Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Plight of persons with disabilities in Nigeria

On Monday, December 3, 2012, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was observed across the world. The annual ritual was celebrated in Nigeria, not unexpectedly, with speeches and glib promises by government to improve the lot of the physically challenged persons in our society. It is estimated that over 15 per cent of Nigerians are PWD. However, this should be persons with bodily disabilities.  In truth, however, all human beings are disabled one way or the other as no human has infinite ability. In Nigeria, the community of persons with bodily disabilities is growing at a geometric rate. Every act of terrorism, road and domestic accidents, medical misdiagnosis, parents refusal to  immunise their children against polio and other killer diseases, collapsed buildings and many others leave victims as potential temporary or permanent members of the PWD.
But it must be noted that Nigeria’s persons with disabilities are vulnerable and marginalised lot. The enabling environment is lacking for these persons to realise their full potential. We always view them from the prism of invalids and dependants. Our mindset is that they are beggars and never-do-wells. How wrong we are! Many members of this community are well read, informed and cultured. In fact, the President of the Joint Association of Persons with Disabilities, Danlami Basharu, is a lawyer with a Master’s degree from a top university in the United Kingdom. Our revered Prof. Chinua Achebe; talented and award-winning music producer, Cobhams Asuquo; and ace gospel musician, Yinka Ayefele; are some of the persons with disabilities but who are doing the nation proud in their chosen professions.  For instance, while Nigeria’s able-bodied athletes went to the 2012 London Summer Olympics and came back without any medal, their Paralympian counterparts not only broke four world records in power-lifting but also did the country proud by winning a total of 13 medals; six gold, five silver and two bronze.
However, a majority of persons with disabilities in Nigeria almost always have a raw deal in terms of acceptance, access and respect for their rights.  Our society has yet to come to terms with the fact that there is ability in disability. In Nigeria, many families discriminate against members who are physically or mentally challenged. They are hardly shown any love and care. Instead, they are cursed, insulted and tormented for bringing ‘bad luck’ to the family. Many who are not born with their disabilities could either not get a good spouse to marry or if married, are deserted by their spouses. This is inhuman. In terms of access, persons with disabilities lack adequate access to education, health, recreational facilities and public institutions generally. For instance, there are only few schools for PWD. In Oyo State, I know of Cheshire School and School for the Deaf in Ijokodo area of Ibadan. There is also the famous Pacelli School for the Blind in Surulere, Lagos. However, more schools are needed for children with disabilities. Not only that, education should be made free for these special people. Same for health. Medicare should be free for the PWD. Many of our public and private offices are not accessible to persons on wheelchair and crutches. Many of them cannot enter banks, hotels and high rise buildings because of the security doors, malfunctioning elevators and absence of ramps.
In terms of employment opportunities, many PWD, though brilliant and with good academic certificates, are discriminated against at job interviews. Employers see them as a burden as they may not be as agile as their able-bodied counterparts while some may also need regular medical attention. In politics, political party leaders will hardly give them tickets to fly flag of the party at any election; be it local, state or national. This is because of the wrong notion that they are unelectable. They forgot that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd American President who was elected an unprecedented four times into office, was for most part of his political career confined to a wheelchair due to polio attack he suffered when he was young. Even the election management bodies do not have special provisions for them either in the area of voter education or special ballot paper, especially for the blind. In the just-concluded Ghanaian election held on December 7, special ballot papers were designed for the blind to enable them vote unaided.   In Nigeria, the best is that blind voters are allowed to come to the polling unit with a trusted aide who should guide them during voting.
In Nigeria, the rights of persons with disabilities are hardly respected. Many state governments and the Federal Capital Territory Administration have been harassing and arresting those who engage in street begging to earn a living. While street begging is dehumanising and condemnable, I am sure many of these PWD would not resort to begging to live if presented with a better choice. It is not out of place for government to design a scheme that will give opportunities to persons with disabilities who want to acquire vocational skills to do so free of charge.
For many years now, persons with disabilities through the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities have been demanding the passage of the National Disability Bill. Twice, this bill had been passed into law by the National Assembly. Unfortunately, the bill has been denied presidential assent on the two occasions.  Yet, Nigeria is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which under Article 4 mandates member states to pass national legislation on disability. It is hoped that the Seventh National Assembly will re-introduce the bill and grant it expeditious passage and that  President Goodluck Jonathan will champion the cause of the oppressed by assenting to the disability bill when passed. JONAPWD has also called on the President to appoint a Special Assistant on Disability Matters who will be able to articulate the issues of this vulnerable and marginalised group before the President and his cabinet. It would be great to have disability issues mainstreamed into Nigerian budget the way Jonathan did with women issue in the 2013 budget. Persons with disabilities need an affirmative action that will guarantee their full participation in governance. They also need love, care and support. This Yuletide season, let us spare a thought for these less privileged compatriots.