were not born with disability, how come you now use a wheelchair?

My journey into the world of disability started when I was in my fourth year at the Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Calabar, about 15 years ago. On that fateful day, I decided to step into town from the campus to visit some friends. For the fact that motorcycles were the most popular mode of transportation, I had to board one. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to my destination before we were involved in an accident. Sadly,I broke my back, fractured my spine, resulting in spinal cord injury.

It must have been a very difficult period for you, how did you pull through?

Having grown up with no issues, learning to do things differently was a big and huge adjustment for me following that terrible accident and experience. I was at a loss as to what to do with my life after the accident.

Many questions arose in my mind, but in the end, God prevailed and gave me renewed strength and courage to move on strongly with my life. I am grateful for His mercies.

Were you able to continue and complete your studies after the accident?

After the accident, several surgeries and learning to sit again, I wanted to return to school to continue where I stopped. One day, we travelled to the university for a meeting with authorities of the college of medicine. When it got to my case, I was told that they did not have facilities for me to continue in my course of study. I felt very sad. I tried to convince and let them know that I could cope but they ignored me. I left that meeting totally deflated.

But rather than give up, I set my sights on the goal of gaining a first degree one way or the other. Even though it took time, I eventually did an inter-university transfer and course change to study a basic medical science. Today, I have that degree and even a Master’s. As a matter of fact, I am currently pursuing a second Master’s. I give God all the glory.

Has there been any time that people looked down on you as a result of your condition?

The truth is that it’s a daily experience for me. People have a skewed view on disability, they have a general opinion about it and this colours their behaviours.

I remember a day when one of my father’s friends advised him to focus on his other children rather than spending money on my medical treatment. Hearing that really broke my heart.

One of the things that happened soon after the accident was that I lost a lot of self-esteem; basically I was terrified even though I didn’t show it much. People write me off a lot but I don’t allow it to bother me anymore.

How did your family members react after your accident?

I have a great family. Our rock is Jesus and that has kept us going. It was heartbreaking for my parents and siblings to see their first child suffer so much. But together we have forged ahead through strength. I love my family.

What sort of discrimination have you had to deal with as a result of your disability?

One of the biggest forms of discrimination I faced was when I was called out of a line when I was waiting to board a flight in Ghana. I was told that they don’t fly wheelchair passengers, so I had to look for an alternative even though it was a gross violation of my rights.

Another aspect is in the area of relationship. I remember a particular relationship where the young man told me he didn’t know if he could marry me because I was using wheelchair. Till today, I find that quite shocking. But these things don’t bother me at all.

Do people look at your condition and sometimes favour you specially?

For me, it’s been a case of having to prove myself over and over. All the favours I have enjoyed in my life, God made them possible, not man.

Have you ever been taken advantage of?

This is a daily experience for me. Ranging from individuals to organisations, some want to use the situation to gain sympathy. Others think they are doing you a favour and you should just be happy. It has been a terrible experience.

As a society, are we gradually getting it right when it comes to inclusiveness?

The society isn’t trying in this regard. However, it’s our duty to continue to engage society, rather than stay excluded and hidden.

There is a lot we can do as individuals to make our part of society more inclusive. Little things can go a long way. I am not saying buy bags of rice and gift persons with disability. While that is good, bags of rice can finish.

What I am saying is that, within your sphere of influence, you can make sure there is inclusiveness. If you are an employer of labour, allow a quota of your workers to be a person or persons with disability. It is only through this way that things can improve in this regard.

This is a democracy, I would love government to come up with policies that would cater for the needs of people living with disabilities.

I want to encourage state governments to also enact laws, policies that will promote and protect the rights of persons with disability.

As an individual, what sort of hurdles have you had to scale to get to where you are today?

Of all the barriers, I think the major one is attitudinal barrier. People really do ‘judge a book by its cover’ when it comes to those of us living with disabilities. Having to get people to gain mind shifts is interesting. However, I do so by engaging them.

Another aspect is in the area of access to public places and facilities. I honestly don’t know what they teach our architects in Nigerian schools, I sense they tell them that if they do not design a house with steps everywhere, that design is flawed.

I remember having to hold meetings in my car because the person’s office was not accessible. One time in school,a course held in a classroom where the doors were too narrow to allow my wheelchair fit. So, for a whole semester after the hassle of getting up to where the class was, I had to take lectures through the window. These are some of the barriers I have had to deal with.

In what ways do you think persons in this category can make meanings out of their lives?

The first battle to win, is the battle of the mind. The struggle within is real, however, if you are able to settle within yourself, you’ll go a long way.

The next fear to overcome is that of self-doubt. You are worth an education, you are worth economic stability, you are worth a purpose-driven life.

The next battle to win is the one I call ‘entitlement mentality’. While it is true that we deserve empathy and compassion, and a chance at life, you cannot succeed with the mentality that everyone owes you something.

Are you single or married? What has the experience been with men?

I don’t have a lot of experience with men because I have been a bit preoccupied with my life to bother so much about being accepted by a man or not. However, let me tell you the one man who will be worthy, it’s the man, who fears God and is not ashamed to openly worship him.

What inspires you the most?

Jesus is my biggest inspiration. What he achieved in his life was outstanding. In serving Him, I have found grace to stand before presidents and governors, singing and speaking, and this is only the beginning.

I am also inspired by my parents. I am amazed at how much they give to ensure we, their children, are the best. I am also inspired by strength.


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