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Solomon Okelola smiles at the camera.

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‘Success and Failure Are Born in the Same Cradle’

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LALIF Executive Director Solomon Okelola Reflects on Living with DeafBlindness

October 31, 2021

LAGOS, Nigeria — Growing up hard of hearing and visually impaired, Solomon Okelola could not see what his teachers wrote on the board unless he stood up to get a closer look. Of course, this was difficult and time-consuming – walking up to the chalkboard, checking for the particular line of writing he was reading, returning to his notebook to write, then back to the chalkboard all over again. Plus, it was an inconvenience for his classmates, as he usually obstructed their view.

Lacking hearing aids back then, Okelola also couldn’t hear his teachers very well. “Anyone who wanted to talk to me had to stand close to me and talk right into my ears or raise his/her voice for me to hear,” he says. Of course, the teachers couldn’t stand beside a single student or raise their voices all the time, so Okelola grew up with reading as his main tutor. “I loved to source for more information and knowledge,” he says.

Today, Okelola is the executive director of Lionheart Ability Leaders International Foundation (LALIF), a non-governmental organization in Nigeria for people with disabilities. In this role, he has helped organize awareness campaigns to educate Nigerians about his type of disability. Okelola notes that people who are DeafBlind can face even more challenges communicating than those who are Deaf or blind. They can feel isolated, which is how he felt growing up. “Whenever there were more than two people around me, I found I was mostly on my own, with my own thoughts,” he says. Eventually, though, Okelola grew to appreciate his solitude, as it gave him an opportunity to observe and reflect upon life, people, their problems, and the ways they react to their problems. Sometimes, he would go somewhere by himself to reflect and ponder life.

It was from this habit that Solomon discovered his writing and advocacy skills. His reflections, decisions, counter-questions, and final resolutions began to influence his daily habits, his endeavors, and his responses to people and situations. He says, “They [his reflections and meditations] are the main reason why I have learnt, and I tell people the following:

  1. I don’t believe man is a product of his environment. Man is a product of his experiences and his reactions or responses to those experiences. You can always choose to be who and what you want to be.
  2. Only you can mold yourself, only you can destroy yourself and your chance to succeed in life.
  3. It matters little what goes on around you or where you find yourself. It is how you decide to take it all that matters.
  4. Success and failure are born in the same cradle – in your mind. You can conceive whichever you desire.
  5. It’s all about you to be the best you can!”

With a master’s degree in special education and rehabilitation science from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, Okelola also advocates for early detection of Usher Syndrome, the world’s leading cause of DeafBlindness, and more training and awareness in the mainstream schools. Growing up, he had cataracts in both eyes due to retinitis pigmentosa, and the one in his left eye was so severe that he couldn’t see anything out of it throughout primary and secondary school. Twelve years ago, he started to lose the rest of his sight. It was a challenging time in his life, especially since his fiancée of almost two years had left him just three months prior because her family had objected to his not being part of their tribe. Describing his feelings over the breakup and the loss of his vision soon after, he says, “That started me wondering amidst my agony of all this issue of tribal loyalties and ethnic differences in Africa. I was still battling to get myself back together when the world started going black on July 7, 2009.”

Okelola resolved to try to forge ahead despite what he describes as the “extreme emotional turmoils” and “mental upheavals” he was experiencing at the time. Reflecting on his experiences and how he managed to surmount the challenges, he says, “Already, I had friends with visual impairment, and I loved to help them around school, in their recordings and all that. I started trying to imitate them, to do things the way I saw them do.”

When asked what he would like the world to know from his story and what he’s engaged in presently, he says, “In a nutshell, all I wish to share with like-minded individuals and all we need to make our people realize stems from what I have learnt in life: It’s all about you to be the best you can!”

Bukola Badmus is a 2021 Disability Justice Project Fellow and the financial secretary and Lagos state coordinator for LALIF. @2021 LALIF. All rights reserved.

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