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On January 23, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018. This has been a long awaited law which is intended to service the over 10% of the Nigerian population living with disabilities.

Persons living with disabilities have been discriminated, marginalized and treated majorly as a charity case in the country for so long. Their contributions and possible contributions if in an enabling environment, has not been accorded the recognition it deserves. It is therefore a great achievement that the Act not only seeks to promote and protect their rights but also appreciates the fact that persons with disabilities are not second class citizens in their own country.

The Act is premised on the international understanding that persons with disabilities are not hampered by their physical conditions but by environmental barriers and attitudinal behavior. One of the objective of the Act is to ensure full integration of persons with disabilities into the society. The Act further establishes a National Commission which is vested with the responsibilities to promote education, health care, social, economic and civil rights of persons with disability.

The Act notably, prohibits discrimination against any person with disability. Discrimination against any person with disability is a criminal offence that attracts fines of N1,000,000 (if a body corporate) and N100, 000 (for individuals) or 6months imprisonment or both.

In an effort to address the attitudinal behavior, the Act places a responsibility on the Ministry of Information to conduct awareness programs that promote the rights and dignities of persons with disabilities. It is envisaged that this will lead to transformed society that is accepting of all persons despite their physical appearance.

The major hindrance to persons with disabilities leading a quality life is accessibility. Recognising this, the Act stipulates that all existing public building and structures are modified to be accessible to all. It also directs that all future buildings must be built to ensure accessibility for all. An officer who approves a building plan that contravenes the building code commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of at least N1m or a term of imprisonment for 2yrs or both. It further speaks to accessibility to all forms of transportation and the importance of general information being in accessible format.

The Act in order to ensure inclusive education, provides free education to secondary school level. It also states that all public school must have all the necessary assistive devices. It is worthy to note that the Act stipulates that braille and sign language must form part of the curricula from primary to tertiary. This will help to break the invisible wall that exist in our society between persons with disabilities and persons without disabilities.

Despite all these provision aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, there are quite a number of challenges which may hinder the spirit of the Act. The Act stipulates that 5% of employees at the public organisation must be persons with disabilities but it is silent on the percentage of employees in the private sector. In order to ensure the right of persons with disability to work, it is important that all institutions are inclusive of everyone.

The National Commission established by the Act, is mandated to provide among other things assistive devices and monitor the implementation of the Act. Ideally the affairs of persons with disability should translate throughout all the government departments and the Commission should be tasked to monitor. If the Commission is expected to provide basic amenities for persons with disabilities at the same time monitor institutions, one wonders which institution will monitor the Commission. As it currently stands, the Commission is expected to monitor itself thus making it the judge and jury in its own matter. The Act neglects to stipulate the start date of the Commission. This means that constituting the Commission can be held indefinitely.

The Act does not provide social grants to persons with severe disability or their caregivers. As most caregivers have to care for persons with severe disability full time thereby hindering them from taking up any job, it is important that social grants are made available for their upkeep.

Even though the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities promotes the rights of persons with disabilities to sports and recreation, the Act is completely silent on these.

The greatest hindrance to promoting and protecting the rights stipulated in the Act is implementation. Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, this however didn’t translate into the lived experience of persons with disabilities. It is thus a founded fear that this Act might just be a document, like many of our laws and policies, without any impact.

Therefore as we celebrate this achievement – the signing of the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act – civil society, persons with disabilities and the community at large should actively monitor the Act to ensure it is fully implemented.