By Francis Ewherido
While election officials were addressing the world and announcing results, something else caught my attention. Deaf interpreters (DIs) were also using sign language to enable hearing-impaired people to follow proceedings. It is not as if that was my first time of seeing it in Nigeria, but it had a new meaning to me. Nigeria is a country that does not take the disabled, blind, deaf, dumb, other physically challenged people and the disadvantaged into consideration in planning and execution. I first got a personal taste of it when I travelled abroad for a major surgery in 2012. I came back in a wheelchair. At the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, there was no functioning escalator and lift to bring me to the ground floor where the vehicle waiting to carry me was parked. Airport officials had to bring me from down manually. In 2021, nine years later, the same scenario played out, no functioning lift or escalator. I was not surprised, but I was very disappointed.
About 25 years ago, the company, where a friend was working, needed to move to a new office location. His colleague, who just relocated to Nigeria after a long stay abroad, was saddled with the task. Using his western experience, he included a ramp in the design to enable wheelchair-bound visitors and clients have access to the office. When his boss saw the architectural drawings and the costs, he queried why a ramp was included in the renovation. He explained to the boss. The boss then ordered him to remove the ramp and said something like “we have not been able to cater for able-bodied people, you want to spend money on the disabled.
A legislator once made a very insensitive statement, but a newspaper wrote that the legislator was very witty and made reference to that obnoxious statement to back up the claim. There was a debate on the floor of the house in respect of a cemetery. In his contribution, the legislator scolded his colleagues for wasting time discussing issues concerning the dead when there are more pressing issues concerning the living. There was a roar of laughter on the floor. Since that debate, at least former five members of the house have died and the living are all going to die one day, a day they do not know, willy-nilly. No one came to mother earth to live forever!
We must learn to show empathy for the vulnerable, the physically challenged and the disadvantaged. That is how you know a humane society. Look at our cemeteries and compare them with cemeteries abroad. Only private cemeteries in Nigeria compare. Look at our roads. Some drivers will not be patient enough to allow disabled people, children and aged cross the road. Zebra crossings are not exemp. The ones who irritate me most are motorcycle and tricycle riders, and commercial bus drivers. If it is impatience that makes people become rich, how come you are still not rich?
I shudder when I see a blind person unaccompanied on our roads. Our roads are death traps. Apart from the mad drivers and riders, many drains are open, culverts are broken, and there are potholes and craters on some roads. The covers of many drains and manholes in Lagos and Abuja have been stolen Some people use hardship to justify the irresponsible act of these thieves who should ordinarily be in Kuje and Kirikiri Prisons. Are the blind and other road users whose lives they are endangering not also facing hardship? There is no humanity in us and that is why many of us have animalistic behaviour.
I assert that Nigeria is a country that does not care for the vulnerable. Let me give some examples. India is a country like Nigeria. They also have a large population way ahead with over 1b people. There is a high rate of poverty in both countries. Ironically, Nigeria recently replaced India as the poverty capital of the world. Their riders and drivers are as disorderly as ours, if not worse. Many of their roads in urban centres are chaotic. Corruption is widespread in both countries. India is a developed country in one breath and a developing country in another breath, unlike Nigeria which is simply a developing country. In terms of care for the vulnerable, I rate India higher than Nigeria. Every public building above two floors (at least the ones I used) had a lift. Most of such buildings in Nigeria do not, thus making them inaccessible to people on wheelchair in Nigeria. The mad drivers and riders aside, I also consider their roads safer for the vulnerable. I also see them as more tolerant and compassionate people than Nigerians.
But their standards fall terribly short compared to European standards. A physically challenged person can live a near normal life in the UK, for instance. They move or drive around with ease, including those who have lost use of their limbs. They live in blocks of flats in high rise buildings or houses on two floors effortlessly and unassisted.
At car parks, spaces are reserved for them. God help you if you are able-bodied and park there. In trains and buses, seats are earmarked for them. In those days, if you are a JJC (someone unfamiliar with the practice) and you occupy any of those seats, it would not take time with the looks around for you to know you have done something wrong. These days, with the influx of migrants and visitors, people familiar with the practice have become less critical. But if an old person, a pregnant woman or physically challenged person comes into a bus or train and there is no empty seat, gentlemen and ladies give up their seats, but some youngsters do not care, dem no send.
Finally to comedy. I have been following the comedy scene since the late 80s when John Chukwu (JC) reigned. There was also Away-Away and a few others before Danjuma, Alibaba and others came on the scene. Some upcoming comedians then made physically challenged people and other people with disabilities the topic for jokes. Stutterers always got the scrappy end of the stick of these stand-up comedians. We, the audience, enjoyed these jokes and laughed and laughed. I remember laughing and laughing so much that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But stand-up comedians are from the larger society that is increasingly becoming sensitive to the feelings of the vulnerable and physically disadvantaged. But such cruel jokes still rear their heads in social media. I guess it is because there is no entry barrier into social media, basic training and the rat race to survive. Youngsters do all kinds of things to survive. Even then, we must self-regulate and draw boundaries.
As we conclude elections and prepare for new governments at the state and federal levels, we need to revisit the policies of government for the vulnerable at all levels and our general attitude to these Nigerians. They are a critical mass of our society and deserve a better deal.
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