Our very first guest feature this August on LR motivational space is one very “motivationally amazing” (by the time you finish reading this article, you may coin a better phrase) specimen of humanity. His life shows that there are no limitations and that the only thing that holds us back most times, is our very own selves. One of the editors of the LR Team Omo Agbonwanegbe who worked closely with this man, tells the rest of us how much her direct interactions with him has changed her out look on life and how he has added a positive spring in her step. She tells us how his voice is always happy and how his enthusiasm and zest for life just overflows in a very contagious manner. Dear esteemed readers, it is time to have an e-meeting with this extra –ordinary gentleman as he tells us some unique facts about himself in his own words.
The ordinary is essential
A few years ago, as I prepared a thank you speech upon receiving an award, it occurred to me that I hadn’t done anything particularly special or deserving. So I thanked the committee for giving an award for just being me. This may surprise you, but that’s exactly how I felt then, and how I still feel now.
A long time ago, I worked it out, that as a blind person; I had a choice, to live or not to live. As I couldn’t just imagine dying inside, I made the simple common sense decision to live. Now you can understand why it amazes me when I keep getting awards for choosing to ‘live’.
I’m not in any way discrediting the award processes, or demeaning those who think I deserve such awards. I’m just saying that what you think is such a remarkable achievement is actually a necessity. Most people with a disability, (or anyone else suffering from a prejudice) will know how we have to work several times as hard as other people to reach where they are. It can be dispiriting, many can give up. But if I do that (as I’m often tempted to) the result would be a gradual but inevitable loss of the will to live. That of course is not an option because I want to live! I want to live because of the wonderful times I’ve had getting up in the morning and getting things done. Actually, I also want to live because of the support I’ve had from family and friends who didn’t give up on me when things looked pretty bad. Let’s focus on immediate family for the moment, because I have a word limit.
My dad. He’s a high achiever in his own right, he has been president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, a vice president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, and lots more. Yet, when I finished at the law school, he took me to a party and told everyone around how well I’d done. The networking opportunity from that party resulted in my finding out about a postgraduate scholarship award, which was how I got to Lancaster for my masters … and eventually my doctorate. I also went with him for the last meeting he attended of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, just before he turned 70. He was very happy and kept telling everyone I’d completed my Ph.D. while I on the other hand, was so angry because I hadn’t got a job, two years after the doctorate. None the less, I left that meeting knowing that my dad was proud of me … and you don’t know how that strengthened me! But he was much more than my chief spokesperson. He taught me how to ride a bicycle. When he took the support off my younger brother’s bike, I protested most vehemently that my younger brother (who can see) would be able to ride, and I wouldn’t. So he taught me how to ride. A few weeks ago, he confessed to me how he used to watch me with trepidation, as I hurtled down the streets. But all I knew at that age was that like all my other friends, I could ride a bike.
My mum died in 1998, after making her mark in several fields, including nursing, philanthropy and even business. But throughout her life, there was this constant debate as to who was her favourite. My sister was the only girl and the eldest, my brother was the youngest, and I was the first boy. I know I had a special claim on her heart because I left for boarding school before I turned 6 years old. I had little sight then, and one day, we woke my sleeping parents when I demonstrated to my brother and sister that I could read the bold headlines on the newspaper. From then till I lost my remaining vision, my mother would call me out to show her friends my reading ability. Her intuitive understanding of my life needs sometimes awed me. I would ask ‘how did she know that I was ill … or sad? …’ but she would know. I dedicated my thesis to her because she didn’t live to see its completion … she would have been so proud.
My elder sister … also a high achiever, actually won an essay competition for medical students, which earned her a trip to Hiroshima for a conference of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. She came back with a piano keyboard for me; I still don’t know how she managed to carry it, with the weight restrictions. We went to different secondary schools and the only subject we had in common was economics. Yet, I still recall that while on holiday from university, she would read her secondary school economics notes to me so that I could transcribe them into Braille.
My younger brother was also my teacher; he it was who taught me how to write the alphabet. Visually impaired people can only access about 5% of the books that sighted people can read and this can have an effect on reading, writing and vocabulary. My brother read so many children’s books to me that he made up for any deficiencies that I might have had otherwise.
I write this because I’m not sure I’ve ever properly said thank you to family, friends and even strangers who did ordinary things without realising how they’ve contributed to impacting me. The ordinary things we do can have an extraordinary effect on others; more importantly, we may not even realise the true significance of what we’ve done. I once had a chat with a lecturer during my master’s programme. He said how happy he was that I was doing well because my department had never had a blind postgraduate student and there was some argument about whether I should have been admitted in the first place. This was before the Disability Discrimination Act. Apparently, he thought I should be given a chance. Imagine what would have happened if he had thought differently? Many of my friends and family just did ordinary things for me, taking time out of their own laudable achievements. Sometimes, they didn’t even know how desperate I was for that little something; they just did it because … well, that’s what they do naturally.
When we look at things closely, our lives consist of interactions with others. What we do affects others, but it also makes us who we are. It is essential to be ourselves, but we are all individuals in a community. This means that we actually live to be with others, strengthening and depending on them. This is what it means to live.
Ok, so I’m a blind person who has a law degree and a doctorate in international politics. I run IOA Consults and serve on the board of several charities and organisations. That is who I am, but how did I get there? I grew up in a culture and at a time when people with disabilities did not have the opportunity for equal achievement as non-disabled people. In school, college and university, I got the same grades as my classmates; but then, I sat in the same class with them and took the same exams. I suffered from insufficient reading material, but on the whole, there was no reason why I should score lower if I had the same intellect. After all, if I needed something read to me, I could just ask one of my classmates.
Things are different in the work environment. When I sat for the entrance exams into secondary school and university, my teachers saw my results before they realised my blindness. Seeking employment is different. First, in every application form or letter, I informed my prospective employers of my blindness; so they were aware when considering whether to employ me. It is strange to observe that I have only ever been called up for one interview. And that was for a specialist British Broadcasting Co-corporation (BBC) opening for people with disabilities. Maybe I suddenly became less competent when applying for work than I was in school.
You can imagine how I felt; as a student, I’d dreamt like my other classmates of being highly successful. Many of them are high achieving government officials, doctors, researchers, bankers, etc. So I spent the first few years after studying, just applying for jobs and moaning after each rejection. Fortunately, I had time for other ‘ordinary’ things. Someone would ask me to proofread an essay, or give some advice on some problem. So a friend suggested that I could start charging for the things I did. I didn’t even think of it at first. Others who knew the quality of my work would ask me to join this or that project. Soon, I found myself being busy again.
I became the secretary of XN Foundation. I recall organising the first International Conference of Nigerian Students in 2007. We chose Lancaster University, my Alma Mata, as I knew the place well. I would contact students and international officers from around the country, and none knew I was blind. When the delegates arrived in Lancaster, I would introduce myself to them and say ‘I remember you, I spoke to you on the phone … or I emailed you.’ Their shock was visible, even to a blind person, but it was great for me. It told me I could do the job and my blindness didn’t matter. A few days before the conference, at a meeting of the organising committee, someone asked who would be the MC. Immediately, another person said “Ife can do it” and that’s how I found myself standing up on stage. I’ve been doing that for 10 years now and I’m still so honoured to introduce Nigerian students from all over the country to a unique and amazing conference.
What I did was simply to organise a conference. Others are doing it now at XN and nobody is raising an eyebrow because they’re sighted. It does call for skill, but it’s not an extraordinary or award winning activity. But … any ordinary activity becomes award winning if you do it well!
Many of the footballers and film stars who win awards are only doing their jobs well. And if you get close enough to ask, they’ll tell you about the person who coached them or opened a door of opportunity, without which they’d never have got to where they are. There is no truly self-made star; we all rely on each other. Some of the people we rely on take time off doing their own great things, just to care for someone else; the great thing is that it never affects their own achievements. The original members of the XN Foundation board are now doing great things all over the world. My friend who advised me to start charging for my work moved to the US to take up a position with Microsoft. Even those who don’t become famous themselves are just doing their jobs too, not realising that in the process, they’re raising superstars. We hear so much about David, but not as much about Jonathan; and yet, his role in preserving David’s life and helping him to become king is indisputable. Same with Paul the famous writer and evangelist who needed Barnabas to gain him acceptance.
Blindness doesn’t make me ‘disabled’, but whether I’m blind or not, being without friends might make me ‘disabled’. If those people who had seen my job applications knew me better, they wouldn’t have rejected me outright. And I hope my friends can rely on me to do those ordinary things that make me who I am. I can only ask you the reader to keep doing the things you do, and to do it well. I also pray that you will not look at disability but at capability when forming your relationships. That should be an ordinary part of our daily living.
If you have to make the choice between living and not living, please choose to live. I cannot imagine being less of an ‘Ife’ than I currently am. We are all created to be the best persons we can be, with the gifts God has given us. So, when I wake up every morning, I want to live, no matter how low I feel; I do the best I can and trust God to make it happen for me. And you never know, you might just hold the key to the door of opportunity that someone else is looking for.
By Ifeolu Akintunde
Dr Ifeolu Omoniyi Akintunde, LLB, BL, MA, PhD. had his early education at the prestigious Kings College in Lagos, before he moved on to the University of Lagos for his Law degree. His Masters Degree and PhD were both at the University of Lancaster respectively. He was the recipient of the Nigerian UK Based Achievers Award (2014), the Pride of Motherland Award (2010) and the Greenwich University Nigerian Students Award (2010).
He is the CEO of IOA Consults (http://ioaconsults.com) a UK based company which specialises in event management and works with international students and disabled people. IOA Consults is the external relations consultants for the Nigerian Association of the Blind. From 2007 to 2011, he was the first executive secretary of XN Foundation and he is now the director of the Programme for Advancement and Intervention in Disability (PAID) a new initiative of the Foundation (http://xnfoundation.org) which is a platform for the Nigerian youth to express their energies positively for the common good of not only their country, but also, the forward movement of mankind implementing projects in the United Kingdom, Canada and Nigeria.
Further more, Dr. Ife is also the Director of the National Ability Project (TNAP). This is a new body, set up to promote a different perspective on disability. He served on the Nigerian Centenary Awards UK Organising committee, is a serving member of the Uncelebrated Nigerians Award Committee, Vice Chair of the board of the Sunbeams Music Trust and National Publicity Secretary of the Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians.
All of us at Team LR, who worked with this very unique man, told our selves we better stop moaning about anything at all in life. We just need to take every thing gratefully in its stride as we strive daily to be the very best versions of our selves. This man epitomises the fact that life is all about choices and understanding that we succeed when those around us succeed. We choose to live, we choose to use our challenges as our propellants and we also chose to regularly do ordinary things for those around us because we know that it translates them and us into the extra-ordinary beings!
How about you? You have now finished reading this article, could you kindly let us know in the comments section, the better phrases or sentences you may have coined to describe this ““motivationally amazing” specimen of humanity? Tell us, how you would describe a man who can not see what is in the world but he sees his goals, has achieved them and is still achieving more?
*All images and video clip(s) used in this article, are extracted from the social media pages of Ife Akintude with his exclusive permission*