By Gabriel Ewepu
In this interview, the publisher of first Disability Advocacy Magazine in Nigeria, and member of Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities, JONAPWD, Federal Capital Territory, FCT, member National Association of Persons With Physical Disabilities, NAPWPD, and a member of Coalition of Disability Organizations (CODO), Agbo Christian Obiora, lamented poor attention given to 31 million Nigerians with a disability, despite the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018, as he also speaks on COVID-19 pandemic challenges they are facing.
What is the attention of this Buhari-led administration including State Governments to Persons With Disabilities, PWDs?
After the enactment of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018, we the Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) thought that we have gotten to the Promised Land, we expected Disability Commission to be up and running going by its importance to the implementation of the law.
We are surprised that the government that signed our bill into law after 19 years of our struggle will still be dragging foot in implementing the law. All we are getting from the government at all levels is neglect. Our issues are always taking the back seat. We must always protest before our issues would be recognized in any government projects and programmes.
Section 2 of Disability law talks about creating awareness about the law and it is the responsibility of the Minister of Information and Culture to do so but it is unfortunate that the Minister has not made a single public statement about Disability Act.
What appointments have Persons With Disabilities, PWDs, given at the federal and state levels?
President Muhammadu Buhari appointed a Senior Special Adviser to the Mr. President on Disability Matters and the Hon. Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development also appointed a Senior Special Adviser on Disability Matters.
Some States Governors also have Special Advisers on Disability Matters. In as much as we appreciate them for giving such jobs to our comrades, it is not entirely what we want because the intention behind these appointments is still questionable.
It has not improved the recognition of persons with disabilities in governance. What is paramount to persons with disabilities is the implementation of the National Disability law by the Government at all levels. States should domesticate the Federal law and implement the provisions of the law. Not appointing SSAs that their devices are not being sought.
What action has the executive of your association taken to improve the welfare of PWDs?
The persons with disabilities are the poorest of the poor but it is baffling that in all government social intervention programmes, persons with disabilities were not strategically targeted.
It is based on the agitations from Organizations of People With Disabilities that Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development recently in a stakeholder meeting with the leaders of Disability community set up a committee to advise her on how the ministry can incorporate PWDs in these Social Safety Nets and also in the COVID-19 interventions. The government should as a matter of urgency set up the National Disability Commission to ensure the welfare of PWDs.
Until that is done, the Government can’t say that they are providing for PWDs because whatever they are doing now is like scratching the surface. We have over 30million Nigerians with disabilities. If we must combat poverty, this is a huge number we must profile and ensure that their welfare is improved.
What are the measures taken to stop discrimination against PWDs?
The disability community is grateful to President Muhammadu Buhari for giving us an instrument (Discrimination against persons with disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018) that we can use to challenge all forms of discriminatory practices against us. There are other policies of the government that gears towards stopping discrimination against persons with disabilities.
Such policies are National Policy on Inclusive Education designed to stop all forms of discrimination in our schools if it is implemented, it will provide a conducive learning environment for all school children, and National Policy on Sexual Reproductive Health Right of Persons with disabilities with an emphasis on women and girls, if it is fully implemented, it will enhance access to healthcare services for PWDs especially Women and Girls with Disabilities. All these measures came from the government through our advocacy but we are now beckoning on the government to implement them because they will serve the need of other people not only persons with disabilities.
For example, if a public building plan follows the universal design and it has all facilities that enhance access, it will also serve the elderly, the sick, and others because whenever you are tired to use the stairs, you can still move around the building with ease.
What are your expectations from the government concerning the plight of PWDs?
The government should stop leaving behind persons with disabilities, whenever they think about projects or programmes, they should always remember to bring PWDs to the table from the planning stages to ensure that the needs of PWDs are captured. Secondly, the government should also apply Disability law in all their dealings.
Are you satisfied with the way the Government has treated PWDs as far as COVID-19 pandemic is concerned?
Like what I said earlier, the government does not consult PWDs from the planning stage and it also affects the way the government is carrying along PWDs in this COVID-19 pandemic.
The plights of PWDs in this COVID-19 was an afterthought, it was when Organizations of Persons with disabilities (OPDs) started releasing statements through media that government at levels started thinking about PWDs by then, they have concluded the setting up of COVID-19 task force Committees without considering PWDs.
If PWDs were in the Committees, it wouldn’t take long for PWDs to get government attention. Even the attention that PWDs later received is not sufficient because a greater number of PWDs in different states are still complaining.
FCT and Lagos did well in specifically targeting the PWDs in the area of Palliative distribution but all other places, the governors didn’t see the need to provide for a large number of persons with disabilities in their states.
I am worried because as the pandemic is ravaging, persons with disabilities are still excluded, no clear-cut programme for PWDs by NCDC, no profile of PWDs by NCDC, they should be able to tell us, how many PWDs has been tested and how many have been infected by the virus. There should be also plans for PWDs from the testing centers to the treatment centers.
All these are not in place as we speak. Let me remind all government agencies and Committees working on COVID-19 that PWDs are not being beggarly, we are simply asking that section 25 of Disability Act (In all situations of risk, violence, emergencies and the occurrences of natural disasters, the government shall take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons with disabilities taking cognizance of their peculiar vulnerability) be applied, followed and obeyed.
Again, the majority of the messages on TV lack Disability Inclusion, so many of them don’t have sign language interpreting for the deaf to be carried along and the producers are not mindful of audio description to carry along the blind. For example, one can just say call NCDC on these numbers on your screen. How can a blind person get the number to call?
What have your organisation done to sensitise your members about the COVID-19 pandemic?
We as an organization have been providing daily reports about COVID-19 to the disability community, we have provided online I.E.C materials on COVID-19 to educate our people.
We have used our platform to promote other Organizations of Persons with disabilities video and audio messages on COVID-19. We are also using our platform to propagate WHO messages on the peculiarities of PWDs in contacting the virus.
What are your worries over the pandemic as it concerns your members?
There is a recent report that the virus can last as long as 8hours on metals, this report is frightening to us PWDs because most of our mobility aids are made of metals so our risk of contracting the virus is high.
Again, an average wheelchair and crutches user lives by touching objects around as support while moving, even the blind, their eyes are their fingers, they must touch to find their way. Most of us need aids/assistants to help us, so when you talk of physical distancing, it can’t be applied here. WHO recently released a report that COVID-19 has killed more PWDs across the world because of some underlined issues associated with some disabilities.
You see that PWDs are at more risk. Another thing is that the economic effect that the COVID-19 brought, PWDs are most hit, we are among the poorest of the poor, we were finding life very difficult before now, COVID-19 has deepened our precarious situation.
Is there hope for PWDs in Nigeria?
The hope for PWDs in this trying time depends on how the government will be willing to work with PWDs and involve them in all measures being put in place to curb the spread of the virus and effort to ameliorate the economic impact of COVID-19 on Nigerians. The popular COVID-19 loan should also be strategically extended to PWDs.
What is your message to the Government and private sector including your members?
PWDs are the most vulnerable group and at a time like this, their situation is worse. This is the time for the government to do the right thing by setting up a Commission as it is enshrined in Discrimination against persons with disabilities (Prohibition)Act 2018 to enable the commission to engage other stakeholders for the benefits of PWDs during the COVID-19 and the Post COVID-19 era.
As we await government ultimate measure to our issues, private companies and individuals who have means should reach out to credible Organizations of Persons with disabilities and reach out to PWDs for Palliative distribution and also set up a sustainable projects/programmes for PWDs as their Corporate Social Responsibility because PWDs needs all the help in the world towards economic development.
Whenever you think of any project/programme, please think about PWDs and again, get a copy of National Disability Law, study it and begin to apply the law in your organizational practice, be it employment, infrastructure, etc.