When Dr Ifeoma Bibian Okoli was born, little was it known that a disease would make her lose her sight for life? Not perturbed by the condition, armed with the required skills to pursue her dreams, her hard work earned her a Ph.D in Education. Surprisingly, she does her daily chores unaided, while exhuming warmth to those around her. In this interview with STELLA OBI, the Doctorate degree holder talks about how determination and resilience sustained her efforts and achievements in life despite her visual impairment.
HOW she feels upon attaining the high educational height of PhD
Dr Okoli said that words could not describe the joy and gratitude in her heart, especially to God who made it possible for her academic attainment. She said the academic journey wasn’t easy, but she thanks God for the outcome. She said that bequeathing a sound education to one’s children was a belief that her parents held fast to.
Recalling that her undergraduate and post graduate studies spanned a period of about 13 years, the Doctorate degree holder informed that her first and second degrees were obtained from the University of Ibadan.
Speaking further, Dr Okoli said that initially on admission, she read Guidance and Counselling after which she swapped to Special Education in her 200 level, which opened doors of opportunities to her.
On how her visual impairment developed
Remembering how she became visually impaired, Ifeoma said that it started with just an ordinary eye pain when she was eight years old. Narrating how the loss in sight happened, she said that she was not born blind, rather, the visual impairment was adventitious and not congenital (after birth). Dr Okoli, describing her mother as a woman who knows her onion and what it takes to be a role model, said as a routine, whenever they came back from school, before she and her siblings have their lunch, they would submit their class works to their mother to go through and later, she assists them with their home works.
Explaining further, the Doctorate degree holder informed that in one of the routine checks, her mother observed that she was writing above the margins and not on the margins. She stated that when her mother drew her attention to it, she could not visualise what she was saying. According to her, visits were made to Ophthalmologist where eye drops were given to her and which was applied judiciously but instead of improvement, her sight continued to deteriorate.
On how she felt dropping out of school
Dr Okoli stated that she did not feel good drooping out of regular schooling. According to her, the situation changed her life into a world of darkness. She said that when it happened, nobody in the family or close friends had the knowledge of Special Needs Education. Dr Okoli stated that God lit up her life through Rev Sister Nnaemeka Nzekwe and Rev Sister Fairchristy of St Justina Cistercian Monastery, Abakaliki, who told her family about Special Needs Education which led her to St Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center for Visually Handicapped, Obudu, Cross River State. She recalled that leaving home was not easy, but she had to go.
Dr Okoli said that she encountered a lot of obstacles. There were some psychological trauma along the line, but I was able to cope to this level. “Sometimes, I was humiliated but I did not allow the challenge to weigh me down. I took it as life’s challenges, given other ill health that I experienced but to the glory of God, through prayers, depending on God and God alone. I was able to surmount the obstacles and rejoicing on the outcome today,” she noted.
On job opportunities
The Doctorate degree holder is hopeful and trusting in God that her institution (University of Ibadan) and other institutions may offer her a job. Dr Okoil opined that after all the challenges she has had and cannot secure a job, that her efforts might seem to be in vain.
On recognition from federal and state governments
She answered in the negative but expressed hope that something positive might crop up. Dr Okoli appealed to her state government, Anambra, to assist her by employing her. “I know I did Igbo-Ukwu proud. I did Anambra State proud by being the first female with visual impairment to earn a Ph.D from University of Ibadan and also the first in Anambra”. She disclosed that she was supervised by Prof Ikechukwu Nwazuoke, who is the first Professor in Gifted and Talented Education in Nigeria, West Africa and Central Africa.
On membership of organisations
The Doctorate degree holder is a member of different organisations with leanings to persons with disabilities. She informed that these organisations helped her to socialise with persons with disabilities and the outside world. Dr Okoli narrated that during her undergraduate days, she was a two-time Vice President of Special Persons Club, Coordinator, Postgraduate Special Persons Club, in Oyo State. She is a member of Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA).The Doctorate degree holder disclosed that she was part of those that went to Abuja for the domestication of the document (VAPPA) into law on February, 25, 2021, where it was assented to by the Governor of Oyo State, Mr Seyi Makinde. “Also, I am a member of Willing Hand Initiative. This is an organisation where we work assiduously towards inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of life endeavours in Oyo State. A member of Nigerian Association of Women and Girls’ With Disabilities, Oyo State, National Association of Special Education and Nigeria Association of Exceptional Children.”
Dr Okoli emphasised that her disability never limited her association or engagement in extracurricular activities. She disclosed that she attended several seminars, workshops and conferences locally and internationally where she presented papers, most of which have been published.
Dr Okoli also has a dream of setting up a nongovernmental organisation where she can assist persons with disabilities.
According to her, many people contributed to making her what she is today. “I want to be a mentor in order to help others living with special needs, to give them hope and for them to actualise their dreams. “With this height, I have conquered disability because in every disability, there’s ability.”
Appeal to federal and state governments
She commended the federal and state governments on Special Needs Education but however, opined that more needs to be done for the inclusiveness and participation of persons with special needs. Dr Okoli observed that to be awarded a Ph.D is not easy but due to doggedness, determination, resilience hard work, and above all, God’s intervention. “I will feel good if the federal government should do something for me, give me employment. I need to work so that I can take care of myself and every other person”. The Doctorate degree holder appealed for scholarships for persons with disabilities. In the same vein, she called on state governments to assist persons with disabilities.
“One thing we should know is that everybody has one disability or the other only that some disabilities are more challenging than the others. Please, government should do more, especially on the issue of signing the rights of persons with disabilities into law and other things.”
Message to parents
She charged parents, especially mothers to take care of their homes, children and have time for them so that they can always detect when abnormalities are setting in and arrest them on time.
Message to persons with disabilities
Dr Okoli urged them not to be discouraged by their situations in life. She said that they were the only ones that could make themselves happy and enjoined them to be determined to be successful in life. She told them to engage in positive endeavours, saying that good spirited individuals may help them out.
Dr Okoli gives God all the gratitude for the gift of life and what he has done for her. She is also grateful to her parents and siblings. The Doctorate degree holder thanked the Cistercian monks and homes, in Abakaliki, The Dominican Orders, Dominican Fryers, Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Archdiocese of Ibadan, Archbishop Felix Alaba Job, Archbishop of Ibadan Catholic Archdiocese , Archbishop Gabriel Abegunrin , benefactors, The University of Ibadan, her lecturers, Prof Ikechukwu Nwazuoke, friends, Daughters of Divine Love(Pastoral Institute Community, Ibadan), Sisters of Good Shepherd, St John the Evangelist , Very Rev Patrick Mary Anene, St John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Okpaugwu,Abakaliki, Mother of Perpetual Help , Legionaries and Sacred Heart Societies.