President Muhammadu Buhari, on January 23, 2019, passed the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act which provides for making public places and buildings accessible to Persons With Disability (PWDs) through the provision of ramps, elevators, handrails, parking spaces, etc. NCHETACHI CHUKWUAJAH of Nigerian Tribune reports that more than three years after the signing of the Act, women with disabilities still face mobility and accessibility challenges while developers do not follow approved building plans.
“I always have the fear of going to the class to teach because it is not always that one will be physically fit to climb stairs, to take risks to teach. Going to classes in the school I am teaching presently is a serious risk. The entrances to the classes are not accessible. At times, I will ask the students to bring a chair outside for me; I will sit on the chair before I can move my legs into the classes. “All the buildings in the school I am currently teaching in are not accessible to me. Even in the office where I am sitting, I had to construct something that at least I am managing to enter.”
These are the words of Funke Adegoke, a physically challenged teacher who moves around with the aid of crutches. For her and many other women with disabilities, gaining access to public buildings is a herculean task.
As Adegoke narrated this incident and many others to Nigerian Tribune while doing her laundry in a space in front of her house in Ibadan on a humid Monday afternoon in late August, the pain was obvious in her eyes as she described it as “saddening.”
Adegoke explained that because of the lack of accessibility to many places, she has had to cancel appointments and social gatherings, spent hugely to rent accessible accommodation and has faced discrimination. Experts say accessibility challenges lead to lifetime health complications.
“When I was a junior teacher, there was a school I was teaching in then that I was asked to teach upstairs and I taught upstairs for two years. It was after two years of teaching upstairs that I faced orthopaedic problems. I never knew that as I was climbing the stairs then, it was affecting my ribs. I spent a lot of money at UCH before that situation subsided. I still feel pains in my ribs and backbone now. It was after that job hazard that I started using orthopaedic shoes,” she recounted.
Mary Oluwatoyin is a sportswoman with the Oyo State Sports Council. She waits several minutes to cross a road as vehicles, tricycles and motorcycles speed past without caring to stop for her. Not until she takes a huge risk of walking slowly across the road while urging the drivers to stop by waving her other hand would they grudgingly stop for her to cross the road.
On the day Oluwatoyin spoke with Nigerian Tribune, she was walking out from a popular mall in Ibadan that has a steep entrance with the assistance of a walking stick in her left hand while she held the goods she purchased, which were in a white polythene bag, with her right hand. She would intermittently stop walking to catch her breath.
“I have been out of the country three times and I have seen the way they treat their physically challenged people. When compared to the way we treat ours here, it is nothing to write home about,” she told Nigerian Tribune.
Oluwatoyin added that “In my own bank, there is an accessible place for people living with disabilities. Apart from banks, people don’t care about people living with disabilities. As a driver, If you see a person living with a disability, you ought to wait for the person to cross. There is no pedestrian bridge for us to use so they ought to wait but they won’t.”
She has one plea: “Let them make the roads accessible so that people using wheelchairs would be able to move about. For drivers, anytime you see a person living with a disability that wants to cross the road, you can just patiently wait for the person; it is not going to take you forever to do that.”
Added to the challenge of accessibility and mobility is discrimination and extortion from some members of the public who take advantage of the situation of PWDs.
Adegoke said facing discrimination and extortion has become second nature. “Some years back, I was supposed to be the Head of Department in one of the schools I was teaching but the principal said he would not give a person with disability that position. They then made somebody below me the head of that department. I was pained but there was nothing I could do. All I did was to apply for transfer without telling anyone the reason I was transferred. The person still told the principal of the school I was transferred to and that principal too did the same thing to me.”
On the issue of extortion, she said, “There was a day my car broke down at Eleyele (in Ibadan) and I parked it there for repairs and decided to take a public tricycle home. The Marwa (tricycle) operator said I had to pay the fare of four persons for him to take me to the entrance to my street and if I wanted him to take me to my house, I had to pay for five persons. I begged him but he refused. I had to pay because I had no choice. Some of these transporters capitalise on our disabilities to extort us,” Adegoke said.
A national situation?
Adegoke and Oluwatoyin are among the many physically challenged women in Nigeria, who, according to the World Report on Disability of 2011, constitute 50 per cent of the over 25 million Nigerians with disabilities, facing mobility and accessibility challenges.
Many have resorted to staying indoors and only going out when absolutely necessary. This way of life, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank, impacts the life of PWDs in many negative ways – psychologically, emotionally, economically, socially, etc.
Blessing Mary Ocheido’s tweet on January 15, 2019, eight days before the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act was passed into law, on the difficulty she faced accessing a bank in the Kubwa area of Abuja sparked a lot of debates and advocacies on the social media.
Ocheido, founder, Platinum Intervention Care Initiative, had tweeted that the said bank had no ramps to enable her to gain entrance to the building and could not go into the banking hall because the doors were not wide enough to accommodate her and her wheelchair, forcing her to stay outside the building while a security man went inside to make inquiries on her behalf.
“Upon his return, the security man said I would have to go into the bank to be attended to. And seeing as there was simply no way for me to do that, except maybe to be lifted up in his arms, I had to leave,” Ocheido tweeted.
Years after Ocheido’s tweets, the issue of accessibility of public buildings still persists. Having made use of a wheelchair since she was three after suffering an injury that led to partial paralysis from the waist down, Ocheido said though the bank has asked her to always call anytime she wants to come to the bank, the advocacy for accessibility is not just about her but for many others.
In an interview with Nigerian Tribune, Ocheido said, “When you complain, they say they are working on installing ramps in all their branches and include special entrances for persons with disabilities and you return after a few months, a year, two years, the same thing is still there. They just say when you are coming, call this person and I say no to that because I am calling you out not so that I can be given preferential treatment as a person. I want every person with a disability who has to visit your bank or facility to be able to access it without having to call someone because how many people with disabilities are you going to give those numbers out to?
“Some of the agencies that are supposed to regulate buildings and ensure that they meet the criteria for public use are themselves not even accessible. I remember visiting an agency like that in Abuja and they did not even have ramps or elevators. I was struggling up staircases just to talk to the people in charge. It is a heartbreaking situation. There is nobody to report to, that is why I often resort to calling them out online and pleading with them to do the right thing.”
What the law says about making public places accessible for persons with disability
The Discrimination against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act was passed into law on Wednesday, January 23, 2019, 18 years after it was first brought to the National Assembly.
The 58-sections Act prohibits any act of discrimination against PWDs including making public places or buildings like banks and other commercial buildings, schools, courts, religious centres, airports, bus stops, parks, etc, inaccessible to this category of people with penalties for violation.
The Act, in section 6, allows for a five-year transitory period within which existing public structures, whether movable or immovable, should be modified or adjusted so as to be accessible to PWDs, including those on wheelchairs.
Despite the provisions of the Act which should essentially eliminate discrimination against PWDs, so far, only Anambra, Bauchi, Ekiti, Jigawa, Kano, Kwara, Kogi, Lagos, Ondo and Plateau States have domesticated the Act.
For Dolapo Okunniya, a lawyer, for the Act to be effective in states where it is not yet domesticated, there must be increased sensitisation and awareness creation about it for PWDs, house owners and other members of the society.
She further explained that PWDs must first know their rights before a violation of it can be enforced. “Persons with disabilities must first be informed through the creation of awareness of their rights under the law. So also, public awareness must be ongoing to enable authorities and owners of public and private establishments to conform to the law during the transitional period.
For a man to seek a remedy, he must first know his right. ‘Ubi jus ibi remedium’ – where there is a right, there is a remedy. They can engage the services of a lawyer by bringing a suit for the enforcement of their fundamental rights under the rules.
“I believe there are advocacy or civil groups within the state who are aware that the bill has been passed into law. They can lend their voices by engaging the lawmakers, perhaps in town hall meetings. The media is also a veritable tool and a strong voice that can influence the State Assembly and propel them to look in the direction of domesticating the law,” Okunniya said.
What constitutes access to a public building?
Evang. Olu Kayode, a former chairman of the Joint Association of People With Disabilities, Oyo State Chapter said it was disheartening that the taxes of PWDs were used to construct public buildings that remained inaccessible to them.
“Our taxes have been used to put in place structures that make life uncomfortable and difficult for us. What the planners and the government take into consideration is the aesthetics of these structures with beautiful staircases without considering persons with disabilities who pay taxes,” he said.
Keerthirathna, Karunasena and Rodrigo, in their 2010 paper titled, ‘Disability Access in Public Buildings,’ noted that an accessible building for the PWDs should comprise; Entrance – even and slip-resistance surface of 1300mm or wider; doors and openings – doors can be easily opened by PWDs, 900mm or wider, space to manoeuvre wheelchair while opening, height of thresholds 15mm or less; stairs, steps and handrails – same tread and rise throughout the stairs, nosing not protruding, tread at least 300mm, rise 150mm or less, 1300mm minimum or wider, if more than 12 steps, there should be a landing 1300mm long, handrails provided at a height of 900mm for both ends, width is 1300mm (1000mm if short); ramp – preferred gradient 1:20 but requested 1:12, if steeper than 1:12, alternative should be provided with stepped approach, length of landing should be 1300mm, not sloping more than 1:50, kerbs at edges 75mm, double handrails provided at height of 700 and 900mm, continuing 300mm at both ends of the ramp; elevator (lift) – the eternal lift space must be at least 1100mm wide x 1400mm clear depth internally and preferably 2000mm wide and 1400mm deep, there should be at clear space of at least 1500x1500mm in front of the lift, width should be 1800mm or more.
A 2019 research paper titled, ‘Access to Public Buildings by the Physically Challenged in Ibadan Metropolis,’ found that only 29 per cent of 14 banks sampled for the research provided ramps for the use of PWDs who make use of wheelchairs while their entrance doors were less than the required 900mm.
The research also noted that only 16.7 per cent of the 13 administrative buildings/offices sampled provided ramps while all three of the hospital facilities sampled provided enough facilities for entrance, doors and openings, ramps and lifts.
For the three educational buildings sampled, no provision was made for ramps, and slip-resistant surfaces were available, entrance doors were wide enough to accommodate wheelchair users and the height of the door thresholds were less than 15mm.
“When considering lifts, buildings that had four floors and above provided lift facilities while also fulfilling requirements for internal spaces. Thirty-three per cent of the social buildings satisfied the basic design requirements of entrance/exit and door and openings but failed to make provision for ramps to wheelchair users,” the research paper noted.
Developers don’t follow approved building plans – Commissioner
In an interview with Nigerian Tribune, the Oyo State Commissioner for Lands, Housing, Survey and Urban Development, Segun Olayiwola, said that his ministry does not give approval to building plans that are for public use if such plans do not accommodate features for ease of movement for persons with disabilities. He, however, said that developers submit different plans for approval while they go on to build a different structure.
“Part of the rule guiding the approval of building in Oyo State is that any public building that is just coming up, before it can be approved, must meet that standard. Every facility that needs to be provided must be provided, including walkway for the disabled and every accessory that should be attached to it must be there before approval is granted but you know people; they will get approval for something and they will do something else and when you are pursuing them they will be telling stories,” he said.
Olayiwola further assured that his ministry is working towards changing the narrative. “Very soon, an auditing group – physical auditing consultants – will be going out, even to residential buildings and public buildings particularly, to see the level of conformity to the physical planning standard. Even with buildings that are on the ground right now, we are working on the possibility of auditing the level of compliance with what they submitted to us and what was approved for them.
“One of the sharp practices we have observed is that they will bring in a plan for three or four bedrooms and when you get out there, you meet five bedrooms. That is a violation of the approval given to them. All of these are what we are going to be reassessing so that there will be at least a reasonable percentage of compliance out there. If you know that somebody can come around to check on you, then at least you will be careful.
“Now that I am here, I have told my people that approved plans must not stop at the beginning of the construction of buildings, but include before, when you are constructing and after completion.
“We really accommodate them (PWDs). We shouldn’t be having this conflict because we see them as disabled and we take care of them even more than those that assume that they are able. In public vehicles, we give them preference, in everything we give them preference and in physical planning that is exactly what we are doing. Every public building must make provision for the disabled,” Olayiwola said.
“We decided to amend that bill and we collated inputs from cluster groups such as the Association of the Deaf, Association of the Blind, Association of the Physically-Challenged People, Association of Persons with Intellectual Disability and Joint National Association of Persons with Disability. His Excellency directed that we should have their input, even those involved in disabled sports, the parents of people with disability and schools and the Association of Teachers of Persons with Disabilities.
“In that respect, that was what actually delayed our bill that will be passed in another three weeks because we have met with the Assembly, we spoke about the bill with the stakeholders last two weeks and as I speak, the Executive has passed it to the House of Assembly as an executive amendment.
“In the bill, we have just two years for public buildings to have access that will accommodate persons on wheelchairs, persons on crutches and visually impaired persons. Until we have that bill in Oyo State, we won’t be able to implement public access for persons with disability but as soon as we have that in two months we will begin serious awareness.
“Access to public buildings is the major problem because we realised that we do not have a disability. What gave us a serious barrier here in Nigeria for persons with disability is access to public buildings. You will imagine somebody in a wheelchair that has to go for a lecture on three, four, or five-storey buildings. It is degrading that they have to be carried by friends and colleagues,” Adekanmbi said.
‘I was brought up not to see myself as being disabled, I have it all’
Ronke (not real name) has had a physical deformity on her left leg since childhood and walks only with the right with the aid of crutches. As an accountant with a utility company in Ibadan, Ronke said she worked twice as hard as her “abled” counterparts to get to where she is in life because she was raised by her parents not to see herself as being disabled.
“The way you are brought up and the way you accept your environment will help you to see the ability or disability in you. I was brought up not to see myself as a disabled person. My parents didn’t send me to a disabled school; I went to a normal school from primary to tertiary without anybody helping me. So, when I go to public buildings, I don’t actually see that things like ramps or rails should be there because if I see others climbing those places, I will want to do so too.
“My parents inculcated it in me that there is nothing wrong with me and I have always seen myself as nothing is wrong with me, I can have it all. The way you carry yourself is the way society will accept you. I don’t look down on myself. Even to the kind of job and the choice of husband, I picked. I don’t wait for somebody to accept me; if you love me, you come nearer,” Ronke told Nigerian Tribune in her office while donning her ankle-length black gown and a black mid-heel mule.
‘The law is our final arbiter, our recourse’
The law is often referred to as the last hope of the common man and that is what the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act has come to signify for Nigerian women with disabilities.
“Passing the bill is the way out for us in this state. I have been telling people that if they like, let them not do what they are supposed to do now, when they pass the law, I will become a millionaire through this. If I come to your building or facility and it is not accessible to me, I will sue you. That is what the law says,” Adegoke said.
Ocheido believes that the law has helped in creating awareness about the rights of PWDs and with it, more can be achieved.
“We have some kind of support now. The law has helped in terms of awareness but we are still struggling with implementation where we have to enforce accessibility, enforce anti-discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, in different life situations.”
“The law will go a long way in addressing the issue on the ground because when the bill is passed, those that go against the law would be sanctioned, it will make people be on their toes, the society will become more responsive and respectful of the rights of persons with disabilities,” said Evang. Kayode.
“We are waiting to start aggressive awareness towards that as soon as our bill is passed so that people will know that they need to convert or modify their houses in such a way that it will accommodate persons with disabilities, especially those on wheelchairs and those using crutches.
“In the bill, we have the section where if you don’t comply, there is a certain amount that you will be paying monthly. It is part of access when we talk of the disabled park; a lot of people park wrongly and our people will be out there to get people to pay penalties and get some token for the government in the area of revenue,” said Adekanmbi.
Individuals and organisations are taking the lead
Through her non-profit foundation, Platinum Interventions Care Initiative, Ocheido, like many individuals, is helping PWDs lead better lives in a rather discriminatory society like Nigeria. She said through her #RampUpNigeria campaign, her organisation has installed ramps in over 100 public buildings, especially schools; given mobility aids to PWDs; trained women and girls in rural communities with disabilities in computer and technology skills.
Her focus on equipping schools is founded on her belief that “education is a transformative tool. If persons with disabilities can access education, they can have agency over their lives. When you have education, you understand better how you should be treated, you will be able to communicate your feelings and your thoughts better. You can be involved in decision-making processes, seek employment and seek independence.”