Enabling The Physically Challenged

Opinion

By Rasak Musbau

According to English writer and politician, William Hay (1695-1755), one great advantage of deformity is that it tends to the improvement of the mind. In his words: “a man that cannot shine in his Person will have recourse to his Understanding: and attempt to adorn that Part of him, which alone is capable of ornament”.

Andrew Morgridge, a Psychologist, once said that a man cannot be classified as disabled when he has his five senses alert. He, therefore, described disability as a condition in which a man or woman is totally incapacitated to hear, see, walk, talk and think. That, according to him, means that the person is absolutely in need of aid to help him perform either of the functions needed to be qualified for an able bodied individual.

In Nigeria, it is rather unfortunate to ascertain that nothing tangible is being done to help a partially impaired person live normal life; hence we castigate them as “Disabled People.” Our society still has a long way to go if it must catch up with the type of high level of social acceptance and protection advanced countries offer to people with disabilities. It is already registered in the mind of an average Nigerian that once a person is blind, deaf, dump, or lame, either in the hand or feet or indeed totally paralyzed, then he is disabled and  nothing would ordinarily be offered such a person in terms of challenging their intellect.

It is with the afore-said that the question of who is a disabled person need to be looked into. Why call a man or woman who could think and struggle to get a university degree despite an impairment a disabled person? Is it right to call people who are visually, orally (dump) or audibly (impaired) disabled people when in fact some of them are masters of one trade or profession or the other?

Contrary to civilised norm, in most developed nations where every strata of government takes appropriate steps to ensure that persons living with one impairment or the other have good standard of living for themselves and their families , the treatment here is an eye sore. Sadly was the fact that a careful study of the Nigerian 1999 constitution has nothing in it to reflect whatever the Nigerian government may have in place for the teeming number of her citizens with one form of deformity or another. Elsewhere, one could see a bus conductor pulling a man in a wheel chair up an access ramp but here it is with difficulty that people using wheelchair could get on and off a bus. As it is, most persons with physical challenges remain materially and socially poor without access to transport, which is needed for business, visitation to friends and relatives, going to school and vocational training centres, markets and finding and keeping jobs, where they are found. Most offices, shopping malls, banks and other public buildings are erected with little or no consideration for mobility impaired members of the society. Automated Teller Machines, ATMs, in banks are built in such a way that those on the wheelchair cannot have access to them.

Indeed, survival of physically challenged individuals is a big issue every well-meaning citizen must be concerned with.  The question is: when shall we  start to realise the need to adjust to the needs of people with disability? Currently, section 33 (1) of the 1999 constitution confers on every Nigerian the right to life and benefit of all available resources, but, in reality, disabled members of the country are excluded. Are we saying those who are physically challenged are not Nigerians?

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As a country, we have to move with greater speed from a medical, financial and material support to a human rights-based approach regarding people with disability. What people with deformity need from us is affirmative action that will enable them enjoy fundamental rights such as Right to Education, Right to work and employment, Right to Social/ Welfare / Economic Empowerment among others offered in developed world. May be few people like the late Professor Chinua Achebe understood William Hay’s assertion of “great advantage of deformity…” but not an average physically challenged Nigerians that the system is contented in turning into beggars and kept in solitary confinement.

We ought to learn from what a nation like America has achieved with its Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA. Thanks to the Act in USA, transportation, public facilities and many services in the United States are more accessible to all. Thanks to ADA, for example, many city buses and trains have lifts or ramps for wheelchairs, priority seating signs, handrails, slip-resistant flooring, and information stamped in Braille. Emergency call centres are equipped with telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs), and federally funded public service announcements have closed captioning. Most importantly, ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in job recruitment, hiring, promotions, training or pay. ADA’s provisions have enabled many people to live independently, despite any physical or mental disability, and have helped protect their rights.

Is it not possible to have similar laws here in Nigeria? Of course, we can. As usual, Governor Babatunde Fashola and his team in Lagos may have proved to all and sundry that where there is political will, there is always a way with the creation of the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs (LASODA). The function of LASODA, as expressly stated in section 9 subsection 1-19 of the Lagos State Special People’s Law, may be summarized as “to safeguard people living with disability against all forms of discrimination, to give them equal rights and opportunities, to guarantee that they are fully included in society and improved their self esteem.”

At least, the law and the office created to implement it is a stepping stone to achieving what exists in a decent nation with capable leaders.

Overall, policies for people with disability should not be  limited to financial or material support.  Emphasis should be on fuller “inclusion” within the community. It is imperative that we put in place a National Disability Rights Commission with innovative deal and commitment to enable and not disable people with deformity to attain their God-given potentials. With that in place, physically challenged people will walk through life with hope. It is those people today, it could be any of us tomorrow. Though nobody prays for an accident, but we don’t commit suicide if the unexpected happen.

•Musbau is of the Features Unit, Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.