It was a struggle that took a coalition of organisations of people with disabilities and civil society allies almost two decades before realisation with the National Assembly’s passage in 2018. But the expectation that the signing into law in 2019 of the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act by then President Muhammadu Buhari was going to translate into an inclusive and civilised society for persons with disabilities still remains a mirage, as unravelled in this report by Omole Ibukun.
ALTHOUGH there’s a five-year transition window clause inserted when it was passed by the National Assembly and subsequently signed into law on January 23, 2019 by then President Muhammadu Buhari, there is still very little to show that the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act will be enforceable come January 23, 2024.
Popularly known as the Disability Act, the law is an affirmative instrument designed to guarantee humane and standard social and physical comfort by ensuring wide-ranging adjustments in public infrastructure and social integration amongst others to suit people with disabilities.
As we go to press, and with just about four months to the end of the five-year window, as provided for under Section 6 of the Disability Act, to enable government to create the conducive environment for inclusion and accommodation of the needs of people with disabilities (PWDs), the empirical reality is that the Nigerian environment still remains hostile to the PWD community for whom the law was made.
What is the Disability Act?
The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, essentially aims at preventing discrimination and promoting the rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities. In other words, the Act’s intent is to ensure equal treatment, access, and mainstream opportunities which people with disabilities are denied, and as a result prevented from not only achieving their full potentials but also contributing their quota to national development.
The Act has provisions designed to redress employment disadvantage, inherent discriminatory practices, unfavourable public infrastructure accessibility and prioritised accommodation and response during emergencies, among others.
The Act also states that individuals who contravened the law would be liable to a fine of one hundred thousand naira (N100,000.00) or six months imprisonment or both, while corporate bodies, when liable, are to pay a fine of one million naira (N1,000,000.00)
This investigation is narrowed down to Abuja because the law immediately applies to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) until states adopt it and localise it.
Our findings from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) revealed that about 19 states have so far adopted the law and 17 others are either in the process or yet to adopt it.
Information made available to National Record by the Director of the Vulnerable Groups Department of NHRC, Barr. Dahiru Bobbo, gave the names of the states that have adopted the law to include Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, Bauchi, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Zamfara, Abia, Anambra, Cross River, Edo, Ekiti, Lagos, Ondo, and Oyo.
While one of the major objectives of the five-year transition period in the Disability Act was to restructure existing public buildings to suit access for all categories of people with disabilities, National Record’s investigation shows that virtually all federal buildings within the FCT failed to comply.
Section 3 of the Act states: “A person with disability has the right to access the physical environment and buildings on an equal basis with others”. This is further stressed in section 6 where it is stated that: “From the date of the commencement of this Act, there shall be a transitory period of five years within which buildings and structures, whether immovable, movable or automobile, which were inaccessible to persons with disability shall be modified to be accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities including those on wheelchairs.” (Our emphasis).
Enquiries at the Federal Ministry of Works in Mabushi, Abuja, revealed that the ministry which ought to be one of the regulators for compliance with these sections of the Disability Act even failed to comply to serve as an example to other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
Rather than remodelling the expansive structures of the ministry to disability-friendly accessibility as required by the Disability Act, the ministry instead allocated an office on its ground floor of the Housing Wing – Room A002 to few staff members with disabilities. The office, labelled “PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED”, falls short of the stipulations of the Disability Act or contradicted the principle of empowerment and full integration of PWDs.
What is envisaged by the Disability Act infrastructurally is to enable PWD workers to have access to every part of a building to enable them to smoothly or effortlessly operate from anywhere in a building like their colleagues without disability.
In addition to the structural non-compliance, the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing headquarters, which has in its employment several hundreds of workers, the number of employees with disabilities who were present in that room also falls short of the 5% employment quota required under Section 29 of the Disability Act for all employers of labour in public organisations.
Efforts made to speak with the representatives of the ministry about these issues were not fruitful as different departments kept referring this reporter to the other.
A visit to the National Assembly (NASS), where the Disability Act was enacted, also revealed visible violations of the provisions of the law in the areas of accessibility to buildings as well as staffing.
The Senate Chambers’ entrance featured a substantial flight of stairs that would undoubtedly render the building inaccessible to PWDs, especially those relying on crutches for mobility.
The mother ministry and PWD Commission
The lack of compliance is also very much visible in the mother ministry, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development, which is supposed to lead and guide other MDAs and the general public in advocacy to mainstream the provisions of the Act and instil the tenets in the consciousness of Nigerians.
While the ministry made some efforts, including the provision of braille lifts and ramps for people using wheelchairs, PWD workers within the ministry are herded in a single office on the ground floor where there is provision for braille keyboard for typing.
Efforts to speak to PWD workers were unfruitful because of fear of loss of their jobs.
Interestingly, the edifice housing the National Commission for People With Disabilities (NCPWD) also fell short of compliance. In fact, it is only the wing of the building that NCPWD occupies that has ramps. These high stairs pose a challenge for persons with disabilities, especially those who rely on crutches or have limited mobility. Climbing or descending these staircases are not only daunting but also unsafe.
In all the public buildings assessed in the course of this investigation, a recurring pattern that emerged is that there was little or no effort made or being made for a conscious implementation of the provisions of the Disability Act.
The little efforts were symbolised in scant adaptation or adjustment of portions of structures directly associated with PWD staff not taking into cognisance a wide range of PWDs within the society that have the right of access. These buildings only had adaptations such as ramps and braille facilities, and these are just a few of the requisite structural modifications envisage in the Disability Act.
Though marginal efforts are being made at architectural compliance in just a few public buildings, a situation obviously more challenging to the implementation of the Disability Act; the social component of the implementation which ought to be easier is however not forthcoming.
For instance, while the Disability Act prescribes that 5% employment quota be allocated to PWDs, the federal government and those states that have adopted the law are observing this clause in breach.
When President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s new administration released the list of ministerial nominees, which was eventually screened by the Senate, there was not a single PWD on the list of 48 nominees, a clear breach which is a poor example set by the federal government barely months to the window on implementation.
To comply with the 5 per cent appointments required for a PWD-inclusive government would mean the appointment of at least 3 or 4 PWDs as ministers. The omission of PWDs from such a critical decision-making platform breaks the law and portrays poor representative democracy in a country that has a PWD population estimated to be 25 million.
Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007 and its Optional Protocol in 2010, yet our findings show that the Disability Act that was passed in 2019 is not being implemented by the same government that signed the Convention.
The Convention guaranteed rights like equal recognition before the law, non-discrimination, right to life, priorities in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies, access to justice, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom from exploitation, violence, and abuse, respect for privacy, access to information and communication, right to education, right to health, right to work, right to adequate standard of living, participation in political and public life, cultural participation and recreation, accessibility, participation in decision-making, and respect for home and family.
A closer look at Nigeria’s Disability Act shows that some of the rights guaranteed by CRPD were not captured by Nigeria’s Disability Act. An example is the right to cultural participation and recreation. But despite these surface-level shortcomings, the Disability Act is still regarded by most stakeholders as a step in the right direction.
National Record spoke to Sarah (not her official name), a PWD who pleaded anonymity to avoid persecution because of her public service contract of employment; and she described the efforts to get the law passed and her experience as a PWD before the Act was passed as herculean.
Sarah said she, along with other PWDs, had to organise protests at the Civil Service Commission before 170 PWDs including herself got employed in 2014. Obviously a brilliant graduate, but she couldn’t get a job for years because she was discriminated against as a PWD. She still believes that much is yet to change in the area of employment even after the passage of the Disability Act.
NCPWD and Funding
After the law was assented to by President Buhari on January 23, 2019, a commission was established in accordance with section 31 of the Act. Known as National Commission for Persons With Disabilities (NCPWD), the commission is saddled with the responsibilityof implementing the provisions of the Act and other related matters.
The 2020 revised budget provided N291.65 million for its operations. Out of this, N10.45 million was budgeted for “Nationwide Advocacy and Sensitization Activities to Promote Implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act,” signalling a tangible commitment to raising awareness and enforcement of the Act’s provisions on the part of the government.
National Record findings showed that the funding of the Commission had continued consistently since then. In the 2021 Appropriation Act, the sum of N1.786 billion was allocated to the commission out of which N737 million was for capital projects, while over N749 million was for personnel reflecting the importance placed on the human resources needed to drive the commission’s mission.
The 2022 Appropriation Act (as amended) allocated N3.171 billion, with more than N2 billion for capital projects. The 2023 Appropriation Act allocated N1.671 billion. This continued allocation of funds demonstrated a consistent commitment to addressing the needs of PWDs and ensuring the effective implementation of the Disability Act
PWDs Waiting On Hope
In a quiet part of Karon Majigi, a suburb of Lugbe in Abuja, is located a community of PWDs. The existential scenarios in this community, especially the generally poor living conditions under which PWDs live represent the typical plight of PWDs in Nigeria.
In an interview with National Record at the community, Mohammed Dantini, Secretary of the Community of Persons with Disabilities in FCT, noted that the settlement accommodates over 520 PWDs. They are composed of amputees, visually impaired, and many who are disabled by polio.
Dantini also noted that some members of the community are challenged with conditions that make it impossible for them to even step out of their rooms into the immediate community of PWDs. This group of PWDs, Dantini said, daily battle with questions of sustenance, clothing, medical care, and the hope to educate their out-of-school children, despite the fact that the Act guaranteed all of these things for them.
When asked about the impact of the Disability Act, Dantini responded with cautious optimism: “The law has done something because some people have gotten awareness about persons with disabilities because of the law.” He however bemoaned the daily challenge of access by PWDs to public spaces, including banks and markets. He said iconic public buildings like the National Assembly Complex should be made to exemplify the kind of standard accessibility stipulated in the law.
Speaking on the challenge of employment, Dantini said: “They don’t come to our community to ask for graduates who can fill up the 5 per cent employment quota, but give the jobs to PWDs that are connected. It is the NGOs, PWDs associations, and our leadership that even push to have some of our poor but qualified members in those jobs…
“Those that are employed in this community are just about 5%, while about 15% are engaged in vocational self-employment like tailoring, etc. Together, those that are self-reliant in our community are just about 20% of us,” he said.
He lamented: “We have some of us who have disabilities that cannot allow them to do any work. They can only depend on welfare support from government to survive…, In other countries, small businesses by persons with disabilities were encouraged by government and they are economically independent. Our people produce goods like army uniforms in those countries and participate in the economy meaningfully.”
Even though the Act, under sections 17-20, provides for free education up to secondary level and free healthcare for persons with disabilities, he noted that people with disabilities in Karon Majigi have had to pay for healthcare like everybody else. “We are making with the NHIS to reduce the cost (of healthcare) for us at the Heath Centre,” he said.
Dantini pleaded with the government to address the unmotorable road leading to the Primary Healthcare Centre from the PWDs community for ease of access. He explained that the road is not only unmotorable but also that it cannot be used by those who use wheelchairs.
Waiting for Act’s Impact
“I have had cause to go to the hospital and I was in pains, yet the doctor that was supposed to see me was upstairs and refused to come down to consult with me until someone threatened to report him. I once went to the hospital and I needed to use the hospital’s wheelchair, the hospital attendant who was supposed to assist me was grumbling and demanded that I should give him money for him to push me around in the bad wheelchair of the hospital – a job he was already being paid to do,” Sarah, whom we referred to earlier narrated her experience in trying to get healthcare as a PWD. But her struggle is much more than that!
This reporter, in a visit to see Sarah at her residential area in a suburb of Abuja, though she works at a government parastatal in Abuja metropolis, had to complete the trip on a motorcycle because the road to Sarah’s house was also unmotorable. Sarah described her plight as a person with a disability as very demanding, noting that the recent removal of fuel subsidy has made it even harder to cope transport herself to work.
“I spend at least N6,000 to get to work daily and she works for at least 20 days of the month. That’s N120,000 per month and my basic salary is not even up to that.”
When asked about the impact of the Disability Act, she said: “A lot of things are wrong with the Act. There are different types of disabilities, so welfare provisions for people with disabilities must be streamlined for each.”
Comparing the situation of PWDs with what obtains in advanced countries, Sarah said: “My experience on a trip to another country was so easy. They assisted you respectfully and they had functioning wheelchairs, unlike in Nigeria. In Nigeria, gender compounds the problem, people will sympathise and make unwanted advances to help that often violated your personal space.
“The glaring absence of PWDs in government palliative committees shows that our unique needs are about to be overlooked. What we need is a welfare package to alleviate the impact of the fuel subsidy removal on PWDs,” she pleaded.
Sarah said she is yet to see anything that the NCPWD is doing to influence the perception of people to read about the law and learn about PWDs.
“Personally, I don’t know anything that the Commission has done. They have not done anything that has impacted me personally since their inception. The lift at the Commission does not work regularly and I had cause to use the staircase when I went there, but the staircase is not friendly because it isn’t wide enough and the stairs are high. The system has failed us,” Sarah declared, adding that the Commission is only a place for a few connected people to use the plight of the many PWDs in Nigeria to make money through contracts and employment.
A narrative similar to Sarah’s was repeated at the NCPWD, the very institution entrusted with the implementation of the Disability Act. Conversations between this reporter and some staff of NCPWD revealed the dire circumstances and dashed promises. The people tasked with propelling the cause of PWDs have found themselves grappling with challenges that mirrored the broader societal neglect of PWDs that they are trying to address.
It was revealed that the salaries and remuneration for employees of the Commission are very poor. National Record confirmed that Level 9 officials of the Commission (who are graduates and some hold master’s degrees) have a take-home salary of about N69,000 after tax deductions. But that was before the fuel subsidy removal palliative measures which led to an increment in salary that puts the figure at over N80,000 presently for such officials.
In their view, the employees believe that the salary is still very poor and “some people cannot come to work as and when due because there is a lot of hunger.” This, they said, has created a problem of under-utilisation of the staff of the Commission. Some other employees also lamented the high number of personal assistants appointed by the Executive Secretary, while the real employees were being underpaid.
Corroborating Sarah’s assertions, other employees of the Commission and a former member of the Commission’s Governing Council echoed Sarah’s disillusionment with the Commission even though the Executive Secretary of the Commission, Mr. James Lalu, begs to differ.
NCPWD’s Executive Secretary Speaks
In an interview with National Record, Mr James Lalu, the Executive Secretary of the Commission, spoke on a number of issues on the discrimination against PWDs, noting that a National Compliance Certificate will be issued for all contracting companies by the Commission as part of the effort to chart the path towards compliance with the law.
Lalu also spoke on issues such as the 5% employment quota. He underlined their collaboration with the Civil Service Commission to ensure compliance with the employment quota. He also highlighted the upcoming launch of a regulation to guide the application of the law.
“I can assure you that in the next one to two months, it will be completed, and we will get the approval of the president and launch it,” he promised, as he also spoke on efforts to resolve cases through Alternative Dispute Resolution, often sending letters on behalf of PWDs. He expressed the Commission’s close collaboration with the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the police to tackle these issues.
Despite the efforts, funding remains a challenge. According to Lalu, while budgetary allocations are outlined in the Appropriation Act, the actual disbursement are different, explaining that the fourth quarter of the 2022 allocation was yet to be released as at the time of the interview in July 2023.
Discussing the cases of discrimination that have been brought to the Commission’s attention, Lalu said these primarily involved schools and workplaces.
According to him, discriminations in educational institutions include denial of admission or limiting course options for persons with disabilities, which are violations of the Act under sections 17, 18 and 19. In workplaces, issues include unfair placements, promotions, transfers, and dismissals.
Lalu therefore advocated for amendments to the Act, especially regarding job dismissals following disability acquisition on the job. He also acknowledged the evolving role of social media and emphasised that discrimination against persons with disabilities even in the digital space should not be taken lightly. The Commission, he assured, is attuned to the dynamic nature of social media and is poised to respond.
“We have a Governing Council and we come for Governing Council meetings; we provide financial reports on a monthly basis. I am not an accountant, so our accountant prepares the financial report and presents it to the council. If there are issues, they can table it in a meeting. If they are not satisfied with the reports from the Executive Secretary and the Director of Finance, they are free to report to the Ministry,” he stated.
Ministry Keeps Mum
Efforts to glean some insights on these issues and the Act from the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development yielded no results. Despite multiple visits to the ministry in an attempt to speak with either the Permanent Secretary or the ministry’s spokesperson, the doors to information remained closed. In response to a letter seeking for audience, the Ministry’s reply merely referred the matter back to the NCPWD.
With the end to the five-year transition looming, it is evident that meeting the progressive standards set in the Disability Act is unlikely.
However, the collective determination and persistence of those who for 18 years resiliently pushed to get the law enacted serve as impetus for continuous demand and vigilance.
The essence of the law is not just on its existence, but on its tangible impact. If this law proves to be impotent, two questions will be raised: Is legislation a viable path to social change in Nigeria? Is the Nigerian Constitution and its enactments still supreme?
This report by National Record is supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) with funding support from the MacArthur Foundation.