The harmonized bill stipulates that anyone, or group of people, that employs or engages a disabled person in begging for alms risks imprisonment or a fine of N100,000 or both. The bill forbids anyone from segregating or isolating people with disabilities, except for health reasons as may be provided for in the Constitution. Part 9 Clause 21 of the bill states that ‘except on medical grounds or in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a person with disability shall not be isolated or segregated from the community or compelled to live in a particular area’.
The bill also makes it mandatory for all public schools, whether primary, secondary or tertiary, to have qualified personnel and special facilities for the effective education of persons with disabilities; the Braille, sign language and other skills for communicating with persons with disabilities should form part of the curricula of primary, secondary and tertiary institutions.
Apart from prescribing free education at all levels for the disabled, the bill requires the government to ensure that all persons with disabilities enjoy free healthcare services, with equal access as able-bodied persons to employment opportunities and all social amenities. About 22 million persons are believed to be living with disabilities in Nigeria.
The legislation is anchored on sound principles. The disheartening exploitation of physically challenged persons calls for a bill of this nature to legally protect them, like other vulnerable groups. Begging especially by the physically challenged has been a challenging menace in Nigeria, with the disabled being considered as objects to be deployed as sources of livelihood for others.
The bill though is too ambitious in its demand for the mandatory provision of trained personnel and dedicated facilities such as Braille for persons with disabilities that may need to use them to improve their lives. Besides, the existing school system also needs precisely such level of attention in public schools to be able to raise standards of learning, which the government has not provided in sufficient numbers. The general practice is to have special schools for learners with special needs, which made the establishment of the school for the blind, the school for the deaf, or the school for the physically challenged, etc, necessary.
A more realistic provision would be to make it mandatory, for instance, for facilities such as ramps in addition to steps on staircases in storey buildings, wider doors, lower toilets, etc, to be part of the design and construction of all public buildings. News on television should be cast simultaneously in sign language and voice broadcast to serve viewers with hearing impairment.
Nigeria already has enough bureaucratic structures like commissions and boards more than it can actually cope with, making the establishment of a national commission for the physically challenged unnecessary. More so, experience has shown that commissions and boards, like many government agencies, are a strain on resources because, although they may be well provisioned in budgetary allocations, they don’t meet the expectations that informed their creation. What is required is to re-position and strengthen the National Policy on Special Education. Section 10 of the existing National Policy on Education already makes education of children with special needs (including the disabled and the disadvantaged) free at all levels. These can be reviewed to take in aspects of the proposed legislation. As a long term solution, however, the government should take steps to meaningfully reduce poverty and unemployment in the country.