In a 2008 publication by the United Nations’ department of public information, the UN quoted an American star actor, Chris Sullivan, who was born with hearing impairment, as saying: “to achieve a change of attitude towards people with disabilities, you have to look at the person and not the disability.”
Eleven years after that publication, Micah Shabbi, the executive director of a research centre for persons with disabilities, says Africans’ disposition to people living with disabilities remains troubling.
“In Africa, people pay more attention to the disability they notice in a person, than on the ability or what that person has to offer,” he said.
Mr Shabbi, whose ambition was altered by his former lecturer for being blind, says he still faces obstacles created by fellow Nigerians, whose opinions of others are clouded by their misconceptions of disabilities.
Mr Shabbi narrated the events that truncated his dream of being a lawyer.
“If I was not visually impaired, I most certainly would have been a lawyer today. I wanted to be a lawyer during my undergraduate days. I dreamed of it, as a growing young man, I secured admission to study law at the Ahmadu Bello University where I would have emerged the first blind graduate of law from that institution.
“I had registered and began attending classes when a lecturer, who was also our head of department at the time, objected to my continuing in the department of law. I tried everything I could to make him see that my blindness would not affect my ability to succeed in class, but he insisted. I ended up studying Political Science before proceeding to England for my masters in human rights,” Mr Shabbi told PREMIUM TIMES during an interview in Kaduna State.
Mr Shabbi who described his life as an example of ability in disability, told PREMIUM TIMES that he established the research centre to help disabled Nigerians achieve their dreams regardless of their physical abilities.
Inclusion according to the law
According to the UN department, “Persons with disabilities still face multiple barriers to equal participation in society and there is an urgent need to remove those barriers.”
In an effort aimed at “removing those barriers,” the authors of Nigeria’s new law against discrimination of persons with disabilities included a requirement for all educational institutions in the country to be adequately accessible to persons with disabilities. The law was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in January 2019.
According to Section 21 of the law, owners of educational institutions in Nigeria must ensure that all schools are accessible to disabled persons with the required facilities for their efficient education.
The section provides that: “all public schools, whether primary, secondary or tertiary shall be run to be inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. Accordingly, every school shall have at least trained personnel to cater for the educational development of persons with disabilities.
“Braille, sign language and other skills for communicating with persons with disabilities shall form part of the curriculum for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions,” the section said.
The provision hopes to ensure the introduction of an educational system where physically-challenged Nigerians and those without challenges can acquire an education in the same venue and practically at the same time.
However, most Nigerian government agencies and private institutions are yet to apply provisions of this law.
Need for dialogue
Suleiman Ujah, who lost his hearing at the age of seven after taking a paracetamol syrup following a headache, said there is a need for dialogue to determine the level of educational inclusiveness to be adopted at various stages in Nigerian institutions.
Mr Ujah is now a computer instructor. He speaks with the aid of an interpreter.
“When you talk about education for a deaf child, the first things he or she learns is the sign language. At the foundational level, there must be separate classes for the deaf. Proper inclusiveness should start at the university level even at the secondary school level. We still have conflict. The deaf child will find it hard looking at what the interpreter is saying, copying what is written on the board and writing all at once.
“In a classroom for example, we may have a mathematics teacher who is skilled in that course. The interpreter might not have such skills. In the process of teaching therefore, there will be conflict in the calculation,” Mr Ujah said.
Mr Ujah, who graduated from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Ilorin, said it is imperative that the Nigerian educational system includes provisions for educating people on the use of sign language to bridge the gap created by decades of neglect for the communication needs of educational and other sectors of society.
“Children should be taught sign language in schools. There is a possibility that those who are thought these sign languages can end up as bankers, doctors and the likes, this will help bridge the gap of communication in public institutions,” he said.
Mr Ujah who works as a computer instructor with the Abuja school for the deaf told PREMIUM TIMES he decided to always go to class with a sign language interpreter because he could afford one.
“What about those who cannot afford one?” he asked.
Video: Suleiman speaking on the need for dialogue, with the aid of his sign language interpreter
More on implementation
Equally disturbed by the needs of Nigerians living with disabilities, another Nigerian with sight impairment, Ekwujeruonye Obinna, had this to say about the relationship between physically-challenged Nigerians and those without a challenge: “they treat us like we don’t exist.”
Mr Obinna who is the public relations officer of the Joint Association of Persons Living With disabilities, Abuja chapter, listed some requirements for adequate education of persons with disabilities and their costs, according to the information currently at his disposal.
“For our education, we need a braille machine. And a single one goes for as high as $1000. Also, I may buy a computer. But the software I require to use a computer without any assistance also goes for not less than $1000. This guide you see here is N18, 000. These things are what the government should provide for us if things were done properly,” said Mr Obinna.
Mr Obinna told PREMIUM TIMES he obtained a master’s degree in educational administration and planning from the National Open University. she added that he decided to acquire some business skills from the rehabilitation centre for the blind in Lagos after he became blind in 2004.
“I make baskets, slippers, handbags and air freshener among others for a living,” he said.
Mr Obinna also hinted on some economic benefits of establishing a commission for the disabled as a measure of implementing the disability rights bill.
“If a commission is established today, I don’t think only persons with disabilities will work there. Companies making this guide canes, wheelchairs, and others will come into Nigeria and start producing,” said Mr Obinna.
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He lamented the frustrating experience of having to move from place to place in present-day Nigeria and hopes that the government would alleviate their pains by working to implement the law soon.
“In Abuja for example, taxis don’t even have parks. Making it very difficult for persons with disabilities to move around.
“There are no pedestrian work for people with disabilities. As I was on my way here from Jabi, I met a big hole in front of me. If I did not have my guide cane, God knows what would have happened,” Mr Obinna said.
Mr Obinna said he became blind in 2004, after he was diagnosed with having glaucoma and retinal detachment.
Light that must be shared
In the opinion of another disabled Nigerian, Suleman Abdulazeez, the new law represents a light at the end of a tunnel that has remained dark for decades
Mr Abdulazeez who is the chairman, JONAPWD Kaduna chapter, wants the government to begin the process of implementing the bill by educating affected Nigerians about the law and the consequential rights of disabled Nigerians.
“With the coming of the law, our hopes were kindled. A path for the future was created and for once in history we believe we will benefit from the dividends of civilization and democracy,” said Mr Abdulazeez.
He wants the government to educate Nigerians on their rights and responsibilities with regards to the law.
“Even up to 80 per cent of us do not know the importance of the disability rights law,” Mr Abdulazeez said
Mr Abdulazeez took PREMIUM TIMES to a workshop of the Kaduna State Rehabilitation Board where disabled people use abandoned irons to construct tricycles for their movement and irons for sale.
This report was supported by Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).