Making a case for Nigerians living with disabilities

(By Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman)

Having looked at South Africa and the UK, let us now look at what obtains at home. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have any legislation currently safeguarding the rights of people with disability. It would be unfair to say Nigeria does not care for the disabled and it is important to note that Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and its accompanying Optional Protocol. However, it is important to note that Article 4 of the UN Convention identifies general and specific obligations on States (including Nigeria) and parties in relation to the rights of persons with disabilities. One of the fundamental obligations contained in the Convention is that national law should guarantee the enjoyment of the rights enumerated in the Convention. Part of those mandatory rights are enacting and passing a bill, which must include the establishment of a monitoring commission.

NIGERIA is a country that occupies 923,768sq km in Western Africa making her the 32nd largest nation in the world. It comprises 36 states and has a population of more than 162 million, making it the most populous black nation in Africa and the world at large. With its vast landmass, natural resources and population comes huge responsibilities not just to the world and to the African continent, but to her citizens, able and disabled. Disability in Nigeria has become more of an afterthought issue rather than a matter of priority with about 19 million people in Nigeria experiencing a form of disability, and more than 1 billion people worldwide.

The main purpose of this write-up is to examine disability laws obtainable in Nigeria, and compare them with existent models in developed and developing nations around the world. Our two main case studies will be the United Kingdom and South Africa, due to their comprehensive disability legislation and policy implementation for disability.

In South Africa, a 2005 study evaluated the country’s legislation and policy implementation from two key angles: (1) How effective has this legislative and policy environment been in making real changes to the lives of disabled people? (2) Are policies being implemented and acted on, or do they ‘evaporate’ the closer one gets to the grassroots?

South Africa possesses one of the most comprehensive disability rights legislation and policy regimes in the world, and disabled people are involved at all levels of government. This research was commissioned to investigate the extent to which policies and legislation have been implemented by the South African government.

Some of the achievements linked to the development of new legislation and policy in South Africa are: (i) The development and the adoption of the White Paper on Disability on an Integrated National Disability Strategy, known as INDS; (ii) The South African government can currently determine employment-equity quotas that apply to the private and public sector regarding the employment of disabled people through the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998; (iii) Increasing the basic disability grant and the extension of its provisions to a wider sector of people through the Social Assistance Act; (iv) Introduction of policy on inclusive education through the White Paper on Special Needs Education; (v) Actively participating in continental and international initiatives on improving the lives of disabled people, such as the Africa Decade of People with Disabilities, and participating in the development of the United Nations Convention on the rights of disabled people; (vi) Providing free primary health care to disabled people affected by poverty; (vii) Establishing the Equity Court; (viii) Establishing the Office on the Status of Disabled People in the Presidency, and at provincial levels; (ix) Establishing Disability Desks and Units in many departments within all spheres of government.

While support by the South African government for the formulation and adoption of policy has been excellent, policy implementation remains a challenge. Worthy of note is the fact that there are capacity constraints at every level that limit the effective implementation of policy. Policy implementation issues are not addressed consistently, for various reasons, at different levels of government. These reasons include: (i) Limited conceptual understanding; (ii) Poor championing awareness; (iii) Inadequate or inappropriate institutional arrangements; and (iv) a general lack of capacity.

Two other factors that have contributed to the poor implementation of legislation and policies are: (i) the definition and nature of disabled people’s participation have not been adequately reviewed and articulated; (ii) policy requirements for disability mainstreaming are not adequately linked to performance management, thereby undermining commitment to implementation.

The major setback of Disability Policy implementation in South Africa is: Legislation and policies are not implemented, due to lack of allocated fiscal resources and commitment by government, and agencies responsible for such implementation.

In the South African example, one reason that can be credited for the vast success of the disability campaign is political support. Political will power is present from both ministers and senior civil servants in charge of departments. The other reason of course is the outstanding sustained commitment and ongoing advocacy by the disability sector, led by Disabled People South Africa (DPSA). The current legislation, in the form of the Employment Equity Act; Social Assistance Act; Skills Development Act; Skills Development Levy Act…etc, have all helped to create a new sense of awareness of the needs of disabled people.

In the case of the UK, people with disability are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (as amended) (DDA) for England, Scotland and Wales, and the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 (as amended). The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) defines a disabled person as “someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

People who have had a disability in the past that meets this definition are also covered by the scope of the Act. There are additional provisions relating to people with progressive conditions.

The DDA 2005 amended the definition of disability. It ensured that people with HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis are deemed to be covered by the DDA effectively from the point of diagnosis, rather than from the point when the condition has some adverse effects on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The achievement of the DDA 2005 includes the new duty it places on public bodies -from local authorities, to healthcare, to education providers to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, similar to the ‘duty to promote’ under the Race Relations Act. This duty, which came into force in December 2006, meant that public authorities will need to have ‘due regard’ to the need to eliminate discrimination against, and harassment of, disabled people; promote equality of opportunity for disabled people; promote positive attitudes towards disabled people; and encourage disabled people to take part in public life. In the context of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), it encourages academic staff to review their learning, teaching and assessment methods to become more inclusive for disabled students.

Having looked at South Africa and the UK, let us now look at what obtains at home. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have any legislation currently safeguarding the rights of people with disability. It would be unfair to say Nigeria does not care for the disabled and it is important to note that Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and its accompanying Optional Protocol. However, it is important to note that Article 4 of the UN Convention identifies general and specific obligations on States (including Nigeria) and parties in relation to the rights of persons with disabilities. One of the fundamental obligations contained in the Convention is that national law should guarantee the enjoyment of the rights enumerated in the Convention. Part of those mandatory rights are enacting and passing a bill, which must include the establishment of a monitoring commission.

Again, it would be unfair to say that the Nigerian government is not sensitive to the plight of people living with disability. Currently in the 7th Senate of the National Assembly, a bill titled an Act to Ensure Full Integration of Persons with Disabilities and to establish a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities and Vest it with the Responsibilities for Their Education, Health Care and the Protection of their Social Economic and Civil Rights is before the Senate. This bill, which is sponsored by me with the support of my colleagues, is an improved version of a similar bill sent to the 6th Senate. It brings together attainable standards from other countries including the two cases examined. This bill seeks to secure the rights of Nigerians living with disability; protect them, and reaffirm their faith in themselves but most especially in their country, Nigeria. The Disability Bill has faced challenges such as funding. The commitment of donor agencies dependent on an initial commitment from the Nigerian government is commendable and appreciated.

This bill will address the issues of poverty; unemployment; education of children and young people with disabilities; access to security and assistive devices; access to housing, public health services and transport.

I believe that Nigeria can gain immensely from countries that have effective legislation and policy implementation regarding disability, not using them merely as case studies or examples but as standards to be emulated. We should also learn from how other countries have been able to overcome some of the challenges in policy implementation. We recognise that even after the adoption of the new legislation; we will face implementation challenges probably similar to the case in South Africa, where robust legislative framework has been challenged by: Limited conceptual understanding; poor championing awareness; inadequate or inappropriate institutional arrangements; a general lack of capacity; and lack of allocated fiscal resources and commitment by government, and agencies responsible for such implementation.

Nonetheless, we can seek to resolve some of these impediments via: sensitisation and training of agencies responsible for implementation; strengthening of advocacy by disabled population; greater public sensitisation about disabled rights; better oversight by National Assembly of agencies charged with implementing policy and so on.

Finally, as we ponder the role of the government in the promotion and protection of disability rights, let me reiterate that our disabled brothers and sisters are just as valued and just as valuable as the non-disabled population. They are owed a duty of care and protection as citizens of Nigeria. We are a diverse nation that draws much of our strength from our diversity. It is time to realise that this diversity is not just in tribe and tongue or religion but also in ability and disability. The Paralympics games in London were a wonderful showcase of disabled athletes displaying almost superhuman talent. Who can forget Esther Oyema – the Nigerian female weightlifter, lifting a record-breaking 135 KG, to take the gold medal for Nigeria? Not everybody can achieve such feats, but these achievements of our wonderful paralympians, remind all of us of that when given support, when given education, when given opportunity, our disabled population can reach their fullest potential and contribute greatly to the productivity and progress of the nation. I can say, in all sincerity, that my colleagues and I in the 7th Senate are committed to improving on the protection, rights and opportunities open to the disabled population. We are with you, we will fight for you.

Being excerpt of a paper delivered by Senator Nurudeen Abatemi-Usman at a programme organised by women with disabilities in Abuja.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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