We face untold frustration accessing public services, coping in lessons regardless of disability rights legislation –PLWDs

Janet Ogundepo captures the challenges of persons living with disabilities despite the disability rights law

On a cold evening after a morning downpour, a lady identified only as Mercy went to a hall for a weekly music rehearsal. She loved music so much that the cold couldn’t deter her from spending time with others.

Swaying her white cane rhythmically, she walked briskly on a familiar path. Unknown to her, a slab on the gutter had been broken and a large part washed away by the rain. Suddenly, she fell into the ditch. She called for help but none came immediately. She tried to feel her way around the ditch to find a way when help came. She came out with a bruised feet and a sullied face. Mercy is a visually impaired lady who lost her sight at five after a car accident. She, like, many others living with disabilities continue to undergo stress in a country with the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act.

Prosphen Dumi is a hearing impaired lady. She was glad when she got admitted into Law school after graduating from the Faculty of Law in one of the federal universities in the South-West where she earned a second class upper grade.

The journey through university was not smooth for her as she had to sometimes sit in lectures without gaining anything when a sign language interpreter either didn’t come on time or failed to come.

She said, “The challenge I had was that, sometimes, interpreters may not come on time or come at all for my lectures. It wasn’t easy sitting for two lectures without gaining anything.”

On getting to Law school, Dumi discovered there was no provision for a sign language interpreter. She had to hire one who was paid by the Deaf Legal Advocacy Worldwide, a non-governmental agency in the United States of America, to help her “hear” what was being taught.

The challenges of PLWDs

When Dumi was in the university, she discovered that sign language interpreters were only assigned to hearing-impaired students in the Special Education department. She had to write to the school to assign a sign language interpreter to her faculty.

She said, “At first the interpreters were not allowed to come to my department to interpret for me. I had to write to the school through my Head of the Department for interpreters. New interpreters were then employed at the tail end of my 100-level session. With the interpreters now available, things went on well until I graduated.’’

Helen Alonge sat in her wheelchair waiting for an attendant to ‘lift her’ to the first floor of a state Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture where she works. The office, previously located on the ground floor of the ministry’s building, was recently relocated to the first floor without consideration to Alonge, a member of staff of the ministry.

Alonge, who is also a postgraduate student of a federal university in Ekiti State, had to get an attendant to help her get to the lecture room.

In an interview with Saturday PUNCH, a hearing impaired student at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Douglas Izuchukwu, narrated the impact of the pandemic on his academic life as a student.

He said, “The pandemic has disrupted a lot of things. I have never attended a virtual class since it started and I don’t want to because I know I’ll benefit nothing from the class if the university management doesn’t employ the service of a sign language interpreter. Even if there is an interpreter, the network won’t allow me to focus. I would just see frozen hands.”

The story is the same for Martha Ehkpomagbe, a hearing-impaired graduate of Special Education. While in school, she had to struggle to understand what was being taught because the sign language interpreters were not available for all the classes.

Ehkpomagbe said on an occasion where she went to the administrative department of her school to collect a transcript, she met with an unfriendly official who didn’t attend to her despite knowing her disability status.

She said, “I was totally ignored by the official. I waited for hours thinking she will show me mercy and attend to me but all to no avail. I felt bad. As a hearing impaired person, it is not always easy for me to access information when in public because most people do not understand sign language. I always carry a pen and paper on me to write that I am hearing impaired and that they should write the information for me and whatever is going on.”

Also, Abiola Adenuga, a speech-impaired and post-lingual hearing impaired person, told our correspondent that communication inaccessibility was a constant challenge he faces. Communication for him is filled with barriers and he has to rely on lip-reading when there is no sign language interpreter.

‘Major challenges before PLWDs’

The National President, Nigeria Association of the Blind, Ishiyaku Gombe, said that lack of access to public buildings, information and communication in an alternative format were some of the challenges facing persons living with disabilities.

He added that while environmental inaccessibility mostly affected those in wheelchairs, inaccessibility to information in alternative format concerned the visually impaired and lack of access to communication affected the hearing and speech impaired.

According to Gombe, ramps, elevators and other accessibility features will enable those in wheelchairs to easily access a building while accessibility to information in alternative format will enable the visually impaired to access information in a specialised way.

Gombe said, “For instance, a visually impaired person cannot read the print version of a newspaper but the online version is accessible to them so that is providing information in the alternative format. The visually impaired use the screen reader (an application that reads out the text on the screen) to access information online. Most of the information on most Nigerian websites is not really accessible because of adverts and pop-ups. Accessibility of the website is another issue. The interface of most websites is not accessible to the visually impaired because of the way the content is arranged.’’

He further noted that accessibility in communication was vital to the hearing impaired.

“If a public gathering does not have a sign language interpreter, then the hearing impaired may not be able to understand what is being said. For example, contents that are only in audio/video without a text description cannot be understood or heard by someone who is hearing impaired,” Gombe added.

Despite the disability rights law

In 2018, the World Health Organisation reported that in Nigeria about 29 million people out of 195 million people live with disabilities. In 2018 also, the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey estimated the prevalence rate of persons living with disability at seven per cent where household members above the age of five have some level of difficulty in either seeing, hearing, communication, cognition, walking or self-care while one per cent have difficulties or cannot function in at least one area.

However, the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018, provides for “the full integration of persons with disabilities into society. (This law) provides access to physical structures, road transportation, seaports, railways and airport facilities for persons living with disabilities. (This law also) provides the opportunity for employment and participation in politics and public life.”

According to the law, a five per cent inclusion of persons with disabilities into the job sector is guaranteed.

Yet, this is not the case for Dumi, as she has been denied a well-paying job.

She said, “There is a five per cent employment quota for persons with disabilities and they have not employed. I submitted application with a federal civil service commission in one of the states in the South-South since December 2018. Till now, I have yet to be called and they keep promising to employ me. I am still waiting. I have been denied the opportunity to work and be paid in line with my good result.”

Alonge said she was forced to stay at home due to the difficulty in accessing public buildings in her workplace. For Mercy, she sustained injuries many times while walking to and from various points on campus.

In another vein, persons living with disabilities battle challenges in carrying out transactions in banking halls. The visually impaired and wheel-chair bound persons are affected more.

Gombe said carrying out transactions in banking halls, at Automated Teller Machines points and via online channels was difficult for the visually impaired.

He explained that while the banking system had undergone improvements, it was still largely inaccessible for the visually impaired without the aid of a trusted assistant.

“For instance, my bank statement is sent to my email. But the way the statement is arranged makes it difficult for me to use a screen reader on my computer to read the content.

“Some banks will refuse to give one ATM card because they think a blind person will be cheated. If one goes to the developed world, the ATM is voice-enabled such that one will just plug in earphones and one will hear the directions as one presses the keys. But most of our ATMs do not have this kind of provision and someone in the wheelchair cannot access those places because they are either high or one has to climb some stairs to access the machine,’’ Gombe said.

Mercy has to ask for assistance when she goes to the bank and when in an unfamiliar place.

She said, “When I go to banking halls, with the previous experiences I had, I have a mental note of where the counter is, where the customer care section is and when I can’t figure it out, I ask for help from the security guards or of the banking staff. I have realised that I have to ask for assistance, though it is not easy.”

For Ehkpomagbe, meeting a friendly teller cashier at the bank is always a saving grace for her. She will write her request on a paper and everything goes on well.

She says, “I always go with a pen and paper anytime I go to the bank. I explain my condition to whosoever I meet there to avoid unnecessary repetition of words and embarrassment. If the person is friendly, I will be attended to but if the person is unfriendly with no regard for the deaf, I may waste my time there.”

Implementation of disability rights law

The President, Association of Lawyers with Disabilities in Nigeria, Daniel Onwe, though the disability act was being implemented, the government needed to do more.

Onwe said, “I would not say that Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act is not being implemented, I would rather say much more still needs to be done. The National Commission on Persons with Disabilities, which is a hallmark of the Act has been constituted and running. However, much still needs to be done.  Public buildings are still largely inaccessible. We have yet to see persons with disabilities constituting at least five per cent of public employment while mental health has yet to be free as provided for in the act.”

He stressed the need for increased advocacy for the government to live up to its expectations.

In the same vein, Gombe urged the government to put structures in place to ensure accessibility of danger-free public facilities for the visually impaired.

He highlighted that open drainages, indiscriminate parking and roadside trading hindered free movement and posed danger to the visually impaired.

Gombe said, “At times, the railings by the walkways and bridges are removed by hoodlums. Removing these railings is dangerous for a white cane user, a visually impaired person, because they won’t know until they have fallen into it. I have fallen into open drainages more than four times and there was a time I broke my white cane and another time I injured myself.

“Indiscriminate parking and roadside trading among other things are problems we face. Some roads are constructed without consideration for pedestrians and parking space. That is why some people park by the roadside without considering that people need space. We need space more than any other person because we use our cane to help us move around.”

Gombe also stated educational materials should be made accessible in alternative formats, such as audio, Braille and electronic copies for students at all levels of education.

He called for the availability of textbooks at all levels of education in alternative formats for the benefit of the visually impaired.

He added, “In schools, the Nigerian government hardly makes provision for textbooks in alternative format. I know this and we have been in contact with the Universal Basic Education Commission. For instance, if they want to make a supply of let’s say one million textbooks for the 2021 session for primary school pupils across Nigeria, what we are saying is that two per cent of that book can be produced in alternative format either in braille, soft copy or audio. We are still in talks with the UBEC because there are no provisions for this yet. Most visually impaired students in primary, secondary and in the university do not have access to most of the textbooks and other materials available to other students in an alternative format.”

Also commenting on the disability act, Dumi said, “Making a law is one thing, implementing the law is another thing. No matter how perfect a law is, it amounts to nothing if it is not carried out. There is provision for sign language interpreters in the law, but do all hearing-impaired students now have interpreters?”

In her comment, founder of Bethsaida School of the Blind, Mrs Chioma Ohakwe, noted that a full implementation of the disability act would allow persons living with disabilities to have a share in the country’s wealth.

She also opined that PWLDs, with the right opportunity and privileges, would showcase unimaginable results.

Ohakwe also appealed to family members of PWLDs not to see disability as a curse or punishment from God, but to believe in such persons and challenge them to be the best.

“The challenge we have is that some families do not even believe in their people living with disabilities. Some families still lock their children indoors because. They believe the disability came from a spirit. Family members have to know that there is ability in disability and PLWDs cannot stay inside one room and be whatever they want to be. When they bring them out and challenge them to the fullest, then they will get good results,” Ohakwe said.

In her comment, the National President, Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities, Mrs Ekate Umoh, emphasised the need for an implementation plan for the newly ratified law.

Umoh stated, “Implementation is a gradual process and the law was passed in 2019. We have the law and a commission responsible for the implementation of the law and other stakeholders, but before we talk of implementation, what is the plan? I have yet to see one. Who are those working on the plan? Who are those putting the bits and pieces of the law itself? How much have we popularised the content of the law so that people can understand what it says. It is not going to be government business alone.

“Everything goes down to access and the ability to overcome the barriers that hinder us from enjoying our fundamental human rights. The societal perception has not changed. Discrimination, attitudinal barrier and non-inclusive education are some of the challenges PLWDs face.’’

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