BY CHIOMA IRUKE Uche Andrew, while boarding an aircraft at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital territory, was given a wheelchair as a form of assistance for her disability. The problem, however, was that she did not have mobility issues but a hearing impairment. Andrew, who spoke with TheCable through an instant messaging platform, relived her experience with some airlines that have made air travelling a sort of nightmare owing to her condition. “My experience with Nigerian airlines is one that calls for concerted efforts for the airline operators to create an accessible and friendly approach towards persons with disabilities (PWDs). Some airline operators do not understand disability in their diversity in that every disability has its own needs and approaches to addressing it,” Andrew said. “For instance, giving someone who is deaf a wheelchair as a support service while boarding is not right. Instead, the staff of the airline should assist the person in getting communicated to when boarding, provide support in identifying the bus shuttle and perform other activities that require information communication.” MELANCHOLIC TALESRebecca Hassan also had a similar experience. Aside from the stress of her flight being rescheduled twice, Hassan, who is visually impaired, said she had little or no assistance during boarding. At a point, she said she was taken to the stairs to find her way to the boarding room of the Abuja airport. That incident in June has left a bad taste in her mouth. “Sometimes, I go with my aide to the airport; other times, I go myself, and I can say it has not been easy. On one occasion, I was taken to the staircase. I must tell you, it was not pleasant,” she said. “People were around. I thought that they would help me. Yes, some of the workers tried their best to help me, but it still wasn’t easy for me to get to my destination. I had to even enter the airport before I could get help. “I did indicate my condition. The last time I went there with the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), it was still indicated. “When I got there, there was no one to assist me from the entrance. I had to tell the driver who came with me because there was no one to help me. I was holding my cane, my mobility cane, to show that I couldn’t see. The driver had to get someone to assist me. They came around to help me, but I didn’t even get to my destination before they left me. I wasn’t given any special assistance to board the plane; I was also made to join the queue. I had to look for another person to help me board.” Hassan may have moved on from that incident because it is no longer a shocking development. She is used to it. However, such treatment contradicts the 2015 Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority Regulations on Consumer Protection. According to Section 19.12 of these regulations, priority should be given to persons with reduced mobility, including those accompanied by others, unaccompanied minors, and families (with a maximum of two adults), when at least one child is five years old or younger. In cases of denied boarding, cancellations and delays, as outlined in Section 19.6, individuals falling into the aforementioned categories, including persons with reduced mobility and their companions, unaccompanied minors, and families (with a maximum of two adults) with at least one child aged five or under, are entitled to care as specified in Section 19.10. While narrating his experience, Gyang Yakubu said he booked a flight from Nigeria to India sometime in July. But despite indicating his physical disability, there was no provision for a wheelchair at the entrance. He had to struggle at the Abuja International Airport before he was assisted with a wheelchair. “I applied with the airline but was forced to walk because there was no wheelchair at the entrance of the airport. There was no staff to assist me to the entrance. It was quite unfortunate because when I compared how we were treated to other countries like India, it baffled me. In India, wheelchairs were available everywhere, in all public spaces; there was no preference,” he said. Yakubu said it was as though the airport had no officials employed to assist people with disabilities, as the duty has now been relegated to the job of airlines, who unfortunately only take responsibility for the special passengers from inside the airport, particularly from the check-in spot and not the entrance. But this is not just peculiar to the Abuja airport. Ekukereonye Obinna, who is also visually impaired, encountered the same challenge at the Enugu airport. Last December, Obinna embarked on a journey with his aged mother. Little did he know that this voyage would unveil a story that needed to be told. At the Enugu airport, their ordeal began with a harrowing wait that stretched over an hour for a wheelchair to transport his mother to the boarding tarmac. Obinna had taken all the necessary steps to ensure his mother’s comfort, notifying the airport of her need for assistance in advance. Yet, when they arrived, they were met with a disheartening reality. The wheelchair was eventually provided, but it was a pitiful sight, barely functional, and reminiscent of a relic from a bygone era. “They brought the wheelchair later on after one to two hours but it was rickety,” Obinna recounted, his voice heavy with the weight of the memory. Obinna, who is the founder of Disability Advancement Initiative, said it seems there is now an inventory of wheelchairs available at the Enugu airport as TheCable also noted a collection of wheelchairs during a visit to the facility. These stories are just a fragment of the sad tales people with disabilities in Nigeria face while trying to travel by air. A DISABILITY LAW ON PAPER According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Disability Report, about 15 per cent of Nigeria’s population, or at least 25 million people, have a disability. Many of them face a number of human rights abuses including stigma, discrimination, violence, and lack of access to healthcare, housing, and education. In 2019, former President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, following nine years of relentless advocacy by disability rights groups and activists. The bill, which sought to protect their rights by curbing discrimination and promoting inclusion, also required public buildings to make necessary adjustments for those with disabilities. While some institutions have made necessary efforts to abide by the law, a lot more is still lacking as people with disabilities face discrimination when accessing public spaces across Nigeria. This discrimination takes many forms, including but not limited to lack of accessible facilities such as Braille, unhelpful or indifferent staff and lack of awareness of the needs of PWDs. While one can admit that some infrastructures have been put in place, even at the airports, some of these facilities are not actively working. The Abuja airport has an elevator which is meant to assist those with disabilities or passengers who do not wish to use the stairs or escalator. However, the elevator was not working at the time TheCable visited the local airport. Passengers with mobility issues were forced to use either the stairs or the escalator. The airport has an array of wheelchairs, yet, persons with mobility issues were carried across by staff to the boarding sections through the staircase while boarding the domestic flights. Again, the absence of a dedicated disability desk, a fundamental feature in modern airports, exacerbates the challenges faced by travellers with disabilities. This desk serves as a lifeline, providing essential support and guidance to navigate the airport’s irregular paths. Without it, passengers are often left to fend for themselves. In 2021, the house of representatives directed the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and other relevant agencies to establish functional disability desks at airports. The directive was in response to petitions the lawmakers received from persons with disabilities detailing alleged violations of their rights. But nearly two years later, the directive remains largely unheeded. Check-in and booking processes are another uphill battle for passengers with disabilities. The absence of lowered counters creates significant obstacles for individuals with mobility constraints, especially wheelchair users. Navigational challenges persist as well, with a lack of sufficient signage disproportionately affecting those who are visually impaired or have cognitive disabilities. Inclusivity transcends physical infrastructure; it extends to information accessibility. The airports lack sufficient braille signs, and functional display screens with flight information are conspicuously absent, leaving passengers with hearing impairments in the dark. On the day of the visit to Enugu airport, the televisions in the boarding area were all inactive, except one. But instead of providing flight updates, the screen played adverts for cosmetics and hair products. Even the journey to the aircraft was fraught with peril. While a ramp exists at the airport, it lacks the essential handrails, raising safety concerns for passengers with disabilities. This deficiency forces many of them to rely on assistance rather than independent mobility, a stark contrast to more accessible facilities in other parts of the world. The absence of audio beacons compounds the struggles faced by visually impaired travellers, depriving them of vital guidance within the airport. Even announcements in multiple languages often remain unintelligible to those with hearing impairments probably due to subpar microphone and speaker systems. However, TheCable found out that things are a bit different at the Lagos domestic airport. The entrance is quite accessible for passengers with disabilities; however, the TVs mounted at strategic points in the airport wing for flight itineraries were all switched off. The reporter asked an airline staff if the TVs were not functional and he replied: “Nothing is wrong with them. Just that we haven’t switched them on.” This was at about 11:46 a.m. There were also no braille signage or navigation aids to assist auditory or visually impaired travellers at the airport. A staff member of AirPeace, who only identified himself as Jide, said when booking a flight, PWDs are advised to alert the airline of their needs. He said such special passengers must arrive early at the airport — about three hours before departure — so that they will be attended to in time. He said there are Partner Health Care (PHC) staff that assist PWDs at the airport. “The PHC would provide wheelchairs, if needed, and stand behind them while the person who comes with them will be the one that will present their ID cards and help them collect their boarding pass at the check-in counter,” Jide said. “Sometimes, the person that brings a disabled person to the airport is allowed to follow them to the boarding gate, or the PHC just takes over. “If they want to use the toilet, it is the work of the PHC. They will assist them. There are both male and female PHCs. The only downside is that the PHC could be busy at that time.” At MMA2, TheCable spoke with a staff of Max Air at the check-in counter who said a person living with a disability would not be allowed to board the plane without an escort. But at the customer care office, another staff who identified himself as Zachary told the reporter that PWDs are allowed to board even without an assistant. He said the PHCs handle such tasks. THE BLAME GAME When TheCable contacted Hope-Ivbaze Faithful, the general manager of the corporate affairs department of the Federal Aviation Agency of Nigeria (FAAN), on the efforts the agency has made towards inclusivity within the airports, she directed the enquiry to Abdullahi Funtua, the director of public affairs. Funtua said he was unavailable and directed the enquiry to another official, Oluwa Kayode Adeyeoluwa, who finally directed us to one Alex. Alex said it was not the sole duty of FAAN to provide assistance as “the airline has to play its roles”. According to him, the airport has facilities such as wheelchairs and elevators to assist those with disabilities and elderly people. He pointed to a dark room filled with wheelchairs. Kingsley Ezenwa, spokesperson for Dana Airlines, at first passed the responsibility of catering for persons with disabilities to FAAN just as the agency had done with the airlines. “When it comes to inclusivity and facilitation, it is not the airline; it is the airport. I think you should direct your question to FAAN. It is not our responsibility to announce that,” he told TheCable. “Those who indicate that they need assistance, we cater for them. We do not call them people with disability; we call them people with reduced mobility. “What happens is that when they come to the airport, someone is designated to assist them from the check-in to the boarding area and even to the aeroplane. Even at the point of exit, someone also assists through to the airport. So, that is why there is always that spot to be filled so that we know the level of assistance that should be given.” On sign language, Ezenwa noted that if that is required, “I think the airport has someone on ground who will communicate this. I think the airport has such an arrangement. So, I think that can be sorted at the airport.” ‘PEOPLE FEEL PWDs ARE CHARITABLE OBJECTS’ Speaking on the development, Esther Sanni, communications officer of the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), said one of the major challenges the organisation faces is the wrong perception of some individuals towards persons with disabilities. She pointed to the use of some unprintable tags for PWDs as part of the issues vis a vis cultural and religious beliefs around disabilities being a curse and punishment. “Dealing with public perception has been difficult because a lot of people are unwilling to change their views. People call those with disabilities PWDs and it is wrong, be it written or verbal address. People without disabilities are not referred to by acronyms,” she said. “Some feel that persons with disabilities are a curse and that is a reward for bad parenting. Maybe you were a bad parent and God wanted to reward you with a child with a disability. We have on numerous occasions asked that persons with disabilities not be called by acronyms but it has not stopped. “Again, some people feel that persons with disabilities are charitable objects whom you can give them one wheelchair or N10,000 naira every month and they are good. But a lot of them (people with disabilities) want to do things with their lives; they want to live to the fullest. It is wrong to assume that someone with a disability wants a wheelchair; probably, what they want is a job. So, it is important to be specific when asking questions.” Sanni said a lot still needs to be done to reach global best practices in terms of inclusive services at the airports. She, however, noted that not all faults are from the airlines as some persons with disabilities are unruly and often refuse to comply with laid down rules. “Some persons feel because they have a disability, they can do whatever they like. Some people would arrive late at the airport. Instead of pleading, they would want to have their way simply because they have a disability,” she said. In an interview with Chike Okogwu, the director of the Centre for Ability Rehabilitation and Empowerment, he said before 2021, it was very challenging for adults with disabilities to navigate through air travel in Nigeria mainly due to technical and adaptive issues. Okogwu, who faces mobility challenges, claimed there is an 80% reduction in discrimination faced by persons with disabilities at airports based on his organisation’s data. He noted that the substantial improvement was achieved through collaborative efforts with the government. He said FAAN granted permission to the organisation to establish a dedicated disability desk at Abuja airport, supported by Oxfam, “which operates around the clock”. “All these cases of complaints by PWDs are true. I am not denying that they might have happened. The point I am trying to make is that most of them have our numbers, but they don’t reach out to us. I am talking about Abuja airport,” Okogwu said. “Remember I said earlier we are not where we want to be. Now, the protocol is supposed to be that before they travel, they should reach us. You may say that we have not been doing enough to create awareness of our existence. But I tell you that on as many disability platforms where we belong, people know that we are doing our work and those who are able to reach out to us, we provide these services to them. “The restrooms are horrible. In some airports, the restrooms meant for PWDs are used as stores; but I’m glad you are bringing this up for us to highlight it more so that we can set the agenda for the new minister of aviation.” Yinka Olaito, director, Centre for Disability and Inclusion Africa, while speaking with The Cable, said there are various forms of disabilities. However, much focus is given to physical impairments. “We have the physical disability and also the psychological impairment. Unfortunately, no one cares about the latter. Autism is also a disability and there are no measures to cater for them,” he said. Olaito further said Nigeria has a disability law that is not effective which poses a problem with ensuring compliance. “Nigeria is scratching the surface. Till there is full implementation, there is no effect. The inclusion act was adopted by states such as Lagos in 2011 and Oyo in 2022, but there has been no compliance,” he said. “The level of priority is limited. At the Abuja airport, the elevator is not working. They even have a warning not to use them in emergencies. The government, on the other hand, lacks information on how to ensure inclusion for those with disabilities. I believe that the government need to do more and negotiate with NGOs who are involved in catering for persons with disabilities.” He further noted that many misconceptions and discriminations being meted out to persons with disabilities are from the notion that they have nothing to offer.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY EBUNOLUWA OLAFUSI AND SAMUEL AKPAN.
This is a special investigative project by Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation (CNJF) in partnership with TheCable, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Published materials are not the views of the MacArthur Foundation.free vector