Everything should be done to ensure that the law is enforced

Following its passage after more than a decade in the National Assembly and needless controversy on its transmission, President Muhammadu Buhari has assented to the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018. The law makes provision for the prohibition of discrimination and harmful treatment towards the physically challenged persons in our country. It also provides for accessibility to physical structures and makes it mandatory for public buildings, roads, walkways and others to be constructed in such a way that a person with disability can access them. According to Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Senator Ita Enang, the law guarantees the right to maintain civil action for damage by the person injured against any defaulter.

However, as positive a development as the presidential assent may be, it would take more than a new law to address the problems of the physically challenged in our country. 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 privileges” to the several efforts by the National Assembly in the past 19 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. Yet the physically challenged persons constitute a significant percentage of the population. Aside 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 their 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.”

In Nigeria today, the physically challenged are most often denied employment opportunities and they are also subjected to discrimination and stigmatisation by both the society and the authorities. 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 deprived of their rights. Everywhere and every day, obstacles are thrown on their paths. 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.

Now that the disability bill has been signed into law, government at all levels must, as a matter of policy, 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 their bit to the growth and development of the society.