The Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. But inequality can hamper their achievement – and in Nigeria, inequality is a particular menace for one minority group: people living with disabilities.
In recent decades, there has been very little attention given to the unfair treatment faced by this group of special needs individuals. They often face several human rights abuses, such as discrimination, stigma, violence, and lack of access to public facilities and amenities like education, housing, healthcare, and even recreation.
These experiences impede the attainment of sustainable development in Nigeria. In response, researchers have conducted work with policy implications for the advancement of people living with disabilities, which have had a direct effect on sustainable development of Nigerian society and the world at large.
According to the National Population Commission of Nigeria, more than 19 million Nigerians are living with disabilities and this is a growing population. Just like all other humans, these people are an integral part of society and need the basic necessities of life. Hence, these special needs individuals ought to be considered when sustainable development policies are being formulated.
My love for social science research began during my third year as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar. At the same time, I was passionate about contributing to improving the quality of life of people living with disabilities.
For three years, I watched a dear friend who is hearing-impaired struggle with getting employment even in a micro business. I also watched with dismay the plight of a respected lecturer with a mobility impairment struggle with getting out of his office to his lecture venue. He even had to be carried by others into some of the venues to deliver his interesting lectures. These situations led to my engagement in social and non-governmental activities focused on advocating for this group that battled to be heard.
As an early career researcher, my first conceptual paper was on the need for vocational and entrepreneurial skills to be taught in schools for people with disabilities. Then just after graduation in 2014, I co-authored an assessment of the shopping behavior of customers with disabilities in my home city of Calabar.
Our study advocated for the inclusion of people living with disabilities in the business aspects of society as the survey findings revealed that this group was discriminated against by retail stores in ambience, product assortment, and customer services. Specifically, we recommended that the government and civil organizations formulate policies to ensure that retail organizations satisfy customers with disabilities, thereby promoting inclusive and accessible businesses in Nigeria towards the growth of a sustainable African economy.
Our recommendations were timely because since 2010, there has been persistent advocacy by disability rights groups and activists. In 2007, Nigeria signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol in 2010. The bill prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities (2009) was passed by the Nigerian National Assembly twice: in 2011 and 2015.
The passage of the bill by the National Assembly gave impetus to calls by civil society groups, people with disabilities and other stakeholders for the government to pass the bill into law. Sadly, these calls initially fell on deaf ears.
Thankfully, social science researchers put up position and empirical papers on the issue of discrimination against people with disabilities and the need for legislative action towards the passage and signing of the disability bill into law. Finally, following a protest on 17 January 2019, in which social scientists were involved, the long-awaited bill was passed into a law.
Our recommendations saw the light of day. The law prohibits discrimination against people with disability and imposes sanctions ranging from fines to prison sentences on those who violate it. The law also stipulates a five-year transitional period for modifying public buildings, structures (school and offices, as well as retail stores), and automobiles to make them accessible and usable for people with disabilities.
Fast forward to July 2019: one of the retail stores (Sparks Shopz) examined in the course of our survey has been remodeled to be accessible to people living with disabilities. The many new stores opening in Calabar are also considering this group of people. This is visible in the use of the disability sign and store ambience.
Particularly remarkable is the relocation of the Nigerian Navy Hospital, which was hardly accessible even to someone without a disability. The new hospital now has parking spots exclusively for people living with disabilities and it is structured to be accessible to all patients, with or without disabilities.
Similarly, the management of the University of Calabar is currently installing a lift in the E-Library, a five-storey building that was hardly ever accessible to people living with disabilities. In addition to an accessible ambience for the mobility-impaired, the Margaret Ekpo Airport now has visible signs and direction aids providing easy accessibility for hearing-impaired passengers.
All of these outcomes are visible evidence of knowledge being used for sustainable development.