“Disability is part of the human condition. Almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and those who survive to old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning,” World Disability Report.
This is to say, impairment is inevitable to some degree, according to the World Disability Report. Living life with this consciousness is simply prudent. Indeed, such consciousness not only starts at home, but translates into the workplace and society. In all, understanding that everyone eventually grows old, demystifies the concept of disability. Next to this are furthering disability rights within a society.
On the vanguard of this endeavour are international organisations who fight for disability inclusion, worldwide. A labour born out of an understanding that equal access is not just a humanitarian endeavour, but yields great economic gains. The United Nations captures it succinctly, “people with disabilities (PWD) are the greatest untapped resource on the planet.”
In fact, a World Bank survey in 2004, estimated an annual global loss in the twelve figure range ($1.71- $2.23 trillion) from exclusion.
Realities of living with a disability in Nigeria
For typical Nigerian households, members with disabilities are their responsibility, challenge and secret shame. So, while they (PWDs) receive care, members discourage public interaction for fear of shame. This unspoken rule often furthers an already existing stigma around PWDs. And such embarrassment goes a long way in social and economic exclusion and denial to vital services such as healthcare and education.
The story remains unchanged in the workforce where six in ten people with disabilities are without jobs. In the same survey, it revealed how a significant majority of PWDs are forced to live hand to mouth. Evidence, in fact, shows that people living with disabilities are more likely to experience extreme poverty in comparison to their counterparts. It is worth noting, that if indeed employed, people with disabilities are prone to experience several discriminatory employment practices.
Besides economic impoverishment, systemic exclusion for PWDs is concerning. In a functioning society, governments prioritise equal access and inclusivity to her social goods. This consideration reflects in architectural layouts, health facilities and educational infrastructure. Sadly, this is not the case in Nigeria where one would be hard pressed to count ten public buildings with ramp access. Not to mention the inadequate infrastructure for transporting people with disabilities.
In the health sector, rehabilitation services for people with disabilities at primary healthcare centres is lacking, if existent. One study in particular notes the absence of rehabilitation services in leprosy riddled communities in Niger and Kogi. What is more? Sixty one percent of its indigenes are unemployed.
The researchers observed the commonest impairments to be visual, mobility, and hearing problems. But without gainful employment or aid from PHCs, the PWDs in the community are stranded.
Paucity of data for PWD in Africa’s largest economy
Elsewhere, the insufficiency of data for PWDs presents another challenge for Africa’s most populous nation. A problem that often leads to varying statistics.
In one instance, the World Health organization (WHO) in 2018 put Nigeria’s PWDs at 29 million; the criteria was functional impairment, that is, difficulty carrying out sensory and cognitive tasks. In contrast, the 2018 Nigerian Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) maintained that seven percent of Nigeria’s population (14 million) suffered from some form of impairment. The report went on to estimate that one percent of the population faced severe disability, accounting for one million Nigerians.
Overall, the National Population Commission of Nigeria (NPC) estimates that 19 million Nigerians lived with disability; this was still in 2018. Two years gone, and there are no official statistics in this regard. Nevermind the current economic and health climate.
The impact of COVID-19: Challenges and missed opportunities
Speaking of the health climate, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on health systems globally. And for many, the mandated movement restrictions meant a halt on essential health services. This hiatus was documented more in developing countries where immunisation, family planning and mental health services were mostly absent, according to WHO’s pulse survey.
In essence, COVID-19 worsened an already challenging situation for PWDs. Non-profit Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) raised these concerns in a virtual meeting. Spearheaded by the Health project and Rule of Law and Anti-corruption (ROLAC) project, the webinar brought together several PWD advocates for a discourse. Present were vocal PWD activists, Gbenga Ogundare as the moderator and Jessica Odudu, a PTCIJ program officer as a panellist. Other panellists included Idemudia Lawrence from the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) and Jake Epelle, the Founder of the Albino Foundation.
Indeed, this online dialogue came at a prime time to mark the United Nations (UN) International Day for Persons with Disabilities; celebrated every 3rd of December. In keeping with the UN’s theme, “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 World”, PTCIJ themed its discourse, “Post-COVID-19: Furthering a disability-inclusive and accessible Nigeria”.
The discussions in this webinar focused on three specific areas- the lives of people with disabilities in Nigeria pre-COVID-19, during the pandemic and recommendation moving forward to a post-COVID-19 Nigeria. Before the rise on COVID-19 cases and its impact, Mr Jake Epelle, noted that life had already been challenging for persons with disabilities. He said “even prior to Corona people living with disabilities struggled with inclusion. Inclusion on all spheres. During Covid-19 the struggle for PWD had intensified.”
With the restrictions on movements, most citizens with health challenges experienced difficulty accessing health services. To say nothing of people with disabilities; the observed impact reflects in the statistics on health seeking behaviours. Moreover, the government failed to factor in PWD in their planning.
Again, the pandemic inadvertently championed remote work owing to distancing protocols. So, instead of regular meetings, workers ’zoomed’. This became the new normal. However with little consideration for people with impairments.
The government, for instance, had at a point during the lockdown, asked its workers below Grade level 14 to work from home; but said little in providing facilities, especially for PWDs to do this successfully. This was a missed opportunity to utilise the situation and introduce technology in working with PWDs.
The future for PWD in Nigeria: Moving forward post-COVID-19
PWDs have always fought to be recognised as independent beings with rights that would enable them to thrive in society. The recognition of this by the government led to the passage of the Discrimination Against Person’s with disability (Prohibition) act of 2019. This was a huge step into a brighter future for PWDs all over Nigeria. This future, however, cannot be reached if the government does not take the necessary measures to implement the laws it created.
Mr Epelle recommended that important actors do all that they can to ensure PWD are not left behind. He suggested that in the recovery phase of a calamity like the COVID-19 pandemic, governments will certainly pursue an aggressive effort targeting job creation, stimulating entrepreneurship, and other macroeconomic indices. Mr Epelle further suggested the engagement of HR practitioners at various levels as they are often the gatekeepers to these opportunities for PWD.
Indeed, the national body of HR practitioners has committed itself to start awarding organisations that are intentional about providing opportunities for persons with disabilities. But for this to happen, the PWD advocate beckoned on the community to “get skills and educate ourselves”. In so doing they (PWDs) avail themselves of such opportunities should the need arise. Again, Mr Epelle urged PWDs to participate in the political space to have their voices heard.
Concluding, Mr Epelle suggested that the Ministry of Finance incentivised workplaces’ inclusion of PWDs. He gave the example of tax breaks for organisations with persons with disabilities.
Speaking to the insufficiency of data on PWDs, Mr Lawrence challenged culpable parties. According to Mr Lawrence, data continues to hamper progress in Nigeria. Thus with improved data “we can plan better” in ways that furthers disability inclusion and access. The availability of data is also important for government officials and decision makers to inform better strategies that address the gap observed in the economy.
For Ms Odudu, best results would come from a multifaceted approach. She did, however, note the need for comprehensive overarching systems to address the challenge. First steps outlined were restorative and rehabilitation initiatives for people with impairment.
Closely related are affirmative strategies that foster existing inclusionary policies. Ms Odudu also stressed the need to “remove and prevent architectural and design barriers for Nigerians living with disabilities”. These were part of the systemic efforts the ROLAC Program Officer outlined, alongside suggesting assistive technology to aid PWDs.
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