James Lalu is the executive secretary, National Commission for Persons With Disabilities (NCPWD). In this exclusive interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he uncovers how much COVID-19 has laid bare the lack of consideration for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in construction of buildings, how buildings without minimum standards will be fined until their construction is rectified and the final launch of the Accessibility Minimum Standard Policy in 2024.
With the coming of COVID-19, fresh challenges have been thrown up, lots of them inherent in the environment. For persons living with disability, what are some of these challenges and lessons?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of inadequacies in our environment, especially for PWDs. COVID-19 has made it necessary for PWDs to be at health facilities constantly but, when you look at it, over 95 per cent of these facilities are inaccessible to them and the attitude of the health workers is mostly not disability-friendly.
A lot of our people have lost their jobs and livelihood during this COVID-19 [because] they were exposed to dangerous environments during this period. So, when you look around, it has exposed a lot of inadequacies in our environment as it relates to persons with disability. We thank Sightsavers Nigeria for carrying out accessibility indices on health facilities. We have assured them to forward their recommendation to our office and we will do everything possible to implement these recommendations.
The FCT was one of the areas covered in the study on the impacts of COVID-19 on PWDs. Has the minister done anything in making buildings/health care facilities more accessible for PWDs?
We are very confident that the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mohammed Bello will implement these recommendations. He is a person who has shown the deepest interest in persons with disabilities.
The Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) worked with Sightsavers Nigeria and the UK Government to develop two specific centres in the FCT, Maitama and Garki General Hospitals, mainly to see how they are accessible. They worked with the FCDA, the government agency responsible for those facilities, to make sure those centres are accessible and persons with disabilities have access to those centres.
Also, the minister recently appointed a PWD as a technical assistant on disability affairs, to provide technical advice to the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCDA) on everything concerning PWDs. Also, the minister has assured us that he is going to handle the accessibility challenges of people with disability in the FCT. Right now, some civil engineers are studying our environment – roads, pedestrian walkways, etc – and as soon as they conclude the studies, they are coming up with designs on how to ratify this problem. The minister is very willing to fund this activity to make sure that our environment is accessible to PWDs.
Our commitment is to make sure that we extend this accessibility issue to cover major cities in Nigeria. That is why, at the moment, the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities has finalised the Accessibility Minimum Standards.
Tell us more about the Accessibility Minimum Standards Policy…
This is a policy document that clearly defines ‘accessibility’. It explains the accessibility, dimensions (what it means to construct a ramp, the standard dimension for a ramp in Nigeria etc), highlights what accessibility facilities are needed in every building, road, car etc. Also, it explains what digital accessibility is. So, this is the document we will publish soon after the approval of the Federal Executive Council (FEC).
As soon as we can achieve this, we will mainstream accessibility issues to cover all the cities in Nigeria.
How will this policy affect already existing buildings?
Everybody who is a building or facility owner in Nigeria should brace because the five-year moratorium on existing buildings ends in January 2024. As soon as that elapses, building and facility owners will be fined if their buildings are found to be inaccessible to persons with disability. That is what the law says. So, once you have a building you can start addressing the challenges now. The commission’s doors are open and its accessibility department provides technical advice on accessibility facilities in every building [is ready to speak to all who walk in]. Once the moratorium ends, the consultations [offered by the department or the commission] will no longer be free. At that time any building that fails to meet the specified standards will have to pay and continue to pay daily until the problem is ratified. So, accessibility for persons with disability is going to be a major issue.
What role has the government played in making issues around disability a national one?
We thank President Muhammadu Buhari for bringing this law into action, establishing the NCPWD and making accessibility and disability issues national concerns that everyone must adhere to, to rectify the environment.
We believe disability is not about the impairment the person has. It is not about the inability to hear, walk, speak or see but the inability to make our environment disability-friendly. When you create barriers in your environment you are making the person with impairment unable to perform daily tasks. That is where the definition of ‘disability’ comes in.
Everyone has a role to play to ensure persons living with disability find their environment conducive. That way, we comply with the law and avoid paying fines.
What do you think can be done to help health workers change their attitude towards PWDs?
Attitude is one of the major distracting barriers PWDs continue to face. The attitude of health workers is something that continues to send our women/men out of health facilities. Now, we are working with some of our partners to make sure this problem is addressed through advocacy and capacity-building.
Additionally, the law is very clear about discrimination against the right of PWDs. Access to health facilities is a right of every citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, including PWDs. Therefore, the law is very clear on discrimination against PWDs. There are severe sanctions against any health worker or service provider that discriminates against PWDs. The law clearly states that the fine per day of discrimination is N500,000. We have a contingent of lawyers in the commission working with the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) to enforce this law and ensure that it is upheld.