Despite New Law, Nigerians Living with Disabilities Lament Discrimination


Evelyn Okakwu

Forty-year-old Ann Ojugo lost her legs at the age of six after a wrong diagnosis and misapplied injection left her permanently crippled. When her parents enrolled her in a primary school, she said a teacher spoke about how the new pupil would soil herself and be a burden to her. It was an unforgettable experience.

So when young men who recently tried to help her into a public taxi sexually harassed her, it struck a chord. She said the men made abusive comments about her hips and one groped her.

“It is not just the nature of my legs that tells me I have a disability, it is the society, the environment around us,” Ms Ojugo said during an interview.

Ms Ojugo, who relies on crutches to move about, now leads the Edo State Chairperson of the Joint Association of Persons Living With Disabilities and is also the West Africa representative of the community-based rehabilitation outfit, Africa Network.

Abuses Despite laws

Ms Ojugo’s case is not an isolated one. It is an example of what many people living with disabilities face in Africa’s most populated country, Nigeria.

Adegoke Ayodele, whose 15-year-old son has a cognitive disability, told PREMIUM TIMES that the burden carried by families of people living with such disabilities in Nigeria ”is too weighty to be neglected by any responsible government”.

“The major problem of most parents or relatives of people living with cognitive or intellectual disabilities is the welfare of their disabled relatives after their demise,” he said.

“Intellectual disability is the worst form of disability. There is no other disability that has greater stress than that of a person with intellectual disability. Even doctors that attend to them do a bit of: — I don’t want to use the word — guesswork. But they (people with intellectual disabilities) are more like kids. They cannot say exactly what the situation is with them even when they are sick.

“A child with any other kind of physical disability, maybe a visual disability, may be conscious. But when a child has cognitive disabilities, they are not conscious of anything. They are always dependent and may remain that way for the rest of their lives. So what happens when the person’s caregiver is gone. That is the greatest fear,” said Mr Ayodele who lamented the failure of the government to provide specially for such people whose numbers Mr Ayodele viewed as small enough to fall within the reach of a country like Nigeria.

”The cost of educating one child with cognitive disability is equal to the cost of educating 10 children without a disability in good schools. This is to give you a hint of the burden we bear. Yet this country is more than able, if it wills, to specially attend to the needs of people with such disabilities, or even provide the structures to help their relatives do same safely and without much stress,” he said.

Global statistics

A report by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank in 2011, said 25 million people in Nigeria have one form of physical disability or the other. The figure accounts for at least 15 per cent of Nigeria’s current population of 200 million, according to the UN estimates.

In January, Nigeria signed into law the prohibition of discrimination against persons with disabilities bill, after over 20 years of advocacy by notable Nigerians including David Anyeale: a disability rights activist and Executive Director, Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD).

According to section (1) of the law, anyone found guilty of discriminating against a person with a disability would be liable to a fine N100,000 in the case of an individual or N1 million in the case of an institution or a term of six months in jail or both.

The law also provides for the Nigerian government to establish institutions that will enhance its implementation such as the commission for persons with disabilities.

Before the creation of that law, Nigeria had ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on March 30, 2007 and its Optional Protocol on September 24, 2010, with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development charged with ensuring compliance with the laws and submitting the reports to the international bodies.

Article 5: paragraph 2 of the UNCRPD, states ”parties shall prohibit all forms of discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee to persons with disabilities equal and effective legal protection against discrimination on all grounds.”

But even after the signing of the law, many Nigerians living with disabilities say the journey towards legal recognition and respect by Nigeria is still ahead. The government that approved a new law has literally helped violate it.

For example, while the law says at least five per cent of all public appointments must go to people with disabilities, governments at various levels have so far not complied. President Muhammadu Buhari appointed no person with disability into his 43-member cabinet in August.

In a 2008 study conducted by the United Kingdom Department for International Development on Nigeria’s perspective about disabled people, the study found out that Nigeria’s ministry of women’s affairs “understood disability within a discourse of welfare and charity.” Such misconception, according to the UK department is contrary to the globally acknowledged emphasis on social adaptation, inclusion, and empowerment as advocated by the social model of disability.

Zero prosecution

Babatunde Fasiu, the legal officer for Lagos State office for disability affairs, said no one has been prosecuted for discriminating against people with disabilities.

Mr Fasiu told PREMIUM TIMES that many people living with disabilities fail to report cases of alleged discrimination because of the challenges militating against them in that regard.

“To start with, it is the duty of the police to investigate such cases. But many people with disabilities cannot go to the station because they lack access. If they struggle to get there, they are met with a brick wall because a deaf person that cannot afford an interpreter or a blind person may end up being misinterpreted at the station. There are no facilities to aid the communication needs of persons with disabilities.

“Yet many people living with disabilities, especially women, are discriminated against daily in countless ways,” said Mr Fasiu.

He said for many years, until 2018, lawyers approaching the court in Lagos experienced untold difficulty while moving from the parking lot to the main court premises, until the immediate past Chief Judge of the State, Opeyemi Oke, ordered the creation of a parking lot for them close to the court entrance.

Another lawyer, Daniel Onwe, who is the National President, Association of Lawyers with Disabilities, said many affected Nigerians fail to report their cases for prosecution ”because the system has a different view of the problem from what it ought to be”.

“The major challenge is that Nigerian courts and lawyers do not really appreciate disability jurisprudence. They wrongly approach it as a welfare matter to be governed by chapter 2 of the Constitution, rather than as a human rights issue governed by chapter 4 of the Constitution,” Mr Onwe said.

He added that the factors militating against easy access, as well as poverty, have also contributed to the factors militating against the prosecution of defaulters.

More suggestions of the way forward

Fidelia Unigwe of the Catholic’s Daughters of Charity, which takes care of children with disability in Abuja, said there is still a lot of discrimination against persons with disabilities.

“Some people still believe that persons with disabilities are carriers of bad omen,” she said. “The implementation of the laws discriminating disability is key. Recently the President nominated ministers. The act provides that five per cent of employments should be reserved for persons with disabilities. However, that nomination had no person with disabilities included in it.

“There are very serious issues. The Nigerian society is not accessible to persons with disabilities. There are no walkways on the roads. Transport systems have no rams. People’s attitudes towards persons with disabilities requires a lot of work: all these are issues seeking urgent check,” she said.

This report was supported by The Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)