Photograph — McReal Estate

You are smart, hard-working, and graduated top of your faculty, naturally, you hope to get a job the moment you’re out of school. But six years after, you’re still on a job hunt. Worse, you witness people with lesser qualifications, get picked for jobs over you due to tribalism, you cannot bribe your way through, don’t have a ‘godfather’, and most significantly are disabled. This is the reality of Ruth Omopariola-Bolarinwa, best graduating student of Unilorin’s Education faculty 2009.

After an illness in 1997, Ruth Omopariola-Bolarinwa became partially deaf at the age of 15. “After the illness, I discovered I couldn’t hear very well whenever people talk to me unless I read their lips,” she said in an email sent to the Education Review, a magazine that covered her story a few years ago.

In the e-mail, Ruth calls on both private and public parastatals to help solve her problem of unemployment, describing herself as “physically, mentally, emotionally and morally sound, and very assertive.” She also laments her experiences in the quest for a job, all of which highlights the issues of tribalism, corruption, and discrimination against persons with disabilities.

“When ex-President Goodluck Jonathan gave disabled people employment opportunity in 2013. I joined others to apply … The selection process was based on our qualification and I had the faith that I would be selected since I was the only applicant with second class honours (Upper Division) among the deaf applicants from Ondo State.” Her name didn’t appear on the list of those short-listed, and she was disappointed. If the selection was based on merit, why didn’t she get a job?

The answer was in her name. As a native of Delta State, her credentials bore her maiden name – Okpoto – being married to a Yoruba man should have been qualification enough, she thought. Apparently, it wasn’t. Even her equally deaf husband was treated unfairly; though he was short-listed, his position was given to someone known to the person in charge.

Tribalism also denied this young woman a scholarship to the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Despite being awarded a tuition scholarship by the institution, the Director of the Lagos State Scholarship Board in 2004/2005, refused to process a letter issued by the governor that will aid with other expenses, simply because she is ‘Deltan’. Ruth also cites deafness as another barrier to gaining employment. “Society does not want to employ deaf and disabled people. They usually experience employment discrimination due to their disability. But disability is not inability! There is nothing the deaf cannot do.”

With President Buhari’s effort to eradicate corruption and sanitise the system, Ruth hopes for a change, calling on the president to assent the long overdue Disability Rights Bill (DRB) that was passed by the National Assembly five years ago – September 28, 2010. The DRB is meant to provide protection and security for over 22 million disabled Nigerians, and also establish standards for the enforcement of their rights and privileges.

It is both shocking and upsetting that despite the high number of disabled Nigerians, there is very little – almost no support for them; they are often excluded from social, economic and political matters. According to this report on Disability Issues in Nigeria, disabled Nigerians encounter “a plethora of attitudinal, institutional and environmental barriers that impede and militate against their active social inclusion within contemporary society.” In Nigeria, disabled people are commonly perceived as being “dependent, helpless and in need of charity.” And with no standard support structure in place, getting educated is extremely difficult, while the educated find it impossible to obtain long-term, sustainable employment.

Efforts to get the DRB signed have in the past proved futile; petitions have been written to past administrations for the assent of the bill, yet nothing was done about it. Only a few Nigerians are aware of the existence of the bill, but the story of Ruth Omopariola-Bolarinwa brings it to light. Just last week, Abike Dabiri-Erewa criticized the inability of the past administration to assent the DRB despite its passage by the two houses of the National Assembly. The former lawmaker who was the sole sponsor of the bill said, “We did a lot of work on that bill both at the Senate and the House of Representatives and it was one of those bills sent to the president to sign into law … Despite lawmakers’ early passage of the bill considering the hardship faced by our fellow citizens living with disability, I am particularly sad that our effort was not rewarded by the last government.”

Section 2(1) of the Disability Decree 1993 states “Disabled persons shall be guaranteed treatment as equals to other Nigerians for all purposes in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Accordingly it shall be the duty and responsibility of organs of government and of all authorities and persons to adopt and promote policies that will ensure full integration of the disabled into the mainstream of the society. Yet the government has continuously neglected signing into law, policies that will ensure equal access to health care, education, and employment opportunities, for disabled citizens, thus promoting their participation and inclusion in all aspects of life. Why is the Nigerian government insensitive to the plight of the disabled in the country?

Like Ruth stated in her mail, disability is not inability, therefore, there must be a shift from the current trend of treating disabled individuals as liabilities and charity cases to seeing and treating them as an integral part of society. That is, moving from a charity-based approach on issues of disability to a rights-based approach.

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