Agih Sylvester Isaac
According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Disability Report, about 15% of Nigeria’s population, or at least 25 million people, have a disability. Many of them face several human rights cases of abuse including stigma, discrimination, and barriers to accessing basic social services and economic opportunities. Today, they face greater barriers, no thanks to the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nigeria Rapid Assessment on Disability Inclusion identified a number of these salient barriers including negative attitudes expressed in rejection, neglect, loss of respect, denial of identity or self-worth, which often results in low self-esteem, depression, and isolation.
To safeguard against all forms of rights abuses and also equalize the opportunities of persons with disabilities in all aspects of living in the society, the Lagos State government in 2011 enacted the Special People’s Law which seeks among others, to uphold the rights of all persons living with any form of disability in the state by safeguarding them against all forms of discrimination and giving them equal rights and opportunities. In the interpretation section of the law, “disability” is defined to ‘mean a state of substantial impairment of the physical, visual, vocal, auditory, sensory or mental capabilities of a person at birth or by injury, sickness or its effect or congenital deficiency. This article appraises the Special People’s Law; highlighting the salient legal measures taken by the state government to check discrimination against persons with disability; and calls for the sensitization, reorientation, and education of the public on the right attitude towards persons living with a disability. For convenience, the article discussed the salient provisions of the Law under three broad headings to wit: recognition and guarantee of rights of persons with disabilities; provisions relating to access to basic social services and economic opportunities, and implementation strategies.
RECOGNITION AND GUARANTEE OF RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
The Special People’s Law recognizes and guarantees the rights of persons living with disabilities and prohibits certain rights abuses against them. Specifically, the law provides that a person living with a disability shall not be discriminated against on the ground of his or her disability or be subjected to prejudice or harmful practices, including those based on sex, work, age, or tradition in any area of life (see Section 26(1) & (2) of the law).
The law also upholds the dignity of persons living with disabilities by prohibiting cruelty and inhuman and degrading treatment against them. It provides in Section 27 that a person living with a disability shall not be subjected to (a) medical or scientific experiment without his or her consent; or (b) torture, cruelty, or inhuman degrading treatment. The law further stressed that a person shall not employ, use or involve a person living with a disability for alms begging. To drive home its point, the law imposes heavy sanction on violators of the relevant section in the following words: a person who is in contravention of this section shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) or a maximum three (3) months imprisonment or both.’
Persons living with disabilities like every other citizen have the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any means of communication of their choice. Accordingly, the law mandates government, corporate organizations, and persons to (a) provide information intended for the general public to persons living with disability in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to the different kinds of disabilities timeously and at no additional cost; and (b) accept and facilitate the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication in all interactions.
Privacy and data protection of persons living with disabilities are also recognized and guaranteed under the law. Section 35(3) of the law provides that a person living with a disability regardless of the place of residence or living arrangement shall (not) be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence or other types of communication or to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation’. Persons living with disabilities have the right to communal life as well as the right to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport (see section 37 & 38). They even have the right to drive any vehicle of their choice provided only that (a) their disability is not proved to reasonably impede their ability to drive, or (b) the vehicle has been modified to enable them to drive safely (Section 36).
The rights of children living with disabilities are recognized and upheld by the law. Section 31 imposes a duty on parents and guardians of children living with disabilities to ensure that such children, within and outside the home, are free from all forms of neglect, exploitation, violence, or abuse, including their gender-based aspects. The law further mandates the government to take appropriate measures to prevent all forms of exploitations, violence, and abuse by ensuring appropriate forms of gender and age-sensitive assistance and support for children living with disability, their families, and caregivers, including the provision of information and education on how to avoid, recognize and report instances of neglect, exploitation, violence, and abuse. Children living with disability are entitled to equal rights, treatments, recreations, maintenance, and training with other children in the society, and in all matters concerning children living with disability, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration.
PROVISIONS RELATING TO ACCESS TO SOCIAL SERVICES & ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES
Under the law, persons living with disabilities are entitled to an adequate standard of living and social protection. Section 28 of the law mandates the government at all levels to take appropriate steps to ensure that persons living with disabilities have a good standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. Where accommodation is being provided by schools, employers, organizations, government, and in any other circumstances, persons living with a disability shall be given consideration of 5% reservation (Section 28(3)).
Persons living with disabilities equally have the right to necessary facilities to access public buildings and public places. Accordingly, section 29(2) of the law provides that a public building shall not be constructed without the necessary accessibility aids such as lift (where necessary), ramps, and others that shall make them accessible and usable to persons living with a disability. The law imposes on the government the duty to ensure that roads, side-works, pedestrian crossings, and all other facilities made for public use are made accessible to and usable by persons living with disabilities including those on wheelchairs. By section 30(2) of the law persons with disability shall be given first consideration as much as possible in queues; and in all situations of risk, including situations of violence, emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters government shall take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons living with disability taking cognizance of their peculiar vulnerability.
Persons with disabilities have rights to health care and education. In fact, they are entitled to free medical and health care services in all public health institutions and free tuition at all levels in all public educational institutions, provided they are so qualified (see sections 32 and 33 of the law). They equally have the right to work on an equal basis with others, including the right to the opportunity to gain a living by working freely in a chosen or accepted labour market and work environment. In this wise, section 34(5) of the law provides that all employers of labour employing up to one hundred (100) persons shall reserve at least 1% of such workforce for qualified persons living with a disability. Subsection (3) of section 34 provides that a person or corporate body shall not subject a person living with disability to slavery/servitude, forced or compulsory labour, or undue disadvantages in any form except by an order of Court. To ensure compliance, subsection (4) provides that any person in breach of subsection (3) commits an offense and is liable to a fine of One Hundred Thousand Naira (N100,000.00) or maximum imprisonment of three (3) months or both, while any corporate organization in breach commits an offense and is liable to a fine of Five Hundred Thousand Naira (N500,000.00) as damages to the affected person with a disability.
Taking cognizance of the fact that the rich provisions of the law cannot enforce themselves, the law established the Office for Disability Affairs and charged it with the function of ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Law (section 3(19)). Other functions of the Office include receipt of complaints from persons living with a disability on the violation of any of his or her rights; investigation, prosecuting, and sanctioning in appropriate cases the violation of any of the provisions of the Law subject to an individual’s right to seek redress in court; registration and coordination of associations of persons living with disability; re-orientation and education of the public on the right attitude towards persons living with disability; and actualizing the enjoyment of all rights in the law by persons living with a disability.
The Office is a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal; it has the power to sue and be sued in its corporate name; and it is capable of purchasing, acquiring, holding, and disposing of movable or immovable property for the purpose of carrying out its functions under the Law. The office also has powers to accept gifts as well as to borrow such sums as it may require to execute its projects.
The Law also established for the Office a governing board that is responsible for the administration of the Office. The board comprises of a chairman and a representative of each of the following—
(a) Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Social Development
(b) Ministry of Education
(c) Ministry of Justice
(d) Association of Persons Living with Disability
(e) Organized private sector or charitable organizations dealing with persons living with disability
(f) The General Manager of the Office
The Chairman and other members of the Board are appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of the Commissioner.
The Special People’s Law is enacted to safeguard people living with disabilities against all forms of discrimination and equalize their opportunities in all respect of living in the society. Sadly, however, and as rich as the provisions of the law is, only about nine (9) states out of the thirty-six (36) states in Nigeria have domesticated the law. Even sadder is the fact that in the states where this law is domesticated, both the general public and persons living with disability are ignorant of the existence and/or rich contents of the law. Little wonder therefore that the provisions of the law are being flouted by members of the public and even government agencies with impunity. For instance, contrary to the provisions of the law, public functions are being organized without the organizers providing competent attendants to attend to the needs of persons with disability in attendance; public buses neither make available nor mark appropriately one out of every ten seats for the use of persons with disability; special seats in vehicles, vessels, trains, and aircraft aren’t reserved/assigned for persons living with disability; at parking lots, one out of twenty parking spaces aren’t marked or reserved for persons with disability; persons with disability are still being discriminated against and subjected to prejudice and harmful practices with impunity; most persons living with disability are still being procured to engage in alms begging and most aren’t aware that they are entitled to free medical and health care services and free education in public institutions. Clearly, therefore, the Office for Disability Affairs has a lot to do in terms of sensitizing the public on the existence and rich contents of the law and also in ensuring strict compliance with the provisions of the law. It is recommended, therefore, that the Office engage in advocacy and enlightenment campaign targeted at members of the public with a view to educating the public on the provisions of the law and especially on ways the public can empathize with persons living with disability in society.