Against all odds: How visually impaired woman bagged PhD

Dr. Ifeoma Bibiana Okoli was not born blind and the impairment is not congenital but adventitious. She developed the sight problem when she was just eight years old. Ifeoma’s mother sensed all was not well when she checked her daughter’s notebooks and discovered that she was writing above the margin.

Even with the real challenge of being visually impaired, Ifeoma has left everyone stunned as she breezed through different schools and acquired different degrees. She believes that no impediment can stop her yearnings to conquer. It was Ifeoma’s determination that made her today to become the first female in Anambra State with visual impairment to bag a PhD.

On November 17, 2021, she was among graduating students conferred with doctoral degree at the Founder’s Day and 73rd Convocation Ceremony held at the International Conference Centre of the University of Ibadan. Our reporter recently ran into her and during an interaction, she expressed a great delight at the feat she had so far attained. According to her sister, Nneka Okoli, Ifeoma is the first child of late Mr. Obiabusi Vincent Okoli and Mrs. Ijeoma Beatrice Okoli, both from Ezihu village, Igboukwu, in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State.

She spent most of her years in Abakaliki where her parents lived and worked. In 1985, she was forced to drop out of school at the commencement of her final examination in secondary school. Nneka further explained on her Facebook wall: “Ifeoma has been battling with failing eyesight due to a degenerative eye disease known as Retinitis Pigmentosa. When the visual challenge started, her parents took her to several eye clinics in quest for a remedy, but unfortunately none was found.

It was when she was writing her final papers that she realised she had lost her sight. She was devastated, especially in view of the fact that she loves education. After the initial phase of non-acceptance, sorrow and pain, Ifeoma, through the assistance of a cloistered nun enrolled at St. Joseph Rehabilitation Centre for the Blind, Obudu in Cross River State.

There she acquired the requisite skills that enabled her to pursue her academic dreams. Armed with this skill, Ifeoma resolved to pursue her academic studies to the highest possible level. This resolve is what is being celebrated as she is conferred with a doctorate degree in Special Education.” Recollecting her journey, Ifeoma said: “The journey has been rough and smooth.

I thank God first, and secondly, my parents who promised to give me sound education and did it. The idea is for us to be independent in life and successful human beings. I’m the first female in Anambra State with visual impairment to bag a Ph.D. I’m also the second out of those who graduated from St. Joseph Rehabilitation Centre for Visually Handicapped, Obudu in Cross River State, to also have this degree.” She explained that during her undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan, she was two-time President of the Special Persons Club and the Coordinator of the Club at the post-graduate arm. She added: “I have done many scholarly research works, presented and published.

In Oyo State, I’m a member of Willing Hands Initiative, an association working towards making sure that the rights of persons living with special needs are accorded to them. We take care of their interests and inclusion in all walks of life. Again, I’m one of the members who travelled to Abuja for the domestication of Violence Against Persons with Special Needs Prohibition Act on February 25, 2021, where it was assented to by the Governor of Oyo State, Engineer Seyi Makinde.”

She urged parents to monitor their children, recalling that her visual impairment was adventitious and not congenital. She said: “My family gave me the support I needed, which gave me the courage to take up the challenge. I’m the first of eight children. One is late, but my parents never discriminated among us at all. True, there was some psychological trauma along the line, but I was able to cope to this level.

I coped through hard work, determination and resilience and then I was able to attain this height. Everybody should know that with determination, disability is not a barrier to attaining great feats in life. It takes perseverance, consistency and prayer while trusting God to make.” Remembering how she became visually impaired, Ifeoma said that it started with just an ordinary eye pain when she was eight years old.

Soon, however, her vision worsened until it got to the stage she could no longer see. She recalled: “In my family, there is this tradition that when you return from school, and before you take your lunch, everyone would have to submit their classwork done on a daily basis to our mother. She would go through each thoroughly.

It was during such days, while mom was going through our books that she observed that instead of writing on the margin, I was writing above the margin. She was the one that noticed it, and that is why I encouraged all mothers to live up to their expectations as mothers. Many mothers these days do not have time for their children because they are pursuing so many things at the same time. Supposing my mother didn’t discover the disability, things could have been worse for me.”

Ifeoma enthused that her mom, Mrs. Ijeoma Beatrice Okoli, is her role model, a mentor and a virtuous woman. She explained that her mom was dear to her, adding that most mothers these days do not create enough time for their children. “This is why I always advocated that mothers should care less about making money, but give quality attention to the welfare of their children and wards. I’m grateful to her for all she has done for me. Though my father, Obiabusi Vincent Okoli, is late, I will also be eternally grateful to him,” said Ifeoma. Further recollecting challenges she encountered in achieving her impressive feats, Ifeoma said: “The first challenge is trauma. Like I told you, the problem is not congenital. My parents took me to various hospitals to meet ophthalmologists and they couldn’t identify what the condition was. They said there was no solution and that I would have to live with it. It was traumatic for me, but because of the people I had around, which are my family members, I was able to overcome. I always told them that ‘men had said theirs,’ but God has the final say.

I still continue to look forward because I know God has many things in store for me in the future.” Still speaking on her challenges, Ifeoma said that while at the Abubakar Salami Hall, where she lived as a student, she contested as a governor. This was even as everyone knew that in the history of the hall, no woman had ever contested for governorship. Ifeoma broke the jinx. She narrated: “I broke the jinx although I did not win the election. It, however, gave me the courage and satisfaction to know that a woman had participated. But that challenge led me to being appointed as a member of Gender Mainstream Organisation in the University of Ibadan through Professor Stella Odebode, and till date, I’m still working with them.” According to Ifeoma, having worked tirelessly for a period of 13 years for her first degree and then her Ph.D., she has that strong will and ability that if given the opportunity to lecture in the institution, she would grab the opportunity with both hands. She said: “I need to impact what the University of Ibadan has deposited in me. I also have the intention of having a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) because so many people contribute to make me what I am today; that’s asides God.

I want to be a mentor in order to help others living with special needs, to give hope and for them to actualize their dreams. “With this height, I have conquered disability because in every disability, there’s ability. This visual impairment has given me the opportunity to wine and dine with eminent personalities because I have travelled far and wide to several countries outside Nigeria for conferences, workshops and seminars. I have quite a number of scholarly published papers. I’m also a member of quite a number of international organisations.” Ifeoma urged the Federal Government to do more by giving persons with disabilities employment. Government, she further argued, should also give them scholarships, “because most of us came from poor families. The FG should give us health-insurance, housing and other things that will make us feel included in the society, including paving the way for us to be able to participate in politics.”




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