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COVID-19 and application of disability laws in Nigeria

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The enactment of Discrimination against Person Disabilities (Prohibition) Act (the Disability Act) marked a paradigm shift in the legally acceptable manner of conducting affairs in Nigeria. It symbolizes a departure from the era wherein the treatment of persons with disability bore no legal consequence in the scheme of things. There is now a new legal regime, and this new reality need be given expression in all affairs, particularly in the current covid-19 response.

For months now, the corona pandemic has been ravaging the entire globe, warranting the interventions of the different levels of government, aimed at the curtailment of the pandemic, and this has brought in some dynamics in our scheme of things in the country, and indeed our world. Lockdowns and other forms of movement restriction have been imposed. Palliatives of various forms are been reportedly distributed by government, corporate organizations and even individuals to ease the effect of the restrictions put in place to check the spread of the virus. Various isolation centers have been created all over the country. Testing centers have equally sprung up, in addition to the house-to-house testing that has lately been adopted by Lagos State, the FCT and others. In all these, how has the Disability Act been applicable and applied?

Section 25 of the said Act provides as follows: In all situations of risk, violence, emergencies or occurrences of natural disaster, government shall take the necessary steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons with disabilities taking cognizance of their peculiar vulnerability.

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This provision is similar to section 25 of the Lagos State Special People’s Law, 2011. It goes without saying that the incident of COVID-19 pandemic is a situation of serious risk and even emergency, and therefore, subject to the application of section 25 of the Act. The big question is that in all the COVID-19 responses at both the federal and state levels, to what extent could it be said that the governments actually took the necessary steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons with disabilities, taking cognizance of their vulnerability?

Several messages on protection against the covid-19 have been in circulation courtesy of the Federal and States governments. The Presidential Task Force on the COVID-19 subsequently began to make use of sign language interpreters in its periodic briefings. The same goes for state like Lagos. That is highly commendable. As commendable as that may be, however, it is still not enough, as other advertorials on the COVID-19 are not translated in the appropriate accessible format. This contravenes the section 15 of the Act, which expressly provides as follows: Any general information shall be translated into the accessible format appropriate to the person with disability present

The effective mainstreaming of disability issues in the COVID-19 sensitization programme is crucial considering the peculiar vulnerability of persons with disabilities to contracting the virus. The COVID-19, experts say, settles on hard surfaces and stays there for as a long as between 24 to 72 hours, according the World Health Organization. Persons with disabilities inevitably make much more contact with other persons and surfaces in other to carry out the normal day to day function. For instance, for a person with physical disability, who walks on crutches to sit down, he or she would on the average make, with his or hands, about three physical contacts with the adjacent surfaces; and would make much more contacts before he or she could stand up. Similarly, they are very disposed to tightly grabbing at objects like handrails, for support.

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The visually impaired on their part constantly depend on other persons with whom they cannot afford not to make physical contact, such as holding of hands. And when they are not led by another person, they would have to feel their way through, touching any imposing surface on their way. What can I say about those who are too poor to afford wheelchairs, and therefore, crawl on all fours, constantly making physical contacts all over their bodies. Many of them are undereducated or outright illiterates, and therefore cannot connect with the advertorials often rendered in Queen’s English. And most of the advertorials do not highlight the aspects that are peculiar to persons with disability. For instance, a crutches user, who washed and sanitizes his or her hand, but pays no hid to the handgrips of his or her crutches is still at risk. The same applies to the blind, who pays no attention to his or her guide cane. Similarly, the wheelchair user, who is in constant contact with his or her wheelchair’s hand rim, that is very exposed.

The Federal and State Governments’ have been reporting in the media how much palliatives they have been giving to persons with disabilities. However, there is an unimaginable gap between what is reported in the media and the reality on ground. It is apparent that politicians are taking the covid-19 pandemic as opportunity to ascribe cheap and hollow credit with regards to persons with disabilities. This is more disturbing in the light of the fact that, even without covid-19, persons with disabilities suffer deprivation of means of livelihood.

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Section 4 of the Act provides as: A public building shall be constructed with the necessary accessibility aid such as lift (where necessary) ramps and other facilities that shall make them accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

In this context, in focus are the isolation centers, testing centers and the hospitals generally. Are these facilities physically accessible to persons with disabilities, including those on wheelchairs, particularly in the light of their circumstantial predisposition to contracting the dreaded virus? Are there sign language interpreters at these facilities?

Virtually all the of the covid-19 help lines are specifically designated for calls. What about SMS and whatsapp which are the major means of communication between the deaf community and other members of the society? Similarly, at public places, where water and soap are made available for hand washing, they are usually not located where, and in a manner where persons with disabilities, particularly those on wheelchair can access them.

The resultant effect of these inadequacies is the amplification of the disadvantage of persons with disabilities. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antotionio Guterres has raised an alarm on this development, and in his words: People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities.

The government, corporate organizations should not allow persons with disabilities to be the weak link in the fight against persons with the COVID-19. If persons with disabilities are under protected against COVID-19, then everybody is imperiled. Therefore, much more should be done by all and sundry to ensure that persons with disabilities are adequately covered in every facet of the response against the corona virus. And to successfully do this, constant and proactive consultation with persons disabilities and their organizations is key. No stone should be left unturned in the fight against COVID-19.

Onwe is the President of the Association of Lawyers with Disabilities in Nigeria

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