Disability Champion Series 12. As we continue on this narrative of champions of the Disability journey, it is important to observe a salient point that rings true to the spirit of the series:
“The real heroes of the Odyssey won’t necessarily be people of affluence, prestige or popularity – no, the unknown journeyman too, who despite meagre resources and other daunting odds, is attempting and reaching brave feats, making an impact, and leaving positive impressions, he too will have his praises sung”.
Dennis Kimbro rightly observed:
“When the prizes of life shall be awarded by the Supreme Judge who knows our weaknesses and frailties, the distance we have run, the weights we’ve carried, the handicaps we have endured – all will be taken into account.
On that day, it isn’t so much the distance run as the obstacles overcome that will decide the prize.
The beleaguered soul who had pressed on amidst serious deprivation, the outstanding survivor who’d gone unrecognized, despised by their fellow runners, these will receive the greater prize.
The hero featured in this 12th of the series fits into the foregoing description. Neither his humble presence nor living standards herald the trumpery and glitz by which society measures achievement. Yet one cannot interact up close with this beautiful soul and not absorb the strong vibrations of those better angels of our human nature. You leave him with nobler thoughts. It’s all so ethereal.
Meet John Shodiya – a deaf-blind champ hailed from Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria.
Before I met John, all I knew about Deaf-blindness was from reading and hearsay. Yes, I did Helen Keller’s (world-renowned deaf-blind celebrity) story in an earlier series of the Disability Champions. Still, my overly sentimental construct just couldn’t process the reality of this phenomenon called Deaf-blindness.
How does one communicate with a deaf-blind person? How does such a one explore the world around him? Could anything be worse than this? Maybe it isn’t real after all, I reasoned in my state of escapism.
These questions were put to rest after I lived and interacted up close with John for a couple of weeks.
Standing at an impressive 6ft plus, dark-complexioned and well groomed, John radiates a serene, soothing aura – probably an outcome of being shut off distracting sights and sounds.
His story is quite moving.
Deafened soon after birth
“I was born hearing and sighted. I don’t know exactly the age at which I became deaf. However, I was made to understand it happened between 6 months and a year. My primary and secondary schooling was in schools for the deaf”.
John would thereafter proceed to Sub Sahara Africa’s only college of Education for special needs – the Federal College of Education, Special, Oyo State of Nigeria and later to the University of Jos, Nigeria.
This solid educational background coupled with a healthy dose of godly upbringing on the home front offered the young man a strong start for the storms that lay ahead.
John recalls: “The first signs of failing sight started during my time at the Federal College of Education, Oyo. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access quality medical attention for lack of funds. The situation steadily worsened during my studentship at the University of Jos. According to doctors’ findings, excessive reading in poor light and wrong dieting largely contributed to my eye problems”.
For John, blindness happened gradually. He continues: “As my condition deteriorated, I was running over the place in search of a cure”. One can only imagine the desperation of this man who’s been deaf from a very early age as the threat of losing his sight stared him in the face.
Meanwhile, doctors at various hospitals in Kaduna, Jos, Lagos and Ogun States battled to save his sight. Sadly, he eventually went blind.
Deaf-blind – Depression, Sorrow, Sadness…
John describes the struggles of adapting to a soundless, sightless life with the words depression, sorrow, and sadness. “Living with deafness is a herculean challenge” he stressed, “when I lost my sight, it was heart-rending, I slipped into a slur of loneliness and grief. My biggest challenge then became how to connect with family, friends and loved ones through receptive communication.”
He continues, “I had to adjust by learning a new mode of receiving information – having words signed on my hands. At first, it was tough, but as this seemed the most ready option to bridge the gap, I had no choice.
Nugget: Sometimes the way forward is simply learning to roll with the blows.
John says learning this new mode of communication was a big stride towards rehabilitation.
But he doesn’t conclude his tale of struggle without paying glowing tributes to his sweetheart, Ganiyat and close friends for the strong support system each provided.
Taking discrimination in strides
John works as a teacher in one of the Inclusive Secondary Schools in Lagos.
He tells an emotional story of how he was given the job in very fortuitous circumstances. It was the usual battle against stereotypes and their prejudices. Potential employers and interviewers were cynical. What does a dead-blind man have to offer? Such was the hasty conclusion even before the man’s abilities could be assessed.
In a society that always finds it difficult to see the “ability” before the “dis”, John would get the job more on sympathetic sentiments than a belief in his capabilities.
Although few things pose a more serious assault on self-esteem than this, survival instincts demanded rolling with the blows – and John did just that. Asked if he feels the stings of these prejudices, John manages an ambiguous smile that at once expresses resignation and quiet assurance in his natural abilities.
Nugget: Disability-based discrimination will always be. So, too, will the survival instincts to counter. Activate that instinct.
Yet it is easy to doubt John’s abilities. Not until you see him do the things he definitely has been wired for in advance do you begin to develop heightened regard and admiration for this man.
Bible teacher turned Bible Translator
Providence had John well furnished for the moment of the trial back then in his seeing days when he served as a Bible teacher – immersing himself indelibly in scriptures.
This put him in good stead to be selected for the Wycliffe Associates-DOT Bible Translation Project.
At first, facilitators for the Wycliffe Associates-DOT Bible translation project would query the team lead on the rationale for picking a deaf-blind person.
“Is he capable?” they quipped.
John rose to the occasion. He won over the doubters with a string of sterling performances during Bible translation training. And before long, he was ahead of the pack – the star of the team. He might just win the distinction for the first deaf-blind person to be involved in Bible translation work.
I personally witnessed this remarkable instance of “triumph of the human spirit” over its circumstances.
First the cross, then the crown.
Yes, when we talk about instances of triumph, it’s good to mention the preceding agonies – the price paid by daring souls before they clinched victory.
Let’s be clear: John faces herculean challenges performing tasks as a deaf-blind person. He had a slow, shaky start.
Recalling the slow warm-up to blending with the Bible translation assignment, he highlights his initial struggle with feelings of self-doubt, discouragement, and insufficiency.
For example, during translation work, John’s lack of sight means the scripture passage has to be read into his hands. From there he takes it up for translation into its local signed equivalent. And being the type that always wants to be in the center of the action, John feels rather alone and uninvolved when he has no one available to help. He also misses out on activities that require sight to savor. These are just a few of the many challenges. It’s amazing how John is able to endure these lone spells in a silent, dark universe with such calm fortitude.
Fortunately, he is lucky to have team members who are always making sacrifices to help out.
“They have been a great support”, John says. He is quick to share the credit with teammates each time someone comments on his amazing contribution to the translation project.
Holding a Positive Attitude Amidst the frustrations
It’s only human to say that John still gets depressed at the numerous restrictions of living without hearing or sight. He gets frustrated at the almost non-existent options, opportunities and facilities available for persons like him in the Nigerian system.
But he doesn’t let this dent his finer human qualities.
Ever the great communicator, personable and mentally acute, John is very forward about self-development and contributing to society. On the academic front, he longs for a master’s degree and possibly a PhD – in a more clement environment that offers improved living conditions for actualization of potential. To him, being deaf and blind ought rather to be a spur to reach out for better living than just sitting back in resigned helplessness.
And that’s the unspoken admonition he leaves for others in his shoes.
The Disability Champions Series, an initiative of Jibore Foundation, is anchored by Alexander Ogheneruemu – a Deaf writer