In Nigeria, disability activists say social stigma is greatest obstacle to human rights

In April 2014, Nigerian doctor Mariam Florence Ogo examines a 12-year-old child affected by polio during a supportive supervision visit at an underserved mobile settlement in Manjekin, Adamawa, Nigeria. Transmission of Polio program. Photo by Mariam Florence Ogo. Used with permission via Flickr: CC BY 2.0.

Irene Patrick-Ogbogu, 43, started using a wheelchair seven years ago. In that time, she has experienced a decline in her capacity to exercise her free will.

“I can’t go out like I used to, I can’t do most things in public spaces, and people just look at you with pity,” Patrick-Ogbogu told me during a phone interview on August 10.

In Nigeria today, people with any form of disability are often treated with disparagement. While a new law passed in 2018 offers new hope for disability inclusion, Nigerians with impairments continue to face a host of barriers and mistreatment, including verbal and sexual abuse, employment discrimination and limited access to public spaces and public transportation.

Patrick-Ogbogu is the founder and director of the Disability Rights Advocacy Centre (DRAC), an organisation working to change how disability is addressed in Nigeria. She is also one of around 27 million Nigerians with a physical disability. Experiencing first-hand the discrimination against persons with disabilities ignited her desire for change.

According to human rights activist Ekaete Umoh, social stigma is the toughest nut to crack, as perception dictates action.

Discrimination also threatens the rights of a person with disabilities, impacting access to healthcare, financial inclusion and education. #RampUpNigeria, a social media campaign introduced by disability rights activist Blessing Ocheido to highlight Nigeria’s almost non-existent wheelchair accessibility, is tackling the problem.

In other countries, cash machines have earphone slots and braille so visually impaired people can access their money without assistance. In Nigeria, however, few machines have these features, and the height of cash machines make them inaccessible to wheelchair users. Restaurants, hospitals and other public places are all almost entirely inaccessible to a person with alternative needs, — though occasionally you find the odd church with a sign language interpreter.

These much-needed, but difficult-to-access spaces impede independence. And it is because of these structural obstructions, Umoh notes, not the impairment, that disability becomes a liability and the stigma further emphasised.

“Many people see disability as a charity issue rather than a human rights issue.” —Ekaete Umoh

Like Patrick-Ogbogu, Umoh contracted poliomyelitis (polio) in the 1980s, when the virus affected hundreds of children worldwide. Though Umoh does not use a wheelchair, the illness affected the muscles in one of her legs, leaving one visibly smaller than the other.

Disability discrimination within families 

Umoh says her disability rights advocacy started with family interventions. “I would visit family homes and tell them ‘look at me. Is anything wrong with me?’ And help them understand disability.” The focus on families was fueled by her experiences in university, where, confined to a single block reserved for students with disabilities, physical or otherwise, she discovered that families are part of the problem.

“Families added to the low self-esteem [children] developed by living in this society. You hear of families hiding [disabled] people away, [some] abusing their children”. — Ekaete Umoh

A deaf children’s educator in Lagos who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive nature of working with families, told me that when deaf children are born to the average Nigerian family, the lucky ones end up in the care of institutions, because parents are unsure of how to care for them — some even end up being adopted by teachers. Those who live with their families are sidelined and never learn to communicate properly, which affects development and further limits their life choices.

Familial and societal biases affect persons with every category of disability, but gender is also a factor. Research suggests that women with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience domestic violence, abuse, and sexual assault. Disabled women are also overlooked by women’s rights activists, says Umoh. It is for this reason that both Umoh and Patrick-Ogbogu are especially concerned about disabled women’s rights.

Of all the stigmas, religious and cultural beliefs might be the most jarring. CNN reports that in Nigeria, disability is often considered a supernatural consequence of evil or witchcraft, and disabled persons are often ostracized or exiled as a result.

The first step toward accessing human and legal rights

Disability rights activists all agree that their efforts would be more fruitful with the law on their side.

On January 23, 2019, almost 20 years after it was first proposed, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018. 

The act vests the commission with responsibility for the “education, health care, social, economic and civil rights” of disabled people. Under the new laws, anybody caught discriminating against persons with disabilities in Nigeria risks a fine of “100,000 Nigerian naira [$276 USD] or six months imprisonment or both.”

Umoh explained that this is a win is not just for people with disabilities, but for the entire country, creating more jobs and business opportunities. One example is the manufacture of prosthetic limbs to help amputees function comfortably in society.

Umoh runs Family Centred Initiative For Challenged Persons, a 19-year-old nonprofit focused on educating families about disability and advocating for policy changes and the rights of girls with disabilities. She speculates that the disability bill was overlooked for so many years due to an unfortunate mix of a dysfunctional judiciary system and social stigma. Ogbodo-Patrick concurs: “Once, [the bill] got to the president's office; his excuse was that there was no budget for the bill’s demands”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has pointed out that with no laws against discrimination until now, people with disabilities have long been overlooked for by employers. Now, employers who overlook applicants based on disability face a 250,000 Nigerian naira ($690 USD) fine.

Patrick-Ogbogu is confident that the new laws will improve the situation of disabled people. She has been working with the government to create opportunities for persons with disabilities since DRAC was established in 2011 and in that time, she has witnessed changes in perception. DRAC’s Idris Agboluaje, says he, too, has witnessed changes in the attitudes of educators and police officers toward persons with disabilities, making it easier for people with disabilities to exercise their rights.

New hope for disability inclusion

The goal, Umoh says, is to normalise disability, which will address the isolation and segregation disabled people experience. “How are children going to understand their peers if they can’t interact [with them]?” she asks.

Umoh believes that the Ministry of Education needs to get involved: “[Democratic] rights for disabled people should be included in the social studies curriculum.” The deaf children’s educator agrees, suggesting that sign language should be a language option in Nigerian schools, alongside foreign languages like French. 

Patrick-Ogbogu is especially vocal about the need for public representation such as the senate, while Umoh is passionate about the need for collaborations between people with disabilities and their allies. She believes that with more public and private organisations advocating for disability rights, the barriers —internal and external— that block opportunities and create ceilings can be dismantled.

Patrick-Ogbogu stresses that more than anything, the disability bill is about visibility. “This is an opportunity for people with disabilities to be seen as what they are: people with the right and ability to exercise their human rights.”

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