President Muhammadu Buhari recently demonstrated his concern for disabled persons in the country with the appointment of a visually impaired man, Dr. Samuel Ankeli, as his Senior Special Assistant on Persons with Disability. In the position, Ankeli will be the President’s liaison with all persons living with one disability or another in Nigeria. Ankeli’s choice is, indeed, a case of a round peg in a round hole.
This appointment brings to the fore the challenges that people with disabilities face, especially in a country like ours where their peculiar needs and challenges are hardly articulated, let alone met. The Disabled Community has not always been well represented in appointments at this level by the Federal Government. But, even then, the government’s gesture is just a token. It is an inkling of what is possible when the government decides to harness the talents of all categories of its citizens and address their peculiar problems.
Ankeli’s appointment speaks to Section 17 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria , which provides that “the state’s social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice.” We are delighted that President Buhari made this perceptive appointment, which is sure to give the quite significant community of people living with disability in the country more sense of belonging in the Nigerian enterprise.
We urge Ankeli, therefore, not to let his constituency down. It is so easy to get carried away with the paraphernalia of new office and forget where one is coming from as has been the case with government appointees, too many times. We believe his case would be different and that he will take his assignment with the utmost responsibility it requires. He is a trailblazer and nothing short of the best is required of him in his new assignment.
Ankeli should use the privileged access his new office affords him to articulate the special needs of citizens of his ilk and get the authorities at the highest levels of government to act on them. It is clear that the needs of this special class of people are not taken into account in the public policy space. How many of our public buildings, for example, reflect their special needs?
This deficiency can be extended to virtually all other areas of national life. Is it public transportation? Public education? Or, in fact, in the work place? The discrimination, outright stigmatisation and rejection they suffer are unacceptable in a country like ours that desires to be counted among the advanced nations of the world.
This is why our states, local governments and the private sector must take a cue from the President’s latest gesture. They must make deliberate and structured efforts to integrate this special class of citizens into their scheme of things. While the constitution recommends this, the reality is far from it.
However, caring adequately for the disabled is something that has been attained by the advanced world and which we can borrow a leaf from. In all of those societies, the peculiar needs of the vulnerable in society have been well articulated in policy documents and taken care of. All the public places, for example, reflect the needs of these citizens in their midst.
The public buildings have lifts to provide easier access to the physically challenged. The public transportation and all other public utilities factor in their special needs and reflect them in their planning and execution of projects. Many shopping malls reserve parking spaces close to their entrances for them. These are all signs of a caring society.
This is the point we need to arrive at very soon before we claim to have built a just and egalitarian society. The challenge is enormous and Ankeli, as the public face of those living with disabilities, needs the support of his principals and all stakeholders to draw a plan of action to improve the lives of physically-challenged persons in the country.