The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. If Nigeria’s population in 2019 as estimated by the National Population Commission (NPC) is 190 million , then about 28.5 million Nigerians have a disability.

This number is more than the total votes cast for both the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general elections. Unfortunately, these 28.5 million Nigerians have continued to face barriers to full and equal enjoyment of their human rights and respect for their dignity.

Persons with physical disabilities are often unable to access public institutions such as courts, schools, hospitals, media houses, government secretariats, car parks, recreation centres, and polling stations. Persons with physical disabilities also experience challenges accessing public transport systems (trains, buses, airlines), banking halls and ATM machines, and hotels, among others, because of the absence of ramps, handrails, lifts and other accessible means.

Persons who are blind or have low vision are unable to access government websites, independently cross roads, or participate in decision making processes due to absence or inconsistent use of Braille, lack of accessible walk ways, and absence of handrails and other devices that can assist them.

Persons who are deaf or have hearing impairments are not enjoying the services of sign language interpreters on government media to follow government functions and announcements.

Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) across Nigeria including persons with albinism, persons with intellectual disabilities, persons with leprosy among others experience barriers that do not allow them to participate actively in all aspects of Nigerian society, do not enjoy the full realization of their human rights, and are not respected for their human dignity.

In the midst of this, some PWDs have multiple disabilities and experience multiple levels of discrimination. PWDs shouldn’t have to beg for respect of their fundamental rights and accommodations to ensure their full participation in all aspects of life in Nigeria including in education, healthcare, transportation, public buildings and places, infrastructure, as well as information and communication materials.

We have often seen disability from the medical and charity perspectives. The medical perspective suggests that disability is a health challenge that needs to be prevented, managed or rehabilitated. The charity approach suggests that we should pity PWDs and give free will offerings because they are people with special needs and limited abilities.

These perspectives create stereotypes and foster discrimination towards PWDs because they are seen as unable to contribute to society. This is a wrong perspective that needs to be challenged and changed by all Nigerians. Disability is first a challenge of society. Two approaches to disability that are accepted generally are the social approach and the human rights approach.

The social approach sees disability as a result of the barriers of the environment. It views that disability is not an inability of an individual to adjust to the environment, but the absence of accommodations to allow all Nigerians to participate in public life and fully exercise their human rights.

For example, when a person using a wheelchair approaches a building, it is not their inability to walk that keeps them from entering the building, but it is the multiple steps at the front door.

The human rights approach emphasizes that it is the responsibility of government to guarantee the rights of all citizens, including PWDs, and be held accountable for the protection of these rights. Therefore, both government and the people must take action to ensure active participation of PWDs in Nigerian society because disability is diversity and the contributions of PWDs strengthen Nigeria.  

To guarantee the human rights of PWDs in the new decade, both government and citizens have roles and responsibilities to play. On the part of government, some level of effort has been made to guarantee the rights of PWDs in Nigeria. In 2010, Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol.

The CRPD is an international treaty to protect the human rights of PWDs. To ensure implementation of the CRPD, the Nigerian government passed the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 known as the national disability law, following nine years of advocacy by disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs).

The comprehensive, national law covers issues of discrimination; awareness raising; access to public buildings, spaces and facilities; access to transport systems; and most importantly, calls for inclusive education. The law stipulates free education for PWDs and access to free health care services for persons with intellectual disabilities.

The law also provides for reconstruction of all public buildings and transportation systems over a five-year period to make them accessible for PWDs. Other areas such as employment, priority consideration in emergencies, and the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities are also provided.

The law has empowered PWDs to take legal actions, which may include fines and sanctions, against institutions that discriminate or deny the rights of PWDs as provided under the law.
In addition to these legal frameworks at the national level, four states in Nigeria – Ekiti, Plateau, Lagos and Bauchi – have all passed legislation to protect the rights of PWDs. President Muhammadu Buhari also appointed a person with a disability as a Senior Special Assistant on Disability Matters to advise him on all issues related to persons with disabilities and to promote disability rights in governance and society.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has developed a disability framework; introduced accessible voting materials including Braille ballot guides, written instructions, and magnifying glasses; and established priority voting in some elections. INEC has made ongoing efforts to include PWDs in its policies, programs and activities. In addition, the government has made significant efforts in developing policies for inclusive education. Through the national disability law and the national policy on inclusive education, the government has taken steps to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in the public-school system and not in separate schools.

The national disability law also made provisions for government to ensure that there are qualified teachers, accessible school structures and that the educational needs of students with disabilities are mainstreamed in the school curriculum at all levels of education.
I must commend the government for a well thought out policy framework for the inclusion of PWDs in Nigerian society. However, implementation continues to be a challenge for many excellent policies of our government, including those guaranteeing rights for PWDs. For example, public schools have not yet implemented the policy on inclusive education. Children with disabilities are often excluded from going to school because our schools are not accessible. Some children with physical disabilities who do attend school are carried to their classrooms by fellow students.

The Inclusive Friends Association (IFA) data on polling unit accessibility shows that 65% and 77% of polling units, which are mostly located in public schools, are not accessible to PWDs in Edo and Ondo states respectively. The Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 provides for the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, but no action on this has been taken as of January 2020. The entire implementation of the national disability law is dependent on the creation of this Commission. For example, the Commission is tasked with ensuring that all the buildings constructed in Abuja are accessible for PWDs.

The Commission is also responsible for ensuring that existing buildings are altered over the period of five years to provide access to PWDs. Importantly, PWDs are only entitled to the provisions under the Act when they are provided with a disability certificate by the Commission. Therefore, the 2020 agenda for the government should be full implementation of policies to guarantee the rights and inclusion of PWDs.

As a people we must hold government to account. That is why I call on President Buhari to inaugurate the governing Council for the Commission and provide necessary resources for the immediate establishment of the Commission in January 2020. I also call on the federal government to begin consultations with DPOs and other civil society organizations to commence the process of developing the progress report on PWDs for submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which will be due in November 2020. The Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the CRPD by states parties.

As a signatory to the convention, Nigeria is obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the provisions of the CRPD are being implemented in our country. This Committee reviews country progress on CRPD and makes expert recommendations.

It is important for the government to hear from this Committee on how it has fared with the implementation of CRPD. The report is due since 2013 and another is due November 2020. While I call on the government to implement the policies already in place, it is also important that the government incorporate disability in all government policies. Government should include goals and targets of PWDs in the new vision after ‘Vision 2020’ and National Youth Policy, and should develop a national action plan on the implementation of all disability laws. The inclusion of the 28.5 million PWDs in Nigeria is long overdue. Let’s start this decade by building a stronger Nigeria through the inclusion of all of its citizens.

Timipanipre Uge, an Inclusive Development Specialist, writes from Abuja.