Almost two decades after a series of advocacy efforts for a law that caters to the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs), President Muhammadu Buhari signed the law prohibiting discrimination against PWDs in January 2019.
The Act prohibits and penalises every form of discrimination on the basis of disabilities. The penalty for violators includes a fine of N1, 000, 000 for corporate bodies and N100, 000 for individuals, or six-month jail term.
However, three years after the legislation, FIJ gathered that effective measures for implementation are yet to be engendered, as many people with disabilities are still treated unfairly.
A report by Dataphyte revealed that over 25 million persons with disabilities in Nigeria experience social, economic, and political exclusion. Also, only 13 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have domesticated the Act.
From being deemed incompetent without due test of their abilities to receiving dehumanising gazes from members of the society, persons with disabilities are daily, subjected to stigmatisation.
BORN WITHOUT A DISABILITY, FORCED TO EMBRACE FATE
No one prays for misfortune. But when people experience a twist of fate, they react in two ways. Some accept defeat and spend their lives in despair while others fix their gaze on the sunny side.
Paschal Onyeocha, a 28-year-old graduate in French at Imo State University (IMSU), belongs to the second category. He was not born with a disability, but the trajectory of his life was altered when he suddenly became visually impaired.
At eight years old, his right eye was diagnosed with a medical condition called retinal detachment. About six years later, his second eye got bad.
“I remember vividly how it happened. I could still see with my left eye, so I didn’t know that the right one was gone until one day when my siblings covered my eyes with a sellotape as we were playing. It was at that point that I discovered I could no longer see.
“My parents rushed me to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) at Owerri, where we learnt that nothing could be done about it because the eye had gone bad. I got some prescription glasses, and they aided my vision for a while. However, after some time, I could no longer see with them.”
After several visits to doctors in the south east and south west, an ophthalmologist in Lagos State informed Onyeocha and his father that the situation could not be salvaged because it was too late.
By this time, Onyeocha was 14 years old. His parents enrolled him at a special school for the blind in Umuahia, Abia state, where he learnt how to read and write as a visually impaired person.
He would later tell FIJ that people ignorantly address people like him as persons living with disability. “It should be persons with disability! You can’t describe me as someone living with a disability. It is not my wife!”
KNOCKED OVER BUT DETERMINED TO BOUNCE BACK
Onyeocha told FIJ that he gained admission into Imo State University in 2012. Although he applied for mass communication, he was admitted to study library and information science. However, he had to choose another field of study — French.
“I couldn’t continue with the course at the end of the first year because of an aspect called logging and classification, which requires the sense of sight. I was advised to study a different course.
“For someone who had no knowledge about French language, I had to start from what is called zero level. It’s like a preliminary hearing class after which one will officially move to year one. I graduated in 2018, went for the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme in 2019 and finished serving in July 2020.”
Aside from his Bachelor’s degree, he has a diploma both in social media strategy and journalism. He has also earned certifications in 15 online courses all in a bid to upskill and become more employable. Not only that, he has attended seminars and leadership training.
‘DENOUNCED’ BY EMPLOYERS, FORCED TO DEPEND ON OTHERS FOR SURVIVAL
Sadly, since he graduated from Imo State University (IMSU), Onyeocha’s efforts to have a better shot at gainful employment have gone unnoticed as he remains ‘incapable’ in the eyes of the society.
He, like many other persons with disabilities, have been compelled to endure discrimination in the hands of employers who, after learning about his condition, dash his hopes of being an employed graduate.
Onyeocha has been applying for job opportunities at least four times in a month since he graduated but he has not been able to get one.
“Life after school hasn’t been easy. And since I finished serving, nothing has changed. It’s just the same experience as every other Nigerian after school. In some places, they end up not granting me interview after knowing that I have a disability. They feel I won’t be able to perform.
“I’ve been dependent on family members and friends. I have submitted my CV to many places and got no positive response. For the few who responded, they declined once they get to know that I am disabled.
“Normally, life is difficult. And if you are not getting what you are supposed to get in an environment even as a person without disability, imagine what it means to live as a person with disability. One who is disabled yet lives in poverty finds it difficult. And it’s unfair.
“For those of us who managed to go to school, employment opportunities should be made available for us. People should not doubt our competence without first giving us a chance to prove what we can do.
“And even if employers see that some of us are not good enough, they can now organise training or workshops. If someone with a form of disability wants to go to school or strives to achieve something in life, teach them so that they will become employable like everyone.”
BEING A PWD IN NIGERIA IS HORRIBLE, BUT…
“Life for a PWD in Nigeria is horrible, but we keep hope alive and we do not allow the disability to weigh us down because we can contribute positively to the society. Being physically challenged is not easy. It is a life I won’t wish anyone to experience,” Mrs Angelina Ugben, a physically challenged in her late thirties, told FIJ.
Like Onyeocha, Mrs Ugben was born without a disability. But when she was four years, she was unable to walk with her legs again.
“My mom told me that I had a fever, and I was taken to the hospital. And before they knew what was happening, I could not walk again. I have been like this for about thirty two years.”
She graduated from Nasarawa State University in 2017, and she is presently doing her Master’s programme at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) but her education has not excluded her from stigma.
‘WE ARE JUDGED BY APPEARANCE, NOT COMPETENCE‘
Recounting her experience as a person with disability, Mrs Ugben said the society keeps treating PWDs as though they are cursed and lesser humans.
Her situation is similar to that of Onyeocha as she has not been able to get a job in the corporate world. So, to have a source of livelihood and contribute to her family’s upkeep, she acquired some vocational skills.
“When I was in school, other students looked at me as if it’s a curse. Some won’t allow me to sit with them. But I never allowed it to weigh me down. Regardless of my disability, I am a human being. The belief in my ability kept me going.
“After school, the actual problem started in the world of employment. Whenever I am going to look for a job, they look at my disability. They don’t look at what I can offer. They just look at my appearance and conclude. They ask, ‘how can you work? How did you come here? Can you do this work? We don’t have a place for a person with disability like you.’ “
For her, such statements are not only demoralising but they also aim to stigmatise persons with disabilities.
“At a point, I questioned God because I was tired of the kind of life I was living. I had gone to school and suffered like other students. But I have been hopeful. I have kept my hope alive, believing that one day, things will be okay.
“The society keeps discriminating us. It keeps treating us as if we are cursed. It is a big challenge for us. But the society won’t stop us. I know I am capable of doing something to help myself and the society.
“We want people to stop looking at us differently. We want an accessible environment. Employ us. Test us and see if we can deliver or not. In fact, some of us can deliver better than those called able persons.
“I stopped waiting for the government to employ me. I learnt a skill. I am into fashion designing. I sew bags. I do event planning and anchoring. I am also into politics,” she said.
FOR LAWS GOVERNING PWDS TO BE EFFECTIVE…
Both Onyeocha and Ugben averred that the government cannot make effective decisions about people with disabilities without involving them.
The duo equally emphasised the need for constant campaigns to enlighten the public on the evils of treating persons with disabilities unfairly.
According to Onyeocha, “Persons with disabilities are missing in leadership positions, hence the government can’t make proper decisions for us.
“While the disability act is commendable, some companies would rather pay the fine than employ someone with a disability. There should be more to it. The law must be domesticated in various states as it will go a long way to reduce discrimination.”
On Ugben’s part, some matters regarding persons with disabilities cannot be determined by those without disabilities because they have not lived their experiences.
“We want the government to include us in decision making. Imagine a person without disability heading a department that caters to the welfare of persons with disabilities. Such a person cannot effectively capture our experiences. How can they speak for us? How will they represent us?
“Also, people need to stop addressing us as disabled. We are not disabled and we do not live with a disability. A disabled person cannot do anything, but we can.”
DISABILITY RIGHTS LAW JUST ON PAPER — NNAD
Ebuka Okeke, National Youth Leader for Nigeria National Association of the Deaf (NNAD), told FIJ that a lot needs to be done to fully implement the disability act as he agreed that the law has not stopped the unjust treatment meted out on PWDs.
“The disability act is definitely just on paper. The government can’t do anything for us without us in every aspect right from planning, budgeting and implementing policies from the bill.
“Some of us are well educated with Masters degrees and even PHDs, but we are still not given equal priority during job applications and interviews.
“But as an association, we are trying as much as possible to create awareness and advocate for our rights through our organisations like Joint National Association of Persons with Disability (JONAPWD) among others.”
MANY STATES ‘RELUCTANT’ TO DOMESTICATE DISABILITY ACT
“We can’t have a perfect act or law so there is room for amendment from time to time, but the disability act caters for the majority of the needs of people with disability in Nigeria. The only problem is that many States are not even working towards domesticating the Act.”
Those were the words of Raheem Yusuf Olatunji, the Assistant Secretary General of the Joint Association of People with Disability (JONAPWD), the umbrella body for PWDs in the country.
Olatunji said there is a need for increased awareness about the disability rights’ law. On social protection for PWDs, he urged the government to take it seriously and ensure that those who truly need help get help.
“People are not enlightened and this is why many of us are not even aware that there is a law that protects us. But we have been engaging the government and development partners to see if they can sponsor awareness and capacity-building programmes.”
LACK OF POLITICAL WILL FUELING DISCRIMINATION
David O. Anyaele, the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), said the persisting discrimination against PWDs can only be reduced through commitment to awareness creation.
“The major challenge confronting the disability community in terms of waging the war against discrimination and other harmful practices is the absence of commitment by the political actors to support the campaign.
“I am worried with the way the political parties are framing their manifesto with minimal recognition of citizens with disabilities. This is a pointer to the challenges ahead of PWDs in Nigeria.”
Meanwhile, Odo Ogechi Adananya, a representative of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD), told FIJ that the agency has been gearing efforts towards sensitising PWDs to their rights.
NCPWD is the government agency saddled with the responsibility of preventing discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensuring their inclusiveness in every sector.
“We’ve been going from state to state to sensitise PWDs. We also involve the different associations and stakeholders in each state because the commission can not possibly know everyone.
“Those who experience one form of discrimination or the other should report to us. We won’t know what people are going through unless they tell us. Our number is on the website. They can always come to the office too.”
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