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Empowering People with Disabilities in Nigeria to Reach Their Full Potential
Empowering People with Disabilities in Nigeria to Reach Their Full Potential

In late 2006, members of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention codified the rights of persons with disabilities, stipulating, “all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities,” and identified “areas where adaptions [had] to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights.”


In the decade since its introduction, 164 countries, not including the U.S., have ratified the treaty. And yet, despite overwhelming international support for the Convention, persons with disabilities in countries around the world are still denied rights including access to justice, healthcare, education, and employment. And they continue to encounter discrimination and barriers restricting them from participating in society on an equal basis with others.


At Portland State University, researchers in departments including the Regional Research Institute for Human Services, the School of Social Work, the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, and the Department of Sociology have worked along side of persons with disabilities to address critical issues. Assistant Professor Dr. C. Jonah Eleweke is among the cadre of faculty contributing to the university’s portfolio of research supportive of the rights of persons with disabilities in the U.S. and abroad.


Dr. Eleweke coordinates PSU’s Department of World Languages and Literatures’ American Sign Language and Deaf Cultures program. Dr. Eleweke’s research interests include second language teaching and learning, special education, supporting families of young children with special needs, access to services by people of color with special needs, and the challenges of providing meaningful services to people with disabilities in developing countries. Dr. Eleweke recently coauthored two papers detailing findings of studies exploring challenges Nigerians with disabilities face in their attempts to achieve their full potential as contributing members to society and the barriers they confront along the way.


“The Nigerian government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2010,” Dr. Eleweke said, “and the Nigerian National Assembly passed laws protecting the rights of Nigerians with disabilities. So you would think the rights of Nigerians with disabilities would be protected and they would be empowered to reach their full potential. But the legislation was never signed into law by the president. As a result, many challenges persist and Nigerians with disabilities still encounter critical barriers.”


The impact of the lack of federal laws assuring the rights of Nigerians with disabilities is highlighted in “Challenges of Empowering People with Disabilities in Nigeria for National Development,” published in the Journal of Special Education and Rehabilitation. In the paper, Dr. Eleweke and his coauthor review the available research related to issues including legislative mandates on provisions of service to individuals with disabilities in Nigeria, funding for services, and access to education. Their analysis suggests that the absence of legal protections preserving the rights of Nigerians with disabilities, coupled with inadequate funding for programs and improvements to infrastructure and a lack of effective, inclusive programming, makes it difficult for many to attain a quality education, enter the workforce, access healthcare, and travel from place to place.


Those findings are echoed in “Barriers to Accessing Services by People with Disabilities in Nigeria: Insights from a Qualitative Study,” published in the Journal of Education and Social Research. Framing disability as an oppressive social creation rather than as the effect of an individual impairment, the study found that Nigerians with disabilities have similar stories to tell about their experiences navigating society. Common themes that turned up in Dr. Eleweke’s review of interviews and responses to questioners included difficulty physically accessing classrooms, workspaces, public transportation, and health centers; a lack of personnel and resources to support learning and working for persons with hearing and visual impairments; and attitudinal barriers hindering access to education and the workplace. Asked what factors they felt contributed to the barriers they identified, members of the sample group cited the lack of legislation guaranteeing the rights of persons with disabilities, the absence of a legal framework enabling Nigerians with disabilities to argue their case in their fight for their rights, and the need to unite and coordinate advocacy efforts supporting persons with disabilities in Nigeria.


“The people want to have their voices heard,” Dr. Eleweke said. “They want to contribute to society and to be able to access education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. They want to increase the public’s awareness of the barriers they face and to show them what they can contribute to society.”


As Dr. Eleweke noted, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provided countries around the world a top-down framework for insuring the rights of persons with disabilities and empowering them to achieve their full potential, but the implementation of that framework often requires bottom-up, grassroots efforts. According to Dr. Eleweke, in Nigeria that means that Nigerians with disabilities need to continue to organize and to make their voices heard in order to enact laws that guarantee that they are free to participate in society on an equal basis with others and that they have a legal means to seek redress when they encounter physical, psychological, social, or resource barriers that stand in the way of their attaining their full potential.