This Nonprofit is Empowering Youth and Creating Equal Opportunities in Nigeria

This Nonprofit is Empowering Youth and Creating Equal Opportunities in Nigeria

A not-for-profit organization in Nigeria is empowering children and young adults with disabilities and working to give them equal opportunities in education and the workforce.

We connected with Racheal Inegbedion, founder of Special Needs Initiative For Growth, to learn more about the nonprofit. All images provided by Special Needs Initiative For Growth. Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Inspiration and Beginnings: Special Needs Initiative For Growth

Racheal Inegbedion grew up in Lagos State, Nigeria. In 2017, she visited a rehabilitation home for persons with disabilities. While there she saw a 24-year-old woman with cerebral palsy singing. She had a beautiful voice, and as Inegbedion watched, she saw a caregiver strike her over the head and tell the woman to stop singing.

In witnessing this maltreatment, Inegbedion was angered. She went to the management to report the unjust discrimiation by the caregiver. However, management said it was a disciplinary action. This didn’t sit right with Inegbedion.

During that same year, Inegbedion was a fellow through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Following what she had seen at the home for persons with disabilities, Inegbedion and her team of three other youth fellows started on a community development project.

“We thought of an idea to provide some disability management and services for people with disabilities in our community,” says Inegbedion.

Inegbedion asked who else in YALI wanted to do some community service and this was the beginning of building a team and recruiting volunteers for the initiative. Since 2017 they’ve grown the organization and accomplished many amazing things.

In addition to Inegbedion, additional founders of Special Needs Initiative For Growth from the YALI team include Amdi Salam who is currently the Creative Director and Wonu Akintunde, the financial director. Both Salam and Akintunde are also on the Board of Trustees along with Inegbedion.

“We’ve been able to provide integrated learning opportunities for people with disability across Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, visual impairment and cerebral palsy by providing them capacity-building projects where they can hone their leadership skills using technology, robotics, STEM and other career practices,” says Inegbedion.

STEM & Robotics Workshop

Projects Over the Years

Special Needs Initiative For Growth (also referred to as Initiative For National Growth) has worked on a number of community projects with local organizations, all focused on alleviating poverty, empowering the special needs community and promoting social integration.

Some focus areas include:

  • Health management – Individuals living with special needs are provided various therapy services, health screenings and psychological benefits.
  • Social disability advocates – The team works with local government and stakeholders to further disability rights through social change and public policy.
  • Career development – In addition to career development projects for the special needs community, the organization verifies that employers hire and retain special needs adults to promote an inclusive system.
  • Disability awareness – The organization brings awareness to and educates about disabilities. They also give caregivers or parents the knowledge required to care for someone with disabilities.
  • Entrepreneurship – After participating in empowerment projects, special needs young adults have their performances assessed. The organization then helps the trainees invest in their skills through entrepreneurship.

Robotics and Drone Workshop for Young Adults with Down Syndrome

Most of the programs are focused on STEM, robotics and career practices, for example, entrepreneurship, data management, or programming. Technology learning programs are combined with special needs education.

“We do this because we want to provide learners with disabilities the opportunity to enhance their communication skills while learning about STEM, robotics, physics and all of that,” says Inegbedion. “We even introduced drone piloting in the last year. So many of them are very good or acquainted with piloting the drones.”

Robotics and Drone Workshop for Young Adults with Down Syndrome

Special Needs Initiative For Growth has a comprehensive career development path for the young people they work with. In addition to learning programs, the organization provides opportunities for them to intern at various companies. They ensure social and economic inclusion for people with disabilities who have been historically marginalized by speaking to employers in Nigeria to see how they can be integrated into the workforce through internships.

The internship allows young adults to get experience in a culturally diverse, professional environment, and at the same time, Special Needs Initiative For Growth provides personal and professional counseling.

To date, Special Needs Initiative For Growth has served over 300 people with disabilities, as well as the caretakers, educators and parents of the individuals.

“We don’t want to work with people with disabilities alone. We have to also work with their parents and support the people who provide support for them, so that way they can monitor and evaluate their performances,” Inegbedion explains.

STEM & Robotics Project

Navigating a Pandemic

The closure of the Nigerian schools during the pandemic brought students’ learning to a complete halt. Inegbedion describes how the closures revealed disproportionate impacts on learners with disabilities.

“Approximately 21 million children with disabilities were also left behind, so what we did differently was we found a way to adapt our STEM, robotics and other workshops,” says Inegbedion. “We also did some disability-friendly COVID-19 formats for them – video conferencing with captions and great videos that were bold for them to see. Those who have hearing impairments were provided sign language interpreters so that way it was very easy for them to understand and be carried along.”

In the summer of 2020, Special Needs Initiative For Growth was recognized by the United Nations Secretary-General in an article called “meet 10 leaders who can inspire you to change the world” which Inegbedion says “encouraged us and motivated us to do the work that we keep on doing.”

Visually Impaired, Digitally Equipped Project

Changing Policy in Nigeria

In 2018 the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in Nigeria, but Inegbedion explains there’s still much work to be done.

“On the local level it’s not been implemented fully. For example, there’s some articles that say five percent of people with disabilities must be provided employment opportunities in public organizations, but it’s not happening in that sense,” she says.

Now Inegbedion is amplifying her voice through advocacy work to see another protocol enacted, The African Disability Protocol. This human rights treaty addresses deep-rooted issues of disability discrimination, including beliefs and superstitions, so all individuals have access to health, education and employment without stigma.

STEM & Robotics Project

“The protocol has a greater inclusion of how people with disabilities should be included in terms of budgeting, policies and law,” says Inegbedion.

The protocol was adopted in 2018 by the African Union, but it will only come into effect if the member states of the African Union sign and ratify it. Inegbedion is currently the Executive Secretary of the National Steering Committee that’s responsible for the ratification in Nigeria.

“It’s been very helpful because we’ve been able to have some advocacy visits,” she says. “The government has listened to us, and even in 2020, the government also created the National Commission for Persons with Disability as a result of the efforts that we have been able to put out there.”

Visually Impaired, Digitally Equipped Workshop

Overcoming Challenges 

Special Needs Initiative For Growth is primarily focused on providing STEM, robotics, therapy and care opportunities to people with disabilities. This has led to many individuals improving their leadership skills to pursue careers in technology.

But the organization has faced challenges in helping those with vocational skills due to stereotypes around their abilities. Inegbedion describes how they’re not able to transition the vocational skills they’ve learned into job roles.

“We’ve had fewer organizations actually provide internships or even want to get them employed because they don’t believe that they can perform,” she says. “They believe that people with disabilities have limited functionalities and they may underperform, so we are trying our best to change that stereotype by providing employers some sort of training on how they need to see people with disabilities as competent and capable.”

Robotics and Drone Workshop for Young Adults with Down Syndrome

Inegbedion wants these companies to understand this, and realize that integrating people with disabilities into the workforce can lead to other benefits too, like a better understanding of how to serve customers with disabilities. There will be more diversity at work sites and organizations have a wider variety of perspectives to solve problems.

Special Needs Initiative For Growth leads by example here and employs staff who have visual impairments as well as other disabilities.

“If we have people with disabilities as part of our team, we’re able to work together mutually and find some sort of understanding of what people with disabilities would need,” says Inegbedion.

STEM & Robotics Project

Organizational Accomplishments 

Special Needs Initiative For Growth had a big year in 2021, winning three impressive global awards. The organization was awarded the 2021 Google Leap Taker Award by Google Chrome Enterprise.

Out of 89 countries, 443 nominations and 72 innovative practices, they became the only Nigerian organization to win the best innovative practice in employment and ICT  (information and communications technology) for Persons with Disabilities by Zero Project, which fights for the rights of people with disabilities around the world. They also received this award from Zero Project in 2020.

The organization also received the WSIS 2021 Award Champion for the category of the enabling environment by the World Summit on the Information Society. This award was related to career development services given to low-income mothers that have children with cerebral palsy.

Zero Project Award Celebration

Expert Advice from the Project Team Lead of Special Needs Initiative For Growth

Inegbedion has faced her fair share of obstacles and doubt from others on her changemaking journey.

“There was really nothing people wouldn’t ask me,” says Inegbedion. “Like ‘why would you do what you’re doing,’ or that I’m too young to do what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do what I’m doing. But people will actually tell you that you’re a failure and sometimes you believe that you are, but guess what, you have to prove them wrong.”

Despite doubts, she persevered, using her skills and passion to make an impact.

“That’s basically what leadership skills are all about. You have to prove them wrong, meaning you walk the talk in the right way and that’s basically what I’ve been doing so far most of the time,” she says. “We don’t even have resources to carry out projects but I was able to build a network of people who believed in what I did,” Inegbedion continues. “If you just have three people who believe in your dream or your vision to implement a project or carry out a plan that will make the world a better place.”

STEM & Robotics Project

Inegbedion advises to stay focused and build skills you will need along the way. She mentions that learning to research is especially important as you dive into a project. Along with this, stay flexible.

“I would also advise that people need to learn how to have a mind of adaptability because you will have rough times when you feel like you want to give up, but when you’re able to be flexible and have the spirit of adaptability you can bounce back and you can continue your journey.”

As a last piece of advice, Inegbedion wants young changemakers to know you can use your anger about issues to fuel creating the change you want to see in the world. Anger at the mistreatment the singing young woman faced at the hands of her caregiver was a moment that sparked a fire in Inegbedion.

“We have every right to be angry as changemakers and that’s the anger that fuels us to create change that we want to see. Anger will position you to do the right things for people who really deserve change,” she says.

Vision Impairment Project

Looking to the Future 

Inegbedion aspires to work at the United Nations and promote the rights of people with disabilities. She will use her skills and expertise to “make the world equitable for people, especially in low and middle-income countries like my country Nigeria.”

Special Needs Initiative For Growth will continue to transform more lives using technology and empower those with disabilities. The organization is looking to create a platform so their services are even more accessible.

“We’re looking to synchronize most of the opportunities through an accessible and inclusive platform where people with disabilities can learn and hone their skills, and then become the best version of themselves,” says Inegbedion.

They’re also looking to form new partnerships with organizations around the world. Inegbedion sees a future where these organizations can learn from one another and collaborate on new approaches to empowering people with disabilities.

“We don’t just want to be in the African terrain, but we also want to put our tentacles out there to other countries in Europe, the United States and Asia and impact people with disabilities across the world,” she says.

Visually Impaired, Digitally Equipped Project

Learn more about Special Needs Initiative For Growth. Read more Rustic Spirit stories.