The signing of the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 into law on January 23, 2019, was the climax of a series of advocacy to protect persons with disabilities. But the law has been observed more in breaches since its enactment. The need to enforce the provisions of the Act, especially Section 5, which deals with access to public buildings is, however, gaining momentum as President Bola Tinubu threatened to shut down buildings that fail to comply with the law. Yet, there is a lot more requisite to ease their plights, ROTIMI AGBOLUAJE reports.
Following the proclamation by the United Nations Assembly that December 3 every year be celebrated as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), various groups, associations, as well as organisations have been clamouring and making frantic efforts to ensure that PWDs are not discriminated against. The clamour and agitations yielded the desired result in 2011 when the administration of Governor Babatunde Fashola signed into law, the Lagos State Special Peoples’ Bill.
Among others, that law makes provisions for adequate standard of living and social protection, provision of facilities at public buildings, situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies, and rights of children with disabilities.
Again, after years of relentless advocacy by disability rights groups and activists, the National Assembly passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Bill 2018. Consequently, former President Muhammadu Buhari signed the bill into law on January 23, 2019.
The law prohibits discrimination based on disability and imposes sanctions. It also stipulates a five-year transitional period for modifying public buildings, structures, and automobiles to make them accessible to people with disabilities.
Section 5 of the Act gives a disabled person the right to access the physical environment and buildings on an equal basis with others. It further requires all public buildings being constructed to be done in a manner to provide PWDs easy and unrestricted access. Such public buildings are required to be fitted with ramps, railings, audio signals, reading accessibility, and other modifications that will enable ease of use for disabled persons.
Piqued by the seemingly non-compliance with the law, the Federal Government recently said it had concluded plans to set up a task force that would shut down all public buildings in breach of the PWDs Act.
Represented by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Dr Betta Edu, President Bola Tinubu tasked all state governments to set up state-owed disability commissions to cater to the needs of PWDs, ensure inclusivity, and target grassroots communities.
Edu said: “Arrangements have been finalised and a task force is about to be established to guarantee that public facilities are accessible to individuals with disabilities. This is not a request for help or a favour; the Constitution clearly states that they have this right.
“We will move from place to place and buildings will be shut down with the backing of Mr. President for non-compliance. Therefore, all public buildings must create all accessibility mediums before we arrive.”
As expected, the threat by the president has generated an admixture of excitement and caution. While throwing his weight behind the threat, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Prof. Adeniyi Olatunbosun said the enforcement of the law is in line with the law and international best practices.
Speaking with The Guardian in Ibadan, Olatunbosun, said the president’s warning complies with the law. The law teacher said: “The president’s warning regarding those constructing buildings without making provision for people with disabilities, is in order. There is a law mandating access to buildings by persons with disabilities.
“Most of the projects should take into consideration the need to comply with the law and it is also in compliance with international best practices for buildings and public utilities.
“Often when the law is put in place and there is no sanction, people do not want to comply with it. I believe that most of the stakeholders, government, parastatals, and agencies, especially town planning authorities of the various states, as well as, the Federal Government will be able to ensure that they make those that are building to comply with the law.
“It is the best way to go and I believe that it will also show that Nigeria is also complying with international best practices. So, I believe every public utility should consider PWDs during construction.”
In his submission, an Ibadan-based lawyer, Yomi Ogunlola said buildings should not discriminate between able and disabled citizens, adding that all must have equal access.
Also, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Dipo Olasope said it would be right to shut down buildings contravening a valid law, adding that in advanced countries, PWDs are given special privileges. It is only in a place like Nigeria that such privileges are absent,” he noted.
A public affairs analyst and lawyer, Fatai Akinsanmi believes that any country that thrives in the rule of law must take a step to accommodate PWDs without any delay. He, however, lamented that Nigeria is a country where laws are treated with impunity. Akinsanmi said: “Tinubu’s decision to shut down public buildings over non-compliance to disability access is a welcome development.”
For a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Lead City University, Ibadan, Prof. Olu Ojedokun, the enforcement should be steady and gradual with much public enlightenment going with it because many citizens may not have been educated about the existence of the law.
He said: “It’s appalling that in this modern age, public buildings are not accessible. it’s a denial or limitation of the rights of those who happen to be disabled. However, a knee-jerk reaction should not suffice. It should be steady and gradual with much education to go with it.”
Adding her voice to the issue, another law teacher at the Lead City University, Ibadan, Dr Aderonke Adegbite, described the warning as impressive. She, however, pointed out that structures cannot be pulled down arbitrarily without sufficient notice to owners to comply with the law. Notwithstanding, Adegbite explained that the warning by the President is needed to sustain the campaign on inclusivity. She also questioned the effectiveness of the Disability Commission, which is charged with the responsibility of overseeing compliance with the law.
Aderonke called for better empowerment and funding of the commission to enable it to discharge its duties effectively and efficiently instead of establishing another Commission or setting up a task force that would duplicate functions.
Adegbite asked: “How proactive has the Disability Commission been, especially now that they are complaining of underfunding? How do you proceed to shut down public buildings when we don’t have evidence to show that these places had earlier been mandated to follow the law?
“In order not to duplicate efforts, the existing commission should be better empowered, funded, and mandated to perform its duties. There’s no need to set up a special task force or create a new commission. I hope that the president’s threat brings about the desired impacts and actions.”
A member of the Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) in Oyo State, Omololu Ejidiran, also lauded the step. He, however, harped on the need for Tinubu to respect the fundamental rights of fair hearing.
According to him, the president cannot act as a judge, witness, or complainant at the same time. Such, he stated, is a violation of Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution. He said: “I want to express my profound gratitude to President Tinubu for showing interest in the enforcement of the provisions of the Disability Act regarding public facilities in the country. Laws are meant to be enforced for orderliness and peaceful co-existence. The president is acting within the provisions of the law by prodding citizens to comply with the law.
“The president will be violating Section 36 of the Constitution, which borders on the right to a fair hearing if he proceeds to shut down buildings. He should rather allow the affected citizens to file suits against any non-compliance to the Disability Act. It’s alien to our laws for the president to be the complainant, witness, prosecutor, and judge. Secondly, the perceived violators of the Disability Act should be given a period to comply.”
Instructively, only 19 states have passed the Disability Law in Nigeria as of 2022. They include North Central (Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, and Plateau states); North East (Bauchi State); North West (Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto and Zamfara states); South East (Abia and Anambra states); South South (Cross River and Edo states) and South West (Ekiti, Lagos, Ondo and Oyo states).