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‘The law is long overdue, but better late than never’

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Esther Onyema, a lightweight para-powerlifter, who holds the world record in the event, wants Nigerians to change their attitude to physically-challenged people. She says that until Nigerians began to “see people with disability as normal human beings, the law will not make any meaning to us.”

Onyema told The Guardian, “There are so many challenges facing people with disability.

“The law is timely, though, because Nigerians don’t respect people with disability. They look down on us. Bus drivers hardly carry you because they see you as a burden. Sometimes we spend so many hours at the bus stop waiting for transport that never comes.

“People with disability are also not considered when they build vehicles for Nigeria. There are so many other challenges.”

She also blames the government for its non-challant attitude to people with disability.

She said, “In sports, they use us and later dump us when we can no longer compete for the country.

“Nigeria cannot change. Even when they give special awards to athletes they don’t give any financial incentive to us.
We have not had any rewards from government since 2015, that is after the Jonathan government.”

Onyema says she is working on how to help other people with disability succeed in sports “because I have realized that nobody cares for the physically-challenged people any more. I pray that God will empower me to have the resources to train others and give them the opportunity to change their lives.”

Dan Otti, an Albino, who presents a programme, Disability Not Inability on Nigerian Info 99.3 FM has a programme dedicated to people with disability.

He explains that the law is about stopping discrimination against physically-challenged Nigerians.

According to Otti, “It seeks a level of inclusion. The legislation is already in operation in Lagos. I believe the newly passed bill was drafted by the same people who did that of Lagos.

“I have not seen the new law, but the Lagos law guarantees free education, free health care for physically-challenged people.

“There is a set punishment for anybody that discriminates against people with disability.

“Public institutions must have ramps for people with physical disability, just as they must have sign language interpreters for public events. It has specifications for public buildings, secretariat, and other buildings to aid people with disability.

“However, our problem is that it has a time span of five years, which means a new government can come to power and decide to neglect the law. Even the Lagos law has not been implemented up to 30 per cent

“Now, there are doubts about the sincerity of government. The broad discussion is which way forward: Is it for political purposes because the House and Senate passed the bill since September 2006 and sent it to the Presidency then.

“It was going back and forth from the presidency to the legislators. And now they assented to it a few weeks to elections. So the question is, what happens after the elections. Will they show the same commitment to it as they are doing now?”

He said the doubts were raised by the timing of the law.

“It was not until Kadaria Ahmed asked questions during the Presidential interview (The Candidate) that the government assented to the bill.

“We have a problem with skin cancer and we have been trying to get a Cancer Intervention Fund from government but nobody is listening to us.

“Skin cancer is one of the deadliest ailments people with albinism face. This is due to the climate change, which has made the weather so hot and dangerous to people with albinism.”

Ejikeme

The General Secretary for National Association of Nigerian Visually-Impaired Students (NANVIS), Lagos State Chapter, Isaiah Daniel, sees the Act as a good sign, adding: “As a person with disability, there are so many challenges one faces in our day-to-day activities in accessing public buildings.

“Firstly, one is face with discrimination in different ways. Some people believe that as a visually-impaired person, there is nothing you can do in society. They believed that one cannot contribute anything meaningful to one’s society.

“There are so many challenges that come with being disabled, such as getting a quality education, accessing public institutions freely without being discriminated against, getting a job as a citizen of this country, among others.”

Daniel disagreed with those who believed the Act is not practicable, arguing that its provisions clearly state the process of seeking redress and penalty thereof. He stated: “Also, this Act states the punishment for anyone that violates it and how public buildings should be constructed for easy access for the people with disabilities.

“And there are several other laws that safeguard the interests of the PLWDS, therefore seeking redress won’t be that hard.”

Daniel, who is an undergraduate at the University of Lagos, charged the government to ensure the full enforcement of the Act by making constant public awareness through the media and its agencies, non-governmental organisations to also help publicise the law.

“The government should also make sure that anyone or organisation that violates the Act is dealt with by facing the wrath of the law, as this will help the PLWDs community,” he reiterated.

Also, Trust Inonse, a visually-impaired fresh graduate of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, said President Buhari has written his name in gold for signing the Bill into law.

“In some organisations, even if you meet the requirement, you are not considered because you are seen like a liability so to say. Putting this into law is a welcome development and should be applauded by everyone who knows about the pain disable human being goes through. It is long overdue and better late than never, and I really appreciate it,” he stated.

Inonse lamented that it has been hard being a disable in Nigeria, as they are often stigmatised, noting: “Stigmatisation in Nigeria is the order of the day. It is more for a disabled individual trying to cope with the abnormality. In fact, disabled individuals are trained to learn to live with stigmatisation and expect it. It is a norm and complaining about it only makes you look weak and unprepared to live above your condition.”

He also bemoaned the travail when it comes to mobility, stating that since the Nigerian environment won’t allow for guide dogs to assist people like him navigate around, their only option is the guide cane or a sighted guide who is a family, friend or volunteer.

Benjamin Odagbon, a physically challenged evangelist, author of four books, counsellor and advocate for people living with disabilities, was normal until he was diagnosed of limb girdle muscular dystrophy at 18 and eventually confined to a wheelchair.

Odagbon appreciated sponsors and those who fought for the Bill, which he said means life to people living with disabilities and has brought a ray of hope for them.

“This is a great transformation that has brought freedom and power to people living with disabilities, which is by the way, long overdue. Some months ago, I was humiliated in one of the banks just because I was physically challenged.

“So, my expectations are unlimited, I want to see a world free of limitations, and trust me, I speak for whole lot of others. I want to walk into a bank without any barrier and move freely without being embarrassed. I want to see a stigma-free society.

“I expect that the government would make this law effective with immediate effect, because we have had to go through discrimination that is beyond comprehension. They should take action and not just leave it to mere rhetoric.

“Five years transactional period is a long time, but if that is what it takes, we will wait patiently, in as much as the government doesn’t sleep on it or abandon the law. Five years from now feels really long, but considering where we are coming from and the storm we have had to weather, it is nothing compared to the years of relegations we have endured,” he said.

Odagbon added that for people on wheelchair, one of the greatest challenges is infrastructure, noting: “I thank God this law has addressed the issue of infrastructure. Some years ago when I wanted to rent an apartment, the landlord said he couldn’t give out his house to someone on the wheelchair.

“Only last year, I lost $40 because I could not access the banking hall and I was manipulated. So, with this law, life will be easier for people living with disabilities.

“Disability is a thing of the mind, as only the dead is limited, which is the title of one of my books. After all, Franklin Roosevelt ruled Americans as President from a wheelchair. I have a dream that one day, somebody living with disability will be President of this great country. We can do it if the atmosphere is comfortable. We have so many educated, brilliant, intelligent, resourceful and capable Nigerians living with disabilities.”

Odagbon further wants government to look into the plight of women living with disabilities, who, according to him, are more vulnerable. “They should also make the political environment conducive for people living with disabilities. There is no reason why people living with disability cannot be members of the House of Representative, House of Assembly and others.

“Also, people living with disabilities are often times restricted from getting loans. So, they should give loans to people living with disabilities, especially those that are into Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). The ones on the streets should also be empowered.”

He commended Buhari and those who played one role or another to see the Bill become law.

John

John Yekini, 65, a music teacher at the Federal Nigeria School for the Blind (FNSB) in Oshodi, Lagos, who tutored popular music producer and singer, Cobhams Asuquo, became blind as a toddler as a result of an accident. The accident appeared to have stopped him for a while, but fortune later smiled on him when he relocated to an environment, where his music talent flourished and he has been imparting knowledge on visually-impaired students.

On how he received the news of the enactment of the law, Yekini said: “Thank God it is done at all. They could have stepped it down and just swept it under the carpet, because there are so many Bills like that that could have benefitted mankind that have been swept away.

“I wouldn’t want it to be just on paper alone; I like to see it being effective, because we are all equal before the law. In America, Britain, all these things are well-documented and practicalised, so I will like to see that in this country.

“When I heard that the President had assented to the Bill, I was very delighted at this major step and its effectiveness will depend on us too, as it takes two to tango.

“In this country, we say our eyes are the king of the body and I say to them that that is nonsense. What is the use of the eye when the brain is not there? You say you can see, but your brain is faulty. If the eyes is the king of the body, why would any mentally-retarded person go to the dustbin to pick what he/she is not supposed to pick?”

He added: “By ignoring the physically-challenged, Nigeria is losing a lot of manpower resources. Some of these people are very intelligent, but we are not helping them. And if we didn’t pass that Bill, we’ll be doing the country a lot of disservice.”

Yeekini advocated the establishment of a ministry with the responsibility to enforce the law. All arms of government must play their own part. I do not like a situation where a physically-challenged person is employed and he/she just comes twice a week to work.

“If you are employed, your employers want to make money, so we must be seen to be doing justice. A lot of things still need to be done in Nigeria.”

Considering the discrimination against people with disability in public transportation facilities, does he think those in the sector are aware of the new law? Yekini stated: “It is the job of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to enlighten them, but they are too quiet for my liking. They should come out and tell people exactly what they should know. The media must also tell us in their various languages.

“I think the first step is that they should put the Act into Braille for blind people, circulate it to others who can read and do it in various languages and you will see that people will be better for it. Many years ago, my friend had it tough, I’m just one of the lucky ones. Those days, when you talk of marriage, they will tell you that it was only harlots that will marry a blind person. But I didn’t marry a harlot; I married a very beautiful woman. So, it depends on how you handle yourself.

“People discriminate against sighted people too. I believe that if you hold yourself well, if somebody calls you John Bull and you become very angry and upset, that is what he would want to call you, but if he calls you John Bull and you just hail him, he wouldn’t call you that tomorrow.”

Regarding employment, he said: “I don’t believe in being Father Christmas, so you employ those that can give you service. If a blind person or any physically-challenged person is calling for employment, just like anybody else, if he does well at the interview, why would you not give him the job, if not that from the onset when you see a blind person, you just push them aside. You must give the person a chance to prove his worth.

“At least, I do not look like somebody who is foolish. That is why I said it depends on both parties – the employer and employee. If you show yourself to be somebody that can be trusted and employed, why wouldn’t you be given the opportunity? But I don’t like you lording it over people that because I’m blind, then you have to accept nonsense. No! I don’t believe in that.”

Life for Yekini and his likes has been a lot of struggle. “I have a friend, Senator Bode Olajumoke, who actually played a very great role concerning the Bill and I’m sure wherever he is now, he will be very delighted. I don’t want this to just be on paper or on the shelves gathering dust, I want it to be like Lagos State that immediately set up a department when they passed the law. Efforts are going on now, things are better now than in my own time.

“It is just like a dead sentence when you know your child is blind those days. A great African once said, ‘I’m proud of my colour, whoever is not proud of his colour is not fit to live.’ I am proud that I’m a blind man and I’m doing very well. It depends on how you hold yourself. If you begin to care that somebody doesn’t like you, you are going to die. I have my time that I like to enjoy myself, my family knows that.”

For him and the physically-impaired, going to school is a big challenge. “You face another challenge if you want to get married. Once your in-law hears that you are a blind man, they would say it would never happen. There are a lot of challenges, but life is full of challenges. For students, thank God for computer. It is more difficult for people who got blind later in life.”

He is excited by the law, noting: “Everything in that law is wonderful, but that it even came out at all is good.”

Yekini believed the fine for contravention would serve as a deterrent and a good starting point, as other countries started from somewhere, noting: “The country cannot just continue to sit down and pretend all is well. To me, any punishment meted out is okay.”

A student at the centre, Cyril Ojeme, enthused that it is better late than never, adding: “First and foremost, people with disability need to be trained properly.

“At least five per cent of those who are disabled or physically-challenged should be allowed to have a space in the House of Representatives and the Senate and if you cannot elect them, then they can be appointed to do a particular thing in a particular group.”

Another student, Victoria Emeze, noted: “This is something all disabled people have been looking forward to. At least now, every disabled person would have less trouble and their cases would be looked into.”


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