TESSY IGOMU, who toured the Lagos Bus Rapid Transit terminals and routes, reports how discriminatory attitudes and lack of assistive facilities deprive Persons With Disabilities access to public transportation

They are about 27 million, out of Nigeria’s estimated population of 206 million people. Ironically, they are, to a great extent, a neglected segment of the society, whose well-being only manages to slip into national discourse or consciousness.

They are Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), whose pain runs deep and goes way beyond the physical ache of disability.

Disabled by factors they absolutely had no control over, these individuals face the dual challenge of inclusiveness and accessibility, which impedes their mobility.

The day-to-day life of PWDs is riddled with challenges created by a system that is expected to be on the lookout for their well-being.

Ordinarily, commuting in any part of the country poses a great challenge to these individuals. Unable to cope with the fast-paced commercial vehicles, which are sometimes driven by intolerant drivers and motor boys (popularly called conductors), those in Lagos are left with no choice but to embrace considerably safer options, including the BRT, launched on March 17, 2008.

However, they are faced with accessibility encumbrances that make mobility a herculean task.

Tour of terminals, routes

When PUNCH Investigations visited the BRT terminals and toured the routes plied by the buses, several barriers that made accessibility and mobility difficult were conspicuous.

Our correspondent learnt that though the buses operating under the BRT franchise had different operators, including the Lagos Bus Services Limited and Primero Transport Services Limited, they were being regulated by the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, an agency created to coordinate transport planning, policies and public transport infrastructure implementation in the state.

From the Oshodi ultramodern terminal, where a cowry card for boarding was purchased from a ticketing booth, our correspondent started the tour aboard a Mile 2 bound bus with seating capacity for 27 passengers.

Routes such as Ikeja, Meiran, Abule Egba, Ayobo, Agege, Ikorodu, Berger, CMS, Ajah, TBS and Oworonshoki were also traversed.

PUNCH Investigations discovered that lack of basic assistive facilities on the shuttles limited the mobility of PWDs, unlike their able-bodied counterparts, who could board and disembark with ease.

Though yellow seats were reserved for PWDs and pasted on the glass windows close to them were inscriptions that read ‘Seats for people who are disabled, pregnant, elderly or less able to stand’, physically challenged passengers were denied access to them by other passengers.

It was observed that the yellow seats were among the first to be occupied by regular passengers. When our correspondent boarded the BRT buses, she sat unchallenged on the yellow seat, despite having vacant seats all around.

While individuals using crutches were not given priority on some routes, those in wheelchairs, who were meant to glide with ease into the buses atop ramps, were practically carried like babies into the shuttles. The ramps, which looked rustic, appeared not to be in use.

In all, non-functional ramps for wheelchair-bound passengers, unfit platforms for ramping, unavailability of seats earmarked for PWDs, intolerant passengers and insensitivity on the part of bus drivers and attendants, combined to make mobility a living hell for PWDs on the BRT buses.

Also, cognizance was taken of how commercial buses treated PWDs and the experience was quite disheartening.

Statistics of PWDs

According to the Centres for Disease Prevention and Control, a disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for a person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.

Such conditions, the CDC noted, might be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or a combination of multiple factors.

According to the 2011 World Report on Disability by the World Health Organisation, more than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of which nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning.

The WHO explained that this was partly because PWDs experience barriers in accessing services such as health, education, employment, transport as well as information, and that the difficulties were exacerbated in less advantaged communities.

According to the World Bank, while there is no clear estimation of the number of those with disabilities in Nigeria, data from the 2019 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, revealed that an estimated seven per cent of household members above the age of five, as well as nine per cent of those 60 or above, experience some level of difficulty in at least one functional domain–seeing, hearing, communication, cognition, walking, or self-care.

The World Bank further revealed that one per cent experience difficulty or could not function at all in at least one domain.

The WHO noted that many out of the estimated number of Nigerians face a number of human right abuses that include stigma, discrimination, violence and lack of access to healthcare, transportation, housing and education.

However, this is not peculiar to Nigeria, as the International Journal on Human Rights stated that the African system had failed to prioritise disability rights.

 Our fate, challenges commuting–PWDs

Based on PUNCH Investigations’ finding, the most basic need of PWDs–accessibility to public transportation was being neglected in a manner that was not possible if they were needed by their able-bodied counterparts.

Those with disabilities, who shared their concerns and frustration with our correspondent, said in as much as they did not expect the world to revolve around them, they deserved minimum consideration from those who promised to uphold human dignity.

Their experiences, which painted grim pictures of discrimination and prejudice, they said had left them ashamed, offended, intimidated and stigmatised.

One of such individuals is a cobbler identified only as Adekunle, spotted by our correspondent at the CMS BRT terminal en route Ikeja.

As the sun bore down ferociously that afternoon, he wobbled on his crutches to join the long queue of restive passengers waiting for a bus. It was peak traffic hour and he struggled to maintain a balance on his crutches.

As a BRT bus pulled into the terminal, it was obvious that Adekunle’s physical state put him at a great disadvantage. Outmatched by the agility of other able-bodied passengers that hurriedly took up every available seat in the bus, he was forced to wait for another one.

Sensing his frustration, our correspondent stylishly engaged him in a conversation. The young man lamented that though there were four yellow seats meant for those with disabilities, they were already occupied before he could board. He alleged that nobody, not even the driver or bus attendant made an attempt to get him seated.

Adekunle, who revealed that he lost the use of his limb as a toddler, consciously voiced what he claimed was unveiled inequality that stares him in the face daily as he commutes to his workshop with BRT buses.

“This is the type of society people like us have found ourselves,” he lamented.

“I am not one to bemoan my fate, but I demand better treatment from the government. Though I don’t expect anyone to pity me because of my condition, I expect some level of consideration when it comes to accessing BRT buses. Life has not been fair to people like us when it comes to moving around and we thought the BRT scheme would offer us some reprieve.”

We are stigmatised –PWDs

Sussan Ihuoma is a polio survivor who lost the use of her limbs at age three. The 43-year-old is the assistant secretary of the Joint National Association of Persons Living with Disabilities, an umbrella organisation for the PWDs. She told our correspondent that she stopped commuting with the BRT buses due to the stress associated with annexing her destinations from the terminals with her crutches.

“Once I disembark, I would have to walk a long distance. I stopped boarding BRT buses because it added to my burden. I now commute with ride hailing services. It’s more expensive and gulps 65 per cent of my income, but I have no choice,” she stated.

The lady, who is the founder of the Sussan’s Unique Oasis Foundation, added that yellow seats on the buses were earmarked for PWDs. She, however, noted that the absence of a law barring other passengers from occupying the seats ridiculed the initiative.

She said, “Sometimes, PWDs would enter the bus only to discover that the yellow seats had been occupied. They are then compelled to tell the passengers that the seats are meant for them. These passengers don’t get up without a fight and they act condescendingly.

“We are over two million in number in Lagos. There are children with autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, who would have to be carried by their mothers or caregivers, and when they board, the yellow seats are already occupied.

“We are not saying they should convey us free of charge, but they can make the fare be discounted. It is doable. This is governance. I am not talking about having special buses, because that will sound discriminatory and what we want is inclusion.”

Ihuoma bemoaned stigmatisation of the PWDs, especially those with hearing impairment, by BRT bus drivers and attendants, stressing that it was becoming worrisome and needed to be addressed.

She said, “Everybody deserves a shot at life irrespective of their physical state. Because the deaf have a disability that is invisible, they are usually stigmatised by bus attendants that usually think they are pretending. This is disturbing for me as an executive in our organisation, JONAPWD. We have formally complained through a letter to the Ministry of Transportation. But beyond that, we need a roundtable discussion.”

 “Improve awareness on BRT PWDs seats’’

Ihuoma appealed for more awareness to be created on the actual purpose of the yellow seats and for more BRT terminals across the state for accessibility.

“There are stations that broadcast in Yoruba and which have large listenership. When awareness is continuously created in local dialects that the BRT yellow seats are meant for the PWDs, the message will be well understood. I might not enter the shuttle, but others that do should be able to do so conveniently,” she stated.

On the challenges faced by the PWDs in accessing commercial buses in Lagos, Ihuoma said in 2015, JONAPWD key officers met with leaders of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, and that as a facilitator, she shared harrowing experiences she went through commuting with yellow buses or while attempting to cross roads.

“Back then, any time I tried to board any commercial bus, the driver would keep moving. I pointed this out and the leaders identified with what I said. The PWDs who can’t afford cab hailing services or get to BRT terminals face this dangerous attitude daily,” she lamented.

Kemi Odusanya, a visually impaired Mass Communication graduate, said the BRT system had been unable to solve her mobility problem. She noted that the terminals were cited in areas with high vehicular movement which makes accessibility difficult.

She said that she was aware that there were seats for the disabled, stating that the right of first use was not always enforced.

Odusanya lamented the absence of an audio ground penetrating radar device on BRT buses, noting that several times she had to disembark at wrong bus stops.

She said, “The audio GPS was used before the card payment was introduced. They call bus stops and you know when it’s time to alight. They no longer do this, making it quite challenging for those with visual impairment. If one decides to ask someone beside one and unfortunately, the person happens to be deaf or an elderly person that doesn’t understand English, what then happens? Passengers are not always willing to help either.”

Odusanya further said that since there was no law stipulating the actual number of PLWD that should be accommodated on a bus at a particular time, they were sometimes refused entry.

“I have heard many discriminating stories about not being allowed to board because there are more than one, despite having four seats and they pay the same amount as others. There will always be conflict of interest, except there is a law to address that,” she added.

Inaccessible pedestrian bridges

Ihuoma told PUNCH Investigations that pedestrian bridges constructed in strategic areas of Lagos were too high and not disability friendly for those that had to pass through busy roads to board commercial buses or BRT buses to their destinations.

She appealed for a special zebra crossing with a wheelchair sign to be sited on roads for easy crossing, adding, “For someone like me and others with physical disability, we can’t climb the new pedestrian bridges. Does it mean we shouldn’t go out? It is not about building bridges, it’s about thinking about inclusion.

“If a section has to be created on the bridges for people with disabilities to climb at their own pace, it is not too much to ask. We can’t always be moving about with people and if there is no financial strength to get a caregiver, what then happens?”

Odusanya also appealed for more awareness on zebra crossing and the construction of slip-way and walkway corridors on all roads to enhance the movement of PWDs.

“In Nigeria, zebra crossings are only meant for zebras. If those without disabilities find it hard to walk through a zebra crossing out of fear of getting crushed, imagine what would happen to a person that can’t see, ’’she said.

Demola Adeleke is a visually impaired graduate that resides in Ibadan, Oyo State but periodically visits Lagos. He bemoaned the lack of empathy towards visually impaired individuals while commuting, noting that it could be demoralising and demeaning.

He said in developed countries such as the US and UK, assistive facilities were provided to make mobility easy for the PWDs.

Adeleke appealed to managers of the BRT buses to exempt PWDs from joining queues at the terminals and for the attendants to be taught how to operate ramps, to avoid carrying wheelchair users into the bus.

“It is quite embarrassing to carry a wheelchair user into the BRT bus like a sack of potatoes. The buses should be equipped with usable ramps. In the UK, for example, the public buses could be lowered to level with the pavement for easy access. There should be more public awareness to acquaint the citizens with the existence and needs of PWDs while commuting, and how they can be of help should they come across such individuals.

“Transporters refuse PWDs to board their vehicles to avoid being burdened with any form of assistance. Such behaviour can be painful and dehumanising, especially when such an individual has endured a long wait.

“In order to prevent this and encourage disability inclusion, the state Ministry of Transportation should sensitise members of the NURTW and other transporters associations on inclusion and sanction defaulters. Also, other passengers should collectively condemn such an act once perpetrated by a driver. Blind passengers should always be dropped at the side of the road and helped to cross the road if necessary.

Disability laws without action

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is celebrated annually on December 3 to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.

Globally, there have been spirited efforts by people with disabilities to establish their legal rights as bona fide members of society, and this has led to the emergence of several laws.

Speaking on this, Ihuoma said despite celebrating 10th anniversary of the Special Peoples Bill in Lagos, special consideration had yet to be given to them.

She said, “This is despite the level of advocacy and awareness created on the bill. The bill is older than the National Disability Act. If we can still face a lack of accessibility and inclusiveness here, what will happen to those in other states that don’t have any law?”

The Lagos State Special Peoples Bill, 2010, was signed into law by the then Governor Babatunde Fashola, SAN, in June 2011. With this, Lagos became the first state in Nigeria to pass a disability protection law.

It criminalised and sanctions discrimination against people with disabilities and mandated that state-owned buildings and large buses be wheelchair accessible.

However, 10 years after the bill, inaccessibility still excludes many PWDs. Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on March 30, 2007 and its Optional Protocol on September 24, 2010. Since then, there have been agitations for implementation.

In 2011 and 2015, respectively, the National Assembly passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Bill, 2009, but it was not signed into law.

The Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, was, however, signed into law in January, 2019, by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd).

It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and imposes sanctions, including fines and prison sentences, for defaulters. Other relevant laws include the National Policy on Disability in Nigeria 2017, and the Nigerians with Disability Decree 1993.

The decree, enacted by the military government was meant to provide a clear and comprehensive legal protection and security for Nigerians with disability as well as establish standard for enforcement of the rights and privileges guaranteed under the decrees, and other laws applicable to PWDs in the country.

Section 9, subsection (1, 2 and 3) that harps on means of transportation, stated, “A disabled person shall be entitled to free transportation by bus, rail or any other conveyance (other than air travel) that serves the general public needs.

“All public transport systems shall take steps to adapt required fittings for the needs of the disabled.  Priority shall be given to the disabled in all publicly supported transport system. Accordingly, a reasonable number of seats shall be reserved solely for the use of the disabled.”

However, years after, no effective measures have been put in place for their implementation.

The President, Association of Lawyers with Disabilities, Daniel Onwe, decried the fact that laws had been confined to the dustbin.

Onwe, who had experienced several barriers and discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities, stated that failure to implement the various laws was a pointer to a deeply embedded cultural attitude around disability and had to be addressed.

Onwe stated “First is to ensure that transport networks are accessible. Mobility needs of PWDs were not put into consideration while conceptualising and implementing transportation plans in Lagos and across states in the country.

“Let me start with the present government’s project, which is the railway. The type of coaches in use is not inaccessible. It makes me wonder how a person using crutches or a wheelchair can cope,” he said.

The lawyer commended the Lagos State Government for being empathic and pragmatic to have considered the needs of PWDs by providing sitting areas, adding that the buses in use were below standard.

He said, “We expected to see buses that can go level low for a person with disability to wheel in. I am aware that promises were made to bring them in, but I am not aware that they have been imported.  The ones in use are still those inaccessible ones, and it’s a problem.

“Of course, such provisions are not available in the general commercial vehicles. People will say if the government can’t make the transport system accessible, what then can be said about individuals who are not as informed, educated and as funded as the government.”

Onwe said though laws such as the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities Prohibition Act, 2018, and the Lagos State Special People’s Law, 2011 were in existence, the advocacy and agitation at the moment were for better implementation.

He stated, “We have been advocating and will continue to advocate, and we are calling on all and sundry, particularly those in the media, to lend their voices for better implementation of the legislation. There is a need for everybody to be aware. Those at the grass-roots have major roles to play, especially in terms of accessing public transport by the PWDs.

“If we sensitise individuals that make up these transport associations, especially the drivers and conductors on how to be patient with PWDs when boarding and disembarking, and they do what should be done, it will go a long way in solving the mobility problem.”

 There’s legal framework for PWDs – Lagos Disability Affairs

The General Manager, Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs, Oluwadamilare Ogundairo, said the state government was an advocate of inclusive governance.

Speaking with PUNCH Investigations, he noted that there had always been a legal framework that recognised the rights of PWDs in the state, adding that the signing of the Lagos State Special Peoples Law, establishment of the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs and setting up of the Disability Fund to cater for PWDs were indicative of the state government’s interest.

“The state government had always taken cognisance of the rights of PWDs to have access to public transport. The right to be served first in any public queue and reservation of the seats in any mode of public transport is explicitly contained in the Lagos State Special Peoples Law.

“The current blue buses in the BRT are specifically chosen for their inbuilt manual ramps. This was unlike in the past where they had electrically controlled ramps that could stop functioning as the buses got older. All the blue buses also have wheelchair signs on the front windshield.”

He, however, bemoaned harassment of the PWDs by overzealous BRT officials, especially when attempting to board free of charge, adding, “This is especially worse with deaf people whose disability is invisible. For people in wheelchairs, it is sometimes challenging entering the buses at designated bus stations in spite of the ramps. This is because the boarding platforms are hardly ramped.”

He, however, appealed for the state government to provide standard identity cards for all the PWDs in the state so that they could have guaranteed access to the BRT buses and ramps at boarding platforms.

“Proper enlightenment of bus officials on how to relate with the PWDs will also go a long way.”

 PWDs accorded special privileges – LAMATA

Also, the Assistant Director, Corporate Communications, LAMATA, Mr Kola Ojelabi, said special preference was always accorded PWDs by BRT staff members. He noted that the buses were fitted with ramps, noting that those not working at the time of our correspondent’s tour could have developed mechanical faults.

On the issue of the PWDs being deprived of the use of seats allotted to them, Ojelabi said BRT ground staff members had at several times been brutalised for enforcing the use of the yellow seats.

He attributed the habit of not yielding to the needs of PWDs by passengers to negative perception of society towards people in such a category.

“In the past, people got up for the elderly and pregnant women in buses, but that attitude is missing now. The buses have spaces for wheelchairs to be fitted in and special sitting arrangements for the disabled. But passengers choose to turn a blind eye to the signs and when corrected, they go on the offensive,” Ojelabi added.

 Primero BRT is PWDs

The Public Affairs Officer, Lagos Bus Services Limited, Afolabi Olawale, said there were provisions for the PWDs on the fleet.

He stated that the buses had yellow seats for the PWDs and ramps at the rear doors, which were usually brought down to allow access for passengers in wheelchairs.

“There is fast-track service for the elderly. They are not allowed to queue and all passengers understand that. Pregnant women are also not allowed to queue; and nursing mothers, to an extent, don’t queue,” Olawale stated.

He revealed that there were other incentives, which the Lagos State Government was working on for the PWDs, which he said would be made public soon.

Meanwhile, the Lagos State Commissioner for Transportation, Frederic Oladeinde, had yet to get back to our correspondent after a text message was sent to his mobile. The message sought to know the steps taken so far by the ministry to address issues of accessibility and inclusiveness regarding PWDs in the state.

PUNCH

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