In January 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Prohibition Act, to provide for the full integration of persons with disabilities into society. It also establishes the National Commission for People with Disabilities, and vests in the Commission the responsibilities for their education, healthcare, social, economic and civil rights.
The Act was passed following 9 years of advocacy efforts and stipulates that from the date of signing, public buildings and structures that were previously inaccessible to persons with disabilities have a transitionary period of five (5) years to be modified, so that they become accessible and usable to persons with disabilities, including those using wheelchairs. New building plans are also supposed to be scrutinized by relevant authorities to ensure that the plan conforms with the building code.
A list of penalties are laid out for individuals or corporate bodies who breach this Act. Corporate bodies who discriminate against a person on the grounds of his or her disability are fined N1m while, Individuals who discriminate against a person with a disability are liable to pay N100,000 or spend six months in jail, or both.
While advocates celebrated the passing of this Act, as they should, their joy was somewhat marred by the fact that when it comes to policy change in Nigeria, policy direction is the least challenging of hurdles to get over. Implementation is usually where the shoe pinches, as there seems to be a consistent gap between enacting laws and executing them.
Friday March 1 is Zero Discrimination Day, and this year UNAIDS is highlighting the urgent need to take action against laws which exclude people from essential services or subject them to undue restrictions on how they live their lives.
"Ending discrimination and changing laws is the responsibility of us all. Everyone can play a part in ending discrimination and can try to make a difference, in ways both big and small. The Zero Discrimination Day 2019 campaign challenges people to act against laws that discriminate in their country," the UNAIDS Zero Discrimination Day Campaign Page reads.
The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Prohibition Act works to reintegrate people who have traditionally been discriminated against back into society. This is a good first step. Yet when we think of communities in Nigeria who would benefit from zero discrimination, the list is long: Persons Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), Persons Living With and Affected by Leprosy and other Neglected Tropical Diseases, people who suffer from mental health challenges, sexual abuse survivors, Victims of Gender-Based and Intimate Partner Violence, and women living with Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF), to name just a few. Healthcare is sometimes denied to women in parts of Nigeria until they get permission from their husbands or their mothers-in-law. Young people are sometimes denied access to sexual and reproductive health services because of culturally held beliefs that young people should not be engaging in sex.
For many of these issues, the laws to prevent discrimination are in place. Yet the lack of implementation is brought to the fore when members of these communities need to access healthcare and social services. How do we as a community of Nigerians go beyond the dotted line of policies and laws, to a society where those who are different, whether differently-abled or living with a disease, are treated with the same dignity and respect that we all as Nigerians yearn for? How do we give them the satisfaction of knowing that their voices are indeed heard and considered in shaping the way we conduct our affairs as a country, as healthcare providers, as neighbours, as law enforcement officers?
Nigerians have a popular colloquial phrase, "Do me I do you, God no go vex." It usually means that if you do something wrong to me, I will revenge by doing something wrong to you. But can we apply this to the way we treat those who are living with disabilities? Can we treat them with the same dignity and respect, and give them the same access, all Nigerians enjoy?
Only then can we truly begin on a path to #ZeroDiscrimination.