In the light of what appears to be a lack of appreciation for the rights of persons with disabilities within Nigeria, the imperative of having a special piece of legislation completely dedicated to addressing their rights had become long overdue.
President Muhammadu Buhari (GCON) recently signed into law, the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2019 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) with the principal objectives of achieving full integration of persons with disabilities into the society and establishing a National Commission for persons with disability to cater for their socio-economic rights.
The Act generally reaffirms the equal status that persons with disabilities enjoy with persons without disabilities under the laws of the land and proceeds to create mandatory provisions for preserving that equality and ensuring that they benefit from a level playing field as far as is possible. With the rights of persons with disability being reinforced in this way, any form of discrimination against them is strictly prohibited and attracts sanctions under the Act. We now attempt to highlight some of the more significant provisions of this landmark legislation.
SCOPE OF APPLICATION OF THE ACT
The Act is applicable to the whole Federation without any exception.
MAJOR PROVISIONS OF THE ACT
Prohibition of discrimination
The Act prohibits any form of discrimination against any person on the grounds of disability and imposes penalties for breaches. For instance, where a body corporate discriminates against a person with disability, such a body corporate is liable to a fine of N1,000,000 (One million Naira) and, in the case of an individual, a fine of N100,000 (Hundred thousand Naira) or imprisonment of 6 months or both. This is without prejudice to the rights of the aggrieved person instituting a civil cause of action against the offender regardless of whether the criminal prosecution resulted in a conviction or acquittal.
In order to sensitize the general public about the value of persons with disability to society, the Federal Ministry of Information has been mandated to undertake public awareness programmes to inform the public about their rights, dignity, capability and achievements. See sections 1 and 2 of the Act.
Accessibility of physical structures
Pursuant to sections 3 to 6 of the Act, persons with disability should be afforded lifts, ramps and other accessibility aids to enable access to all physical structures on an equal basis with others; similar access must be afforded in public buildings and road side walks. All planning approvals should have due regard to the needs of persons with disability including those with wheel chairs. A period of 5 years from the coming into effect of the legislation has been afforded already existing public buildings and structures which were formerly inaccessible to ensure that their buildings were accessible going forward.
In similar vein, all seaports, railways and airports are required to make adequate provision to facilitate ease of access by persons with disability, including the provision of functional wheelchairs; ensuring that they are accorded priority on queues and during boarding and dis-embarkment; and effecting the translation of information in a format appropriate to the person with disability present. See sections 13 to 15 of the Act.
The right to free, inclusive and appropriate education and liberty for persons with disability is guaranteed under the Act. These rights contemplate inter alia that such persons are prohibited from being deployed for collection of arms; free education to secondary school level, provision of educational assistive devices, incorporation of braille, sign language and other skills in the curriculum of primary, secondary and tertiary institutions and subsidized education for special education personnel. See sections 17 to 20 of the Act.
With respect to healthcare, the Act prescribes free treatment for all persons with mental disability in all public institutions. Pursuant to enjoying these rights and privileges in full, it is advised that such a mentally disabled person should obtain a permanent certificate of disability under section 22 of the Act. The conditions for procuring such a certificate comprise evidence of mental disability and a recommendation by a doctor to that effect. Where mental illness arises during the course of treatment, a term of 180 days must elapse after the issuance of a temporary certificate of disability.
However, where a permanent certificate of disability is unlawfully issued or obtained, the offender is liable upon conviction to a fine of N200,000 (two hundred thousand Naira) or a term of imprisonment of 1 year or both.
Opportunity for Employment and Politics
The Act provides that a person with disabilities shall work on an equal basis with every other individual and has the right to an opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in the labour market and work environment that is open. See section 28 of the Act.
Furthermore, the Act stipulates that all public organizations are to reserve at least 5 % of employment opportunities for persons with disability. See section 29.
The National Commission for Persons with Disabilities
The Act establishes the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities as a corporate body with common seal and perpetual succession. Its responsibilities include policy formulation and implementation, public enlightenment, data collection and record-keeping of information regarding persons with disabilities, receipt of complaints from persons with disabilities whose rights have been violated and institution of schemes which promote the welfare of persons with disabilities.
The enactment of the Act is a statement of intent by the National Assembly and the Federal Government that Nigeria has turned a significant corner in the pursuit of establishing a more egalitarian society. Without a doubt, disabled members of our society have been denied a fair chance at competing effectively with others. Their rights have been frequently trampled upon and they have had to climb difficult hurdles just to enjoy rights that are otherwise protected under the Nigerian constitution.
As earlier indicated, the coming into effect of this legislation helps provide additional muscle to the enforcement of rights of persons with disabilities by ensuring specificity and enlargement of their rights. With the establishment of a National Commission, it is hoped that urgent steps would be taken to sensitize Nigerians about the rights of persons with disabilities and the tremendous value they could bring to the task of nation building. We also expect that the various penalties and sanctions embedded in the Act for violations of its provisions would be duly enforced as and when appropriate as we prepare to transit to an environment which nourishes a culture of respect, empathy and value for persons with disabilities.
IBIM O. DOKUBO