OMOTOKE TITILOPE OLOWO: WORK WITH DISABLED CHILDREN CAN HEAL
As someone who liked spending her time helping kids in orphanage homes and hospitals, being a kid herself, no wonder Omotoke Olowo has achieved so much so far, and deserved to be a role model for many people. This inspiring young lady from Nigeria has been named OD Young Person of the Month for June2018. She is also an Ambassador fellow for ROI Africa, an Ashoka Changemaker and 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow. Her first contact with disabled kids made such an emotional impact on her, she ended up founding her own NGO – The Autism Awareness Place, where children with autism feel respected and accepted as a part of society. Her journey includes teaching children of migrant fishermen at the Makoko community the art of reading and writing, training teachers in rural communities on how to facilitate learning for these kids and helping their parents to face all the challenges. Her mission is clear – to lend her voice and strength to the ones society keeps neglecting.
Dear Olowo, you have more than five years of experience in education, community service and advocacy for children living with disabilities. Why did you decide to choose this kind of profession and what fulfills you the most in doing your job?
As a young girl, I have always loved to volunteer my time doing charitable work which started during my secondary schools. I would go to orphanage homes and hospitals with a couple of friends to visit and help out with their chores and share Bible stories with them, also while in secondary school I have a friend who was physically challenged and due to the difficulties she faced in school with learning, I decided I want to become a teacher. Each time I get to teach children I feel fulfilled and some of my secondary school students over the years are now in colleges and university studying different courses.
When the first time you had contact with disabled kids and what was was your inner feeling, initial reaction?
I had my first contact with children living with disability around 2010. I actually left the home where the children are being taken care of crying and I was thinking of ways to help and contribute. This fueled my passion for volunteering and being a teacher, not ever imagining one day I would found my own NGO. I simply feel children should have the right to education and to be included in the community, rather than being isolated from it.
What is the key mistake of a mainstream society when it comes to treating these children and helping them?
Omotoke Titilope Olowo
The key mistake of mainstreaming society is trying to treat each child the same way, and assuming that if a child has a disability then the child is not fit for the society. Instead of focusing on the child’s strengths they focus more on the child’s disability and most of the time stigmatization stems from this.
Are there, in your opinion, enough adequate institutions in Nigeria for kids with autism and how does your organization, Autism Awareness Place contribute to solving this issue?
In my country, we really don’t have enough facilities and structure put into place to facilitate learning and support the education of children living with disabilities, and the few special needs schools we have are very expensive for children in the rural community with a disability. That is why at The Autism Awareness Place, we work on training teachers in rural communities on how to facilitate learning for children living with autism and raising awareness about it, because awareness leads to acceptance.
You and your team do not work with kids only; you educate teachers all over the region in order to interact better with disabled kids. How does that look like and how do teachers react during the training process, what is their greatest challenge?
Training teachers to work with children with disability, has not been easy because we have a whole lot of perception about children with disability being a punishment from God or teachers believing they might end up giving birth to them, so we do a lot of reorientation. One of them is to remind all the teachers to realize that children living with disability are first of all children.
Tell us more about creative learning with disabled kids, give us some examples of it?
Creative learning for children living with disability and children with a terminal illness was a method we developed last year to reach out to children living with disability and in the hospitals, so they can continue learning even while receiving the treatment. While children are sick being in the hospital, they miss out on the learning process going on in the school, so we help them out by making them learn through storytelling, drawing, collage making and painting, and we are working on expanding and continuing this creative learning process to reach out to more little ones.
You educate parents as well. Please share with us, what those parents’ biggest worries are about their kids and how you work with them, what is the core of your education with them?
Parents are usually worried about the fate of their children, and coupled with lack of adequate information and proper diagnosis, most often parents do not know what to do and where exactly to go and get help, we try to help rural parents match up to a school for their child or children and provide advice and social support for them and also share information on their child’s progress and achievement.
For sure, many of your working days sometimes include kids’ tantrums, oversensitive reactions, and meltdowns. How do you “heal” yourself from that kind of stress, as it must leave stress on you?
Working with children and raising awareness about autism heals me from everyday stress. The fact that I am lending my voice and strength to change the narrative of children living with autism takes me far away from focusing on some challenges that I face on the work.
What would you name as key means your organization is using in order to make life better for all the disabled children?
Our key method of making life better for children living with a disability is inclusion and education, we believe each child should have access to an inclusive education irrespective of their disability, and education is a right each child should attain in the society.
One of the most interesting experiences during your wonderful journey was volunteering at NGO Slum2School. There, you were teaching children of migrant fishermen the art of reading and writing. Tell us more about this experience.
So I got an opportunity to be A one day volunteer for Slum2School where I was opportune to teach children of migrant fishermen at the Makoko community, the art of reading and writing, it was a full day event as I have never come in contact with children of migrant fishermen before that time, I had to look for ways of making mathematics and comprehension easy for them to solve and achieve meaningful learning. It was an awesome experience seeing how eager these children were ready to learn and transform their world.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
What I consider one of my accomplishments is having to organize an Autism Awareness Walk which reaches over 1000 people in my community. Lots of parents were asking questions about what autism was all about, and we were able to help them in setting up appointment meetings with schools for assessment. We also organize a training program for Bible teachers to help them facilitate learning for children living with disabilities.
Photos: From the Archive of Omotoke Titilope Olowo