I remember in 2018, I was invited by a school to speak to the nursery children about people with disabilities. I started by asking how they felt disabled people should be helped. The first response was ‘by giving them money’. Then came other responses like, ‘by being kind to them’, ‘by helping them to cross the road’ etc. The children clearly believed the best way to help persons with disabilities was to have pity on them. This mindset is also ingrained in us as adults. After pity, we often think of doctors, specialist, therapists, special schools and even miracle performers to help make them as normal as possible again. This is known as the Medical Model.
This article is not to totally condemn pity and medical assistance. Money and resources have been spent and will continue to be spent on science and medical research that will enable disabled people to become as normal as possible again. Governments and civil societies should continue to dedicate funds to treatments, wheelchairs, special schools, crafts centers to help them improve with their situation.
However, we cannot continue to focus on their impairment at the expense of many other abilities and potentials they have. In our minds, the impairment they suffer from is the source of their problems and what prevents them from being normal. Therefore, we continue to build and organize the society for normal people thereby disabling them from being fully part of the society and making them depend on us for almost everything.
We can really make life better for persons with disabilities by making the society inclusive such that they will be active in the society and live as independently as possible. This is known as the Social Model. This can only happen if the environment, spaces and surroundings are designed and organized in such a way that they can access them independently. Below are four basic steps needed for this to happen:
Access as a right should be enforced: Nigeria signed the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as far back as 2007. It has the Right to Accessibility as one of its principles. The Disability bill was finally passed into law in January 2019. However enforcing it is what will really make us pay attention to Disability Access. Disability organizations may picket a bank here or a shopping mall there, but unless Access plans are part and parcel of project approval, persons with disabilities will remain at our mercy.
Adopt and Include Access standards: The National Building Code and State Planning Laws focus on wheelchair access whereas Disability Access includes hearing-impaired, sight-impaired and even intellectual disabilities. Comprehensive Access standards have been developed through years of research and experimentation. Today, many countries and international organizations have Access guidelines that we can adopt. Standards are also important in getting the details right so that we don’t end up building ramps that are too steep, walkways that are too narrow or providing information that is not legible etc.
Involve them: Through involvement of persons with disabilities in the design, construction and organization of accessible spaces and environments, we can gain experiential knowledge about access and not just blindly stick to standards. Through involvement, we get to see what really works, what doesn’t and if there are better ways to provide solutions.
Make Access solutions Inclusive: this is known as universal design whereby the solutions provided for the disabled can be comfortably used by everyone else rather than having separate solutions. Providing ramped entrances at the side or back of a building is better than nothing. However it makes them feel less stigmatized if they use the same entrance, facilities as everyone else. A good example is the BRT buses that come with low floor boarding which is comfortable for everyone.
With these basic steps, we can make it easier for persons with disabilities to go to school, work, and move around the society for basic needs like shopping, recreation and health. They can live comfortably in houses and safely perform basic chores like cleaning, cooking and bathing. The more we see them every day, as fellow students, colleagues, customers, clients, the less we focus on their impairments and accept them as they are.