The government must create a conducive atmosphere for socio- political integration of the physically challenged

People with Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria used the Ondo State gubernatorial election of last weekend to draw attention to their plight by demanding for more inclusive participation in electoral processes and governance across the nation. And as people across the word tomorrow mark the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) with the theme, “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want”, it is important for the authorities in Nigeria to begin to pay attention to a huge segment of our society.

Besides the law that compels the government to accommodate them in any major enterprise, Nigeria is a signatory to many international conventions that support equal opportunities for all citizens. The United Nations defines equalisation of opportunities as “the process through which the general system of society, such as the physical and cultural environment, housing and transportation, social and health services, educational and work opportunities, cultural and social life, including sports and recreational facilities are made accessible to all.”

However, it remains unfortunate that the physically challenged persons in our society are still discriminated against and face social stigma. From transportation which allows movement and interactions, through health, recreations and even educational services which can make them compete effectively, people with one disability or another are most often discriminated against and deprived of their rights. Everywhere and every day, obstacles are thrown on their paths.

They are generally dispossessed of physical structures. In Nigeria today, the physically challenged are most often denied employment opportunities and they are also subjected to stigmatisation by both the society and the authorities. To worsen the situation, many are regarded by their families as a source of shame and treated as objects of charity. The few vocational training centres set up by government are ill-equipped and ill-maintained. Many end up in the streets as beggars while others turn to drugs and other socially unacceptable behaviour to generate income.

From the “Nigerians with Disability” military decree of 1993 which provides “a clear and comprehensive legal protection and security for Nigerians with disability as well as establish standard for enforcement of their rights and priviledges” to the several efforts by the National Assembly in the past 17 years, it is clear that the law is not the problem. The main challenge has been the attitude of Nigerians to the plight of this vulnerable group. Yet according to World Health Organisation (WHO) reports, there are as many as 25 million Nigerians living with one form of disability or another.

A recent news report stated clearly that about 98 per cent of public buildings in the country such as schools, hospitals, banks, even shop stalls, where some can make economic transactions, are still inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The plight of this category of Nigerians becomes more worrisome today at what is now a makeshift arrangement for domestic travellers who now use the international wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja. They practically have to go through hell to travel. Yet the physically challenged persons constitute about 19 per cent of the population.

The government as a matter of policy must create a conducive atmosphere for social, economic and political integration of the physically challenged in our society. Even if old public institutional buildings cannot be modernised to accommodate them, new ones should be built in such a way that they provide access to the physically challenged. Attempts must also be made to open up educational and employment opportunities so that they can compete and embrace life with more confidence. The physically challenged in our midst must be empowered to help themselves and their families, and contribute to the growth and development of the society.