Travelling via Nigerian airports nightmarish, persons with disability lament

Persons living with disability have described travelling through Nigerian airports as a tortuous experience, Funmilayo Fabunmi writes

When a polio survivor, Sussan Kelechi Ihuoma, woke up on the bright, sunny morning of April 21 2021, she did so with a smile on her face and with so much positive energy, ready to conquer the world.

Little did she know that she was in for trouble that day. According to Ihuoma, who works as a teacher in Lagos State, she had booked a flight to Kano from Lagos. She then booked another from Kano to Abuja and then from Abuja back to Lagos at the end of her engagements in these cities.

After her engagements in Kano, the airline (name withheld) sent her a text message informing her that her flight had been cancelled. Ihuoma recalled that the cancellation was not the problem but the fact that the airline could not be reached, not on their mobile lines or their mails.

“My pain was that none of the numbers on the website were going through, including the one that dropped the text message,” she painfully said.

Ihuoma, an educationist, genetic counselor, a social inclusion advocate and a teacher living with physical disability was traveling by herself and had no one to help her run around. One could still sense the pain, anger and anguish in her voice when she said, “As a person with disability, it’s quite difficult to navigate some of these things if not properly documented. If they had disaggregated data of passengers, I believe they would do better even when flights were cancelled to help secure the best alternative.

“At a time when insecurity is so high, I was left with no option than to travel by road and I couldn’t tell my parents who would be so worried. I’m sure they’ll read it here like everyone else, but I didn’t want to put them in that frame of mind where they would get blood pressure due to the fact that I had to travel by road at unsafe times.”

Ihuoma recalled arriving in Abuja safely, though late. Her legs were swollen from sitting for long hours. Ihuoma recalled being emotionally traumatised because she travelled late into the night, managed to take a bath but could not  eat anything that night. Till date, her money was not refunded and no further communication was given to her from the airline.

While Ihuoma’s experience breaks the heart, Waheed Oguntade’s is not exactly as bad.

He had travelled to the ancient city of Egypt, the land of pyramids. Waheed, the content management officer at the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, was excited when asked about his trip to Egypt.

“In Egypt, the level of accessibility was superb. Provisions were made for Persons with Disabilities, and disability-friendly vehicles were used to convey them from their aircrafts to the lounge. There was a functional lift, and the designated seats for Persons with Disabilities at the airport were not occupied by other passengers,” he said.

While speaking, Waheed couldn’t hide his excitement while reliving his experience. He described his experience at Nigerian airports as fair and, this, he attributed to the nature of his disability.

According to Waheed, his disability was not severe, which enabled him to still move around independently, to some extent.

Waheed rated the four Nigerian airports in Lagos, Abuja, Awa-Ibom and Enugu as fair in terms of treatment of Persons with Disabilities.

He stated that major facilities such as ramps functional lifts, handrails, among others, were available at those airports. He, however, emphasised the non-availability of vehicles to convey them.

“Disability-friendly vehicles to convey PWDs/aged passengers from boarding gates to the aircrafts and back are provided in Lagos airport and just by Air Peace. The few times I was there, I enjoyed the service.”

Still speaking about Nigerian airports, the physically-challenged Waheed said, “Distance from the entrance of the airport (parking lot) to boarding the plane is long and a huge problem for PWDs with mobility challenge (physical disability and spinal cord Injured). There are no designated toilets for PWDs. Wheelchairs are available but most times, they take forever to reach PWDs that need them. Wheelchair lift is often not available on all the aircrafts I have boarded.”

“The quality of service was quite different at the international wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos. The boarding walkway led straight to the aircraft, and priority was given to PWDs at the ticket.

“The experience was better compared to the service rendered at the local wing,” Waheed said.

He, however, noted that this could not be compared with the services in Egypt, noting that much still needed to be done in Nigeria in these regards.

Both Ihuoma and Waheed agreed that series of unpleasant experiences often took their tolls on the psyche of PWDs.

This is because some airline operators have maltreated PWDs and made them skeptical about using their airlines.

Transportation is generally a huge mountain to climb for most PWDs. Persons with disabilities are widely recognised as being socially disadvantaged, and as a result, they face numerous deprivations, discriminations and denials of their rights. Access to airports and airline facilities and services for the purpose of air travel, though frequently undervalued, is an important aspect of life for individuals with disabilities whose rights are flagrantly overlooked.

There have been numerous accounts of outright denial of air travel rights, as well as humiliating and degrading treatment of PWDs and responses to their requests as was the case with Ihuoma.

This is despite the fact that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations and the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 requires airport and airline operators to provide facilities to aid the movement of persons with disabilities and ensure that no passenger is discriminated against on the basis of their disabilities.

A comprehensive study by the Coalition of Disability Organizations, CODO, comprising the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities, Hope Alive for Possibilities Initiatives and the Spinal Cord Injuries Association of Nigeria, with funding support from the Disability Rights Fund, found that PWDs traveling by air in Nigeria faced a myriad of challenges at airports, ranging from challenges posed by inadequate facilities and infrastructure, to communication barriers resulting from non-provision of information in accessible formats, to poor attitudes of airport and or airline officials.

The fieldwork for CODO’s study was conducted in six states (one from each geo-political zone of the federation) and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The study locations were:  Enugu, Gombe, Kano, Lagos, Plateau states, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The fieldwork was conducted in the selected study locations from 10th to 21st December, 2021. The CODO’s study showed that more than three-quarters of the respondents had travelled by air in Nigeria, while less than one-quarters said they had never travelled by air in Nigeria. The majority of the PWD respondents who had not been travelling by air in Nigeria said they would have loved to travel by air in Nigeria. This gives an idea about the prospects of air travel by PWDs if the conditions are good.

The study found that less than one-fifths of the PWD respondents said it was easy for them to use the airports during their most recent air travel in Nigeria, while the largest proportion said it was “just okay” for them to use the airports.

Many others said it was difficult for them to use the airports. The inference from this is that the experiences of PWD air travellers vary, with a few having good experiences and some others going through difficult experiences. In this regard, it may be expected that the experiences of PWDs will vary in line with the nature of their physical disabilities. The variation may also be about differences in facilities and provisions from one airport to another, as well as differences in the attitude and behaviour of different airport and airline staff as noted also by Waheed.

Some of the PWD respondents reported encountering a myriad of challenges in using the airports, including difficulty in getting on the aircraft; difficulty in climbing the stairs into the airport building due to lack of/non-functioning elevators and ramps; communication barriers; absence of sign language communications; absence of  disability desks at the airports; poor direction at the airports for PWDs; denied boarding; discrimination/lack of care by other travellers, among others.

More than half of the PWD respondents said ramps were available at airports for wheelchair users, while one-thirds said ramps were not available. The rest said they did not know.

The study recorded a total absence of sign language interpreters at the airports covered by this study. Furthermore, less than one-tenths of the PWD respondents said there were braille notices and guides at the airports, while the majority said there were no braille notices and guides at the airports. The majority of the PWD respondents said there was no priority access and boarding for PWDs at the airports, while some others said there was priority access and boarding for PWDs. Disability desks were said to be absent at all the airports.   Even though it had been months since his trip to Egypt, an excited Waheed concluded his speech by saying, “The experience left a beautiful impression of how an inclusive society should look like. And this encouraged me as a PWD that has become an advocate for inclusive society to keep raising awareness on disability inclusion and demand for a better society for all.”

Article first published on the Punch Website

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