A Deaf Journalist in Nigeria Fights to Advance Disability Rights
People with disabilities in Kaduna State in Nigeria took to the streets in May to protest a proposed law banning street begging and hawking. The administration of governor Nasir el-Rufai said that the goal was to keep children in school rather than begging in the street and to enhance security after a street bombing that left 25 dead and others injured.
But activists say the government needs to enact the Disability Rights Law and provide gainful employment before they ban the primary means of income for people with disabilities.
Despite decades of activism and advocacy by nongovernmental organizations, disability legislation in Nigeria has been stymied since 2013 when a bill was passed by the National Assembly during the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo but never signed into law by the president. The current Senate reintroduced and once again passed the Disability Bill in June 2016 and it is waiting for presidential approval.
Julius Shemang, a journalist and the Chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities (JONAPWD) Kaduna State, has been at the forefront of the call for a disability rights law in Nigeria.
“Lack of education, employment and poverty in the disability community made many resort to begging in order to finance their education and that of their children,” he said in an article from The Nation (in Nigeria). “While we welcome and commend the present policy on free education for all children by the present regime, the gesture should be effectively extended to People Living with Disability.”
People with disabilities need the protection of the a disability rights law because of discrimination faced in school and at the workplace, often based in a fear that disability is contagious.
Shemang lost his hearing at the age of 14 and he developed a passion for reading and writing because he felt, “…as a Deaf person, these were the best options I now had to cope effectively with the world having lost touch with the hearing world.”
As he adjusted to his deafness, Shemang became upset at the way the able-bodied population viewed disability, treating it as a matter of charity rather than a human rights issue. He went to the New Nigerian Newspaper (NNN) headquarters in Kaduna State to propose writing on issues of the disabled to draw public and government attention to their needs. He was initially told he should go teach at a school for the Deaf but he was able to convince them to give him a chance at journalism. His first article was titled “The Deaf Want to be Heard” and discussed how the Deaf were being denied admissions into universities and being denied employment opportunities.
“That was the beginning of my involvement in advocating for the rights of people living with disability,” he said in an interview in Poor Magazine.
When questioned by a news editor about how he was able to report as a Deaf person, Shemang says, “Whenever I go to cover an event, I go with a partner or get someone at the event and ask him or her to listen and to jot down points from various speakers. In addition, I use my eyes to observe movements and the behaviours of people around and try to make sense and meaning from what I observe, after which I sit down to combine and write everything into juicy reports for the reading public.”
Having the readers know that he was a Deaf reporter, “…really helped change public perception, negative attitudes and feeling toward the disabled as they too began to join the campaign for a society that speaks inclusion and justice for all,” he said.
In 2006, frustrated with the lack of coverage of disability issues in mainstream media, Shemang was inspired to start his own newspaper — Kafanchan Times –that covered disability as well as other human life issues. For financial reasons, he was forced to stop publishing the paper in 2010 but he hopes to revitalize it soon. It is currently the only newspaper owned by a disabled person in northern Nigeria and fully registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
“Both the disabled and the abled population viewed Kafanchan Times as an ideal platform that encouraged the learning and recognition of both sides in a collective struggle, as well as the need to liberate the disability community in Nigeria, Africa and globally,” he said.
Although there are some other media focusing on disability issues, such as Inclusive Network News (INN) TV, an effort of Sign Language Interpreters and other disabled people in southern Nigeria, currently the coverage is still sparse.
“I will say that the mainstream media have not done enough in fighting the disability cause in Nigeria,” says Shemang. “For instance, I don’t know of any media organization that ever visited the headquarters of JONAPWD Abuja to find out what we are there for, what we do, how we do it, our struggles, and challenges. In recent months, it was wrongly reported in a national daily that the population of Nigerians living with disabilities is close to 15 million when in reality the number is 25.5 million, according to United Nations data. The mainstream media do not consult organizations of people living with disabilities to get accurate information about disability issues.”
Shemang also acknowledged that media coverage is influenced by money. “Most media organizations in Nigeria cover issues that increase the size of their pockets and not the issues that impact [marginalized] people’s lives. The poverty state of the Nigerian disability community coupled with the unwillingness of the mainstream media, are principally and systematically responsible for the huge failure of the government in successfully implementing the National Disability Law. Some media in Nigeria have done well, but a lot more needs to be done to impact lives and change public perceptions.”
He offered a plan for how media coverage of disability issues can improve. “One, we organize and invite the media for coverage. Two, the media invite us or come to us and do the coverage. Thirdly, we jointly plan how to get the issues out.”
“In essence, there should be no limit to what the media should do to impact the lives of people with disabilities because we are the most neglected and discriminated group in the society,” said Shemang.
The Kaduna government passed the street begging and hawking bill into law September 1, but Shemang says people with disabilities are still protesting and monitoring the situation to ensure that further harassment does not occur. He and his organization continue the struggle to enact the Disability Rights Law.