By Georges Macnobleson-Idowu
“No person is particularly invulnerable to disability” was the concluding statement of Mr. David Anyaele, the Executive Director of Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, CCD, as l entered the venue of the stakeholders’ meeting tagged: “Sensitization for Line MDAs on Sustainable Development Goals and Disability Rights” organized by the CCD in Lagos.
No doubt, there and after the meeting, this phrase continued to replay in my head and indeed, eventually forced me to pause and ponder over it implications until I meekly accepted that even the supposed persons with abilities are liable to disabilities at some point of their lives. This reality or better still truth, no doubt, hits me like an explosive and in fact, goes to say that there are many Nigerians, like me, who as a matter of curiosity, have never imagined what the plight of an average person with disability is in a difficult, covetous and unpromising terrain like Lagos, if not Nigeria.
This feeling however, propelled me to do a little check on some conceivable plights of persons with disabilities in Nigeria, and l must say the society, to a substantial extent, has been very hostile and intolerant to persons with disabilities. Apart from the truth that the government and in fact, the people, by virtual of perhaps ignorance, if not wickedness, had and have continued to take away everything and anything that supports easy and comfortable living for persons with disabilities in the society, majority of public buildings and offices in the country lack basic infrastructural facilities that provide access to all PWDs.
It was also gathered that majority of Nigerians harbour negative cultural prejudices against the PWDs. They have, either by custom or perhaps, some erroneous societal beliefs or practices, been structured to treat the PWDs with some, if not so much disdains and condescension that are underscored with mere misunderstanding and uninformed assumptions. Public officials, one must confess, are worst, as many of them tend to treat PWDs as nuisance, whenever they approach government or public facilities or offices, to request or demand for their statutory rights (services or products).
It is practically as if it is a crime, if not a sin, for a person with disability to show up at such facilities, to ask for his/her rights. It is equally so sad to see that when one lives with disability in Nigeria such person is believed by the society to have lost all his/her fundamental human rights, owing to his/her impairment. And, on rare occasions, where they tend to get what is appropriately theirs, as rights from the system, the people, especially those in public offices, tends to see it as charity to the less privileged or vulnerable. This explains why many Nigerians (able) see a person with disability, has being less a human being.
The PWDs are described as those with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which hinder their complete and effective participation in the society on equal basis with others, but then it is imperious for one to always remember that not all persons with disabilities today were born with impairments. This shows that physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments could occur at any stage of a person’s life, and that no person is particularly immune, exempted or resistant to disabilities.
My finding also emphasizes the fact that there are so many laws, acts and conventions, including provisions of the Nigerian constitution, which protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but that the government, and especially those in public offices, have through insensitivity and tactlessness made these provisions not enforceable or implementable; hence to a large extent, depriving these people their civic rights to basic infrastructural facilities. It follows therefore that the government, by so doing, has over the years been responsible for the large-scale poverty, hardship and the alleged nuisance nature of persons with disabilities in the society. This also explains the fact why these people were never considered, included or carried along in any basic developmental plans of government. They were rather seen, essentially by politicians as disabled rather than persons with disabilities, who though living with one form of impairment, are still skillful or endowed with some accessible potentials that can immensely contribute to the societal affairs. The society sees them as outcasts, rejects and worst still, animals, who are not eligible to any rights in the societal space. If not for anything, at least, the Nigerian society and perhaps, the whole world, can testify to the recent military brutality of a person with disability in Anambra state, whose only crime was that he wore a camouflage khakis.
The Nigerian constitution recognizes the civic rights of all citizens, including those living with disabilities, but over the years, they have regrettably been permanently ignored and prevented by the system from enjoying these basic rights, due to their conditions of physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments (disabilities). In other words, this means that the society has not only been using their conditions to deny them the enjoyment of basic rights, but has geometrically been increasing their vulnerability in the already multifaceted society. This situation is further complicated by poverty, gender, ethnicity and other social inequalities that other less privileged (poor) Nigerians are exposed to.
One must confess that it is so painful, and visibly a sign of backwardness in the 21st century for a country such as Nigeria, which prides itself, as the giant of Africa, to find it difficult to accept and assimilate that the PWDs must inevitably not only be catered for, but be part and parcel of all evolving plans and crucial activities of governance. It is in fact, mandatory and obligatory for the government and everyone in public office, if not including the private sector, to understand that persons with disabilities must always have rights of first-consideration, first-choice and refusal, in every governmental plan, if not all societal activities, as much as persons with abilities. Every Nigerian, especially those in public space, must be mindful that just as it is authoritative and a common knowledge to everyone that every public and private facility must have both male and female toilets, it is also essential that such public facility have all basic conveniences accessible to persons with disabilities. In other words, it dictates that for the system to guaranty the rights of the PWDs, the government must as a matter of public obligation, makes the rights of PWDs statutory and in fact, a top condition for government to approve any proposed design-plan of public and private facilities in the country. No doubt, until this is done, Nigeria is evidently not ready to protect the PWDs in the society.
Nigeria is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as its optional protocols, which the country signed on May 28, 2007 and on October 27, 2008. This convention supports the social model of disability, which emphasizes that people are disabled by the environmental, attitudinal, and institutional barriers they face rather than their specific impairments. It follows that societal bias, cultural norms, individual behaviors and attitudes, as well as traditional settings, especially in the African countries, still largely discriminate against the PWDs in the society. It follows that despite the various instruments and undertakings of this convention, and that of the Nigerian constitution, persons with disabilities in Nigeria have continued to face barriers to their participation in societal affairs.
Considering the shameful antecedent of Nigeria with regards to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it would not be wrong to say Nigeria does not have a blue print for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Truth be told, it is absurd that the government has again started mouthing the implementation of the SDGs, when majority of the state’s actors still lack an inkling of what it is all about. It is also very disturbing to imagine that the MDGs came and gone without Nigeria achieving at least, one of the goals; hence one cannot help but to wonder how a country that could not attain the MDGs would achieve the SDGs, even when all the daunting challenges faced by the MDGs are still very much around. But since this piece is directly concerned about persons with disabilities and their statutory rights in relations to the SDGs, it would not be out of place to say that as long as persons with disabilities still cannot access public facilities and buildings, it would be difficult and in fact, a tall dream for the country to effusively and inclusively attain the SDGs. It follows therefore, that in as much as this set of people, who are one of the most vulnerable, if not most susceptible, are left out of the scheme of things, the essence of the SDGs would continue to be extremely defeated. It likewise goes to say that if persons with disabilities cannot access basic infrastructure or public facilities, it automatically means that they cannot also access the SDGs. It is often said that the basic ingredient of good governance is service to the people, and where this is not attainable, the people, whether with disabilities or not, tend to suffer more.
An adage says he who fails to plan, plans to fail. This saying goes however, to say that for the country to attain the SDGs, it must first start by putting basic necessary measures in place. First, Nigeria must as a matter of urgency ensure that all issues or matters, affecting the inclusiveness and participation of persons with disabilities in the societal affairs are made statutory and law-binding, such that the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which Nigeria is a signatory, and the measures prescribed in the Draft African Protocols on Protection of the Rights of PWDs by states and other parties are domesticated, implemented and enforced. Second, the Nigeria Building Code and relevant provisions of the Nigerian constitution, which were advanced to end the inaccessible trends in the building industry should also be aggressively implemented and enforced, to promote and assure the fundamental human rights and freedom of the PWDs to participate fully in the society. The Disability Bill, which has been passed into law by the National Assembly, and transmitted to the President for assent for the third time, must also be assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari for immediate application.
When these are done, and statutory necessities and laws are aptly implemented and enforced, the issue of non-standard infrastructure, institutional and individual erroneous perception or prejudice about the rights of the PWDs would automatically be resolved; hence laws dictate societal activities, as well as the moral standard of the people. One of the major challenges of the MDGs is the fact that most existing buildings were old and constructed several years ago with little or no consideration for the PWDs. These buildings and structures must be modified, and universal designs must be applied to all new infrastructures. Also, policy measures must be used to eliminate prejudices, discriminatory practices, and other barriers, to the well-being of the PWDs in the society. When such policies are promulgated and implemented by the National and State Houses of Assembly, as well as enforced by other relevant agencies or authorities, public enlightenment and education would have a better footing and wings to fly.
Finally, the government must also create organs with the responsibility to inform, sensitize, educate and mobilize the people against discrimination in the provision of access to public services for the PWDs. It is also important that the government improves the judiciary and legal framework, and enforcement processes by training and retraining its personnel such as prosecutors, judges, police and correctional officers on rights of the PWDs to access public services. It must also create a special responsibility agency such as the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs (LASODA), to be exclusively responsible for monitoring the implementation of the necessary legislations and policies on rights of the PWDs in Nigeria. Until these, and several others, are taken into consideration, Nigeria is obviously not ready for the SDGs.
By Georges Macnobleson-ldowu writes in from Lagos, Nigeria.