Visible But Invisible: People Living With Disabilities in Nigeria

November 13, 2013

By Precious Sango

Nigeria is estimated to have a population of 169 million; although it is argued that the country had not had any credible census since 1816. Based on the World Report on Disability approximately 25 million Nigerians have a disability, with 3.5 million of these having very significant difficulties in social and physical functioning. These disabilities include physical and intellectual developmental conditions. Regardless of the large number of people with disabilities in Nigeria, little support, if any is given to individuals living with disabilities. These individuals are often excluded from social, economic and political affairs in the society. The most common avenue of social aid for people with disabilities is usually through families. non-governmental organisations and religious organisations.

The system of social work provision

According to Rwomire and Raditlhokwa, in traditional Africa social needs and social problems such as poverty, disease, disability or death were mainly managed by immediate and extended family members, or the village, and/or religious community members as there was no specialised service of workers to carter for such social provision. Due to modernisation, current society became complex that state intervention took over social care provision for every vulnerable individual in the society. This is seen in the existence of governmental welfare ministries and departments in every country. These ministries and departments exist for the melioration of the quality of life of individuals affected by social, physical and intellectual problems such as disabilities, via financial aid, training provision for social workers and social opportunities for individuals with disabilities. However, due to the limited resources allocated to social agencies (e.g., social workers, carers etc.) andthe lack of robust legislation currently safeguarding the rights of people with disability in Nigeria, the social care provision system in Nigeria resumed the traditional African system of support via families, charities, and religious communities; consequently portraying disabled individuals as ‘charity cases’ with stigma attached to having a disability in Nigeria.

Although charities and/or families take on the responsibility for the social support of  a person with disability, these support systems are however limited or non-existent due to the stigma attached to disability within the  society, as these individuals are often seen as a disgrace to their families, for example by neighbours and relatives. As a result people with disability are subject to neglect and isolation. In extreme cases, for example, these individuals are abandoned to become homeless/living on the streets; or family members keep them indoors away from public notice or institutionalise them, especially the wealthy families, in governmental institutions.

Abang argued that the stigma and negative attitudes attached to having a disability in Nigeria are mainly due to the public’s unawareness of the genuine causes of disabilities. Such poor understanding has prolonged prejudiced traditional beliefs about disabilities. For example, the belief that epilepsy is infectious, or that one with a disability is possessed by evil spirits or serving retribution for offences of their parents or forefathers. These negative attitudescontinuously affect the social care of people with disabilities in Nigeria, to the extent of individuals with disability being prevented from participating in social activities (e.g., festivals, church etc), infringement of their right to free education, medical care, and employment.

The most common barriers to effective social work in Nigeria

In addition to stigma and negative attitudes, the most common problem associated with the poor social care situation for the disabled in Nigeria is the lack of recognition and financial support social agencies face in Africa, particularly in Nigeria. Due to reduced spending on social welfare, as it is believed by the government not to directly contribute to the economic growth and development of the country, social agencies are limited in the amount of human and material resources they can obtain for the successful implementation of their social programmes for the support of the disabled and/or vulnerable people in general. Lack of financial resources also means lack and/or inadequate means of communication, record keeping or visiting individuals and groups in need of support, specifically those residing in rural areas where most of the vulnerable population live.

Another common challenge is the lack of effective government policy that protects and promotes the rights of people with disability in Nigeria. Although the limited disability awareness initiated by individuals and non-governmental organisations (such as Abike Dabiri-Erewa), prompted the promulgation of the Nigerian with Disability Decree (1993); however the provisions postulated by the Decree, such as free regular medicine and medical care, free education, transportation and subsidized housing for the disabled in Nigeria has not yet come into fruition. Disabled Nigerians continue to be marginalised in all aspect of the society. Some (e.g., Dr. Maymunah Kadir; Dr. Anna Lamikanra) argue that there needs to be a Disability law in order to improve the living conditions of people with disability in Nigeria; access to treatments for example. Nevertheless, while the government continues to be indecisive as to passing the Disability law in Nigeria; Non-governmental organisations could focus more on lobbying and raising funding implementation initiatives for the provision needs set out in the 1993 Disability Decree; these necessities include free education, medical care, subsidise housing benefit.


Approximately 25 million people are living with a disability in Nigeria today; some are cared for by their family members, others are left homeless in terrible living conditions begging on the streets. This report has attempted to present an overview of the current social care situation in Nigeria; focusing on system of social care and common barriers to social care provision. There is need for financial provision for the implementation of social care provision listed in the Disability Decree for the melioration of the quality of life of people with disabilities in Nigeria. Although a few non-governmental organisations such as Books2Africa are working to improve educational access through free educational materials such as free books and life skills training programmes for disabled and non disabled people; there however needs to be more awareness programmes as to the real causes of disabilities amongst Nigerians in order to improve the attitudes towards people with disabilities in Nigeria.