This weekend, we resume the narrative of Champions who are pushing past the obstacles, setbacks, and difficulties erected by Disability to create hope and inspiration for others.
We bring you the story of a champion whose severe, bilateral sensorineural deafness right from birth wouldn’t stop her rise to make a mark in one of science’s most demanding professions – medicine.
A dedicated pediatrician, Ijeoma Jane Nnodim, nicknamed pickin doctor blends this with a large heart for humanitarian causes which has seen her found a not-for-profit organization – The Isonye Health Foundation.
Through this initiative, the young doctor is touching lives by easing assess to health services and materials for persons with disabilities – especially Deaf women and girls.
She explains how her experiences and medical practice give a close-up view of the many obstacles women with disabilities face in the quest for inclusive health care.
Her words: “Many public health care interventions, more often than not, leave these set of people behind – making them an underserved population.”
This pathetic plight is at the core of her passion and pursuit of the Disability cause.
But the real high point of Dr Nnodim’s story is the interesting way she connects the dots in the space between her disability and her training to find a purpose that answers above and beyond, to the needs of a marginalized population.
The word “Isonye” provides a clue into the interesting connections. It is an Igbo term meaning “to participate” or “to include”.
So we have a fitting symbol for a young doctor using her Disability and training in a prestigious profession to serve a higher purpose.
Alexander Ogheneruemu had a chat with Dr Nnodim.
Ijeoma Jane Nnodim was born in the bustling city of Lagos. Her father is a practicing lawyer. Her mother, now retired, was a teacher. It is understandable therefore, the importance put on education by both. This would positively rub off on their daughter – a force to reckon with in her eventual career success. Between them, they had four girls and a boy.
Dr Nnodim says she’s been deaf for as long she could remember. By this, she meant she was born with the disability. Severe bilateral sensorineural deafness was the diagnosis.
Living with deafness right from birth is a daunting challenge – piques curiousity about how she coped. Her answer to this question reflects the typical experience of deaf persons.
“Growing up, I never fit in with my peers; due to being seen as inattentive and occasionally punished for it. As a result, I found solace in books and often sought out solitude to explore them further”.
In retrospect, it soon becomes clear that experiences like these have a way of instilling independence in individuals with this disability.
“I attended Saint Leo’s Catholic Private School Ikeja. My secondary education was at Command Day Secondary School, Ikeja. From there I proceeded to the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, and later to the West African College of Physicians,” she recounted.
Doctor Nnodim is presently doing her Masters program in one of the best medical institutions in the United Kingdom – The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A privilege got on the back of a Chevening scholarship.
Not a mean feat for a deaf girl who struggled through medical school managing a second-rate hearing aid (in her words: that was what my parents could afford).
Secrets and insights
Asked to share some secrets and insights about her achievement, Dr. Nnodim said, “I was serious with my studies and seen as a bookworm.”
Undeterred, she would latch on to that reputation to stay focused where less of a resolute will would slack off. In hindsight she recalls how that gave her an edge – resulting in steady progress through lessons and better grades on exams.
Giving an important insight on her disability, Nnodim makes a veiled reference to the art of making lemonade out of life’s lemons:
“I used my disability as a platform to launch useful initiatives to serve specific needs of society – the Isonye Foundation for Inclusive Healthcare and a Facebook group on Child Health”.
The paediatrician describes her commitment to these humanitarian initiatives as a ministry that rings true to her life purpose. She would admit that her winning a Chevening Scholarship owes much to these contributions to society.
Nugget: Even disability could be a spur to contributing to society rather than demanding from it.
Not all shiny smiles and inspiration
At this point, the interview steers toward an inescapable reality check: the subject of discrimination. Why, we want to be real. We want to talk about the problems too. That’s what makes a complete story.
So I say, come on, doctor, let’s be real. You know, disability isn’t all inspiration. Sure there’s more to this than we won’t cover with some shiny veneers. Tell us about those hurtful experiences and how you coped.
She replied; “I was passed over for some opportunities even though I was highly qualified. Another embarrassing situation is being left out of important decisions.
“Understandably, I felt hurt and frustrated for missing out on what I believed I’d earned. Unfortunately, such discrimination is the reality for many people with disabilities attempting to reach their potential in various endeavors.”
But then she offers her views on what she feels to be the best response in such situations: “focus on your strengths and talents—that way it will be difficult for you to be ignored. I did it and it worked”.
In another hurtful instance, Nnodim recalls those times in high school when she was made the butt of classmates’ jokes for failing to respond when called. Those dreaded moments, she admits, made her feel like an outsider – seriously denting her confidence.
But then she points out: “many people with disabilities experience similar forms of discrimination on a daily basis”.
She is frank enough to admit that her inability to make effective phone calls constitutes one of the biggest challenges of her disability. She says she managed to overcome this by opting for text-based methods.
However, as an ardent believer of the Christian faith, she hints at a transcendental coping mechanism when she quotes a favorite scripture: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me”.
Disability has an ironic sense of humor
I tried lightening up the tense atmosphere of the interview by asking Dr Nnodim to share an instance when deafness had been a reason for a good laugh.
She says it was the day she boarded a public bus heading to one destination only to find herself at another because she didn’t hear the bus stop correctly.
On deeper introspection, however, we see an irony of life reflected in an apparently trivial matter: “In life, how often do we humans set out for one goal, only to find ourselves navigating a different terrain by reason of unforseen circumstances – in this context, a disability?
The hidden nugget here is to have a mind open enough to explore the unexpected options disability brings in beneficial ways.
The conversation switches to how disability can be a spur for character building and refinement of personality.
It made me more resilient and empathetic
“Growing up with a disability instilled in me a remarkable resilience,” she says.
Empathy is easily read in words and deeds.
This young doctor continues to demonstrate this within the Disability community and beyond, where she actively uses the privileges of her profession to facilitate necessary assistance to less privileged members of the disability community in Nigeria.
Her ability to understand and connect with the situations of others endears her to many.
It’s refreshing when she insists that it took disability to discover this better angel of her nature.
Admonishing a young generation of PWDs.
For young persons with disabilities, she offers words of advice that have shaped her own life: “Get an education by all means. It gives you an edge to push closer to your dreams. An educational background offers better chances of successfully chasing dreams and aspirations.
“Don’t have an entitlement mentality. No one owes you anything.”
Pushing the inclusion crusade
Finally, to a society still relatively backward in implementing disability inclusion, Dr Nnodim cautions: “Disability inclusion is becoming a global force to reckon with. Don’t be left behind.”
The Disability Champions Series, an initiative of Jibore Foundation, is anchored by Alexander Ogheneruemu – a Deaf writer.