Saturday, October 3, 2009

Caring for the Physically Challenged Persons

No human is immune from vicissitude of life. Professor Chinua Achebe was hale and hearty until a fateful day he got involved in a near fatal road accident which has now confined the literary giant to the wheel chair. Yinka Ayefele, a gospel musician, was also involved in a motor accident. Today, though on wheelchair, he is a household name among Nigerian gospel music lovers. Mohammed Ali was an all time great pugilist; he flew like a butterfly and punches like the sting of a bee. Today, the world boxing heavyweight champion is down with an incurable Parkinson disease. There is a growing community of physically challenged persons, particularly in Nigeria. Reasons being the high incidence of road, industrial and domestic accidents; ethno-religious conflicts; diseases; afflictions; environmental hazards etc. Everyone is a potential member of community of persons with disability.

The issue here is how do we treat those who are already members of this over 19 million estimated persons with disability in Nigeria? How do we treat the blind, the lame, the deaf and dumb, the infirm and invalid, lepers, amputees, mentally challenged, visually impaired, etc who abound around us? Do we discriminate against them, treat them as irritants or offer helping hands to them? Do we realise that Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which articulates fundamental rights also apply to these victims of circumstance? What can we do as government, corporate organisations, groups and individuals to make life better for persons with disability? These are the crux of this article.

Beginning with the political rights, persons with disability ought not to be denied their rights to vote and to be voted for. It would be recalled that Franklin D. Roosevelt ruled United States of America as President for 12 years from the wheelchair. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, physically challenged persons count less in our preparations for elections. The prohibitive cost of standing for elections coupled with the discriminatory attitude of political party executives have oftentimes denied these vulnerable groups the right to contest elections. When it comes to voting, the law is not too friendly to them as well. Section 57 (2) of 2006 Electoral Act says “the Commission (INEC) MAY take reasonable steps to ensure that voters with disabilities are assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print or electronic devices or sign language interpretation, or off-site voting in appropriate places”. Because the law did not make it mandatory for the Electoral Management Bodies to provide these audio-visual aids that will help integrate persons with disability into the electoral process, the electoral commissions never cared to make them available. If the persons with disability are sidelined in the electoral process, how about political appointments? Same story. Information has it that only 10 states government have appointed persons with disability as special advisers on disability matters; even at that, it is doubtful if they are provided with funds to make them functional and impactful.

Our environment also conspired to make life uncomfortable for physically challenged persons. Access to public and private buildings is an endurance test for these vulnerable groups. Many of these buildings are without ramps and elevators thereby making access to them huge task for persons on crutches and wheelchairs. It is a psychological torture for dumb and deaf persons to watch or listen to news in this country. Many of our electronic media, be they private or public never factor in these people, who through no fault of theirs could neither hear nor speak. Yet, sign language could be used to interpret news and current affairs to this vulnerable group.

In spite of the explicit provision of Section 42 of the CFRN 1999 which stipulates right to freedom from discrimination, persons with disability are still heavily discriminated against. Employment opportunities are flagrantly denied them even when they are eminently qualified. Labour employers fail to see the advantage persons with disability usually bring to their work which is strong commitment to duty as they are not in position to gallivant about during office hours. Even in few places where these persons have been offered employment, they are treated with disdain as they are seen more as sub-humans. Their potentials are either not fully utilised or misapplied. National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) and National Directorate of Employment (NDE) that are supposed to assist persons with disability to be self employed could not do much due to inadequate funding of their programmes and stiff competition from the able-bodied men and women.

Why then do we snort at the menace of beggars? These hapless and challenged persons must survive one way or the other, hence their importunate requests for alms. Unfortunately, various governments’ reactions are to indiscriminately arrest these beggars and dump them out of town rather than providing them social welfare that will make begging unattractive to them.

In the sports sector, whereas our able bodied athletes often wobble and fumble at international tournaments, records have it that Nigerian disable athletes have brought Nigeria more laurels and national honour than their able bodied counterparts. Unfortunately, while many corporate organisations rush to sponsor live telecast of Olympic Games, the Paralympics hardly get mentioned no matter how great the performance of the physically challenged athletes are. This is unfair.

Many of the issues raised above are what a bill titled ‘National Disability Bill’ seeks to address. Fortunately, the bill has been passed by both chambers of the National Assembly (NASS) but needs the conference committee of NASS to harmonize their positions before it can be sent to the President for assent. This should be done urgently. However, legal reform - though desirable - is not the magic wand. More important are faithful implementation of the laws and positive change of attitude towards these persons with disability. This we can do by showing them love, care and affection. Remember, no one knows tomorrow!