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Cosmas Okoli: Braving the odds in a challenging world

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COSMAS Okoli is an outstanding personality. His story has inspired millions of Nigerians. Imagine his brother carrying Cosmas on his back to school and being taunted. Picture a scenario where as a young lad, he puts on shorts and his siblings putting on trousers, even during festive periods.

You can imagine how he felt rejected on numerous occasions by women he wanted to marry based on his physique. More so, when it was not uncommon to call physically challenged people disabled.

Obstacles have always paved way for the brave, never afraid of anyone’s size; they only bow to the size of a person’s strength. Cosmas’s life typifies that anyone can surmount obstacles; a case of turning adversity into an advantageous one. Many in his shoes would have resigned their life to fate.

Okoli doesn’t believe in such. His strong philosophy about life has sustained him. Not many people in the world use their disadvantage to invent solution to their challenges, but Cosmas did.

Poliomyelitis struck Cosmas at the age of four in a country where those with physical disabilities have no law to champion their rights. Right from elementary to tertiary education level, life was traumatic for Cosmas, as he has to endure endless social discrimination and derogatory names from his peers.

When poliomyelitis, a disease that traces its origin to ancient Egypt that had affected millions of children struck Okoli on both legs in 1966, it left him paralysed from waist down. Rehabilitation and access to protheses were impossible in those days. He could only move about by crawling on hands and knees.

All his father, the head master of his hometown elementary school could picture of him was a wheelchair bound cobbler in his rustic village in Isuofia, Anambra State. His father’s conclusion was fraught with the lives of those he knew. “Someday Cosmas was going to be in their shoes,” he thought. But Cosmas refused.

The people in their locality could have painted no bright picture for Cosmas in those days. As it is difficult for a camel to pass through eye of the needle, it was presumed more than anything very difficult for anyone with physical challenge to rise to prominence.

A year after his elder brother Uchenna enrolled in elementary school, he demanded that his father enroll him in school also. He insisted that he go for the same level of education and type of career as his siblings. Having an enlightened father, all he could do for him was to encourage him.

According to him, “My experience in life has proved to me that there is ability in disability. In fact, my condition has brought out the best in me. I have done and achieved many things that those without physical deformity have not done or achieved. I am going to use my intellectual power to defeat my physical challenge. That has never been challenge to me and it will never be, rather; it has propelled me to excel in my life endeavours.”

Cosmas was early in life inspired by Franklin Roosevelt who suffered poliomyelitis at 39, rare for adults and struggled with it to become the United States President.

“Former United States President Franklin Roosevelt, is my role model. He was deformed by poliomyelitis in his early life. He was never deterred by these challenges and he rose from grass to grace on wheelchair. He became the President of America on wheelchair. He was the father of the United Nations because he initiated the idea.”

Okoli excelled in his primary education and attended Christ the King College, Onitsha, for his secondary education and proceeded  to Anambra State Polytechnic, now Federal Polytechnic, Oko, and University of Lagos, where he studied Medical Physiology. He was the Best Corps Member in Nigeria during his one year of National Youth Service in 1989. He bagged automatic employment with Lagos State Government.

In sport, he won gold and silver medals at the inaugural 1991 All Africa Special Games in Egypt. He took Nigeria to the Atlanta and Sydney Paralympics where Nigeria won a number of medals.

Cosmas wants more government rehabilitation centers in the country and the few that exists, he says, offer programs and training which has little relevance to the qualifications of or the realistic opportunities available to the trainees and there is negligible follow through when the training is completed.

He advocates legislation on behalf of the physically challenged which to date, only two administration directives exist. The first requires that work places hire at least two percent disabled workers and the second provides tax relief to these workers. ‘In reality, these directives are not honored and must be passed into legislation and vigorously enforced to have any appreciable effect.”

Cosmas’s quest to find solutions to the challenges faced by millions of people that are physically challenged in Nigeria led him to  establish the Mobility Aid and Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC). It seeks to address the lack of adequate mobility aids and appliances, and help eliminate social, cultural, and environmental barriers and prejudices against people with disabilities in Nigeria. He started the enterprise with individual donations and loans, as well as his own funds, including the proceeds from several national awards he received

It’s noteworthy to know that about 50 percent of the MAARDEC staff has people that are physically challenged. In pursuit of its goals, the centre offers counseling and guidance for the disabled and promotes public education around the capacities of disabled persons.

Cosmas, is an Ashoka Fellow, and a recipient of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). He is married to Azuka, with three children.

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