DISABILITY CHAMPIONS SERIES 09: CHIKE CHURCHILL OKOGWU – GAIN TO PAIN WHEELCHAIR HERO

Sunday, December 2020 will remain a remarkable day in the struggle chronicles of the Nigeria Disability community. The media space was awash with the story of the painful ordeal of a wheelchair user in the hands of an insensitive airline operator. The victim of the injustice was scheduled to fly from Abuja to Lagos for medical attention but had his trip cancelled for no just reason than his “wheelchair status”. Odd enough this was after fulfilling all requirements. Irked by such blatant discrimination, the man on wheelchair lost his cool and in a fit of rage caused damages. He was subsequently arrested and charged to court… Those were the pains.

To the credit of the master strategist at center of the commotion, he saw the big picture of that moment of madness. He leveraged on his philosophy of turning pain into gain, drew inspiration from the situation and set in motion a string of historic moves that would bring respite to incessant cases of discrimination against PWDs in the country’s aviation space.

Fast forward to 2022, the tide of discrimination in the aviation sector has been effectively stemmed through the implementation of improved policies for PWDs (especially wheelchair users) in the Nigerian aviation space. Finally, the gains.

While celebrating this victory sometime last year, this Disability Hero said:

We may not be where we want to be, but with what is going on today we are definitely not where we used to be”.

Meet Dr. Chike Churchill Okogwu our Champion number 9 of the series. “The Lion of Ibusa” as he is nicknamed is an outstanding innovation and leadership development expert. Founder, Innovative Ideas Development Services. Dr. Chike is a multiple award winner, top level consultant and disability rights activist. He holds, amongst others, a doctorate in Innovation from The Cambridge MC institute, USA.

Born in September 1970 – five years after the exit of Britain’s famous war time Prime minister whose surname he bears, Dr. Chike interestingly shares one of Churchill’s most admirable leadership traits – courage.

It took courage for this paraplegic fighter to seize that historic moment on December 20, 2020. It took courage for him to momentarily down protocols in order to drive home a point that forever altered the fate of wheelchair clients of airline operators in Nigeria. What happened that day in a moment’s spur was reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s fighting charge:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pole driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time in a tremendous whack.”

There’s another one. Chike’s response to that discriminatory incident of December 20, 2020 rang true to the spirit of Winston Churchill’s exhortation in the following lines – a line for change makers of every creed and breed:

“To each, there comes in their life-time a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on their shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing – unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour”.

Fortunately, that moment met this lion of Ibusa prepared and qualified. It was one of his finest hour.

GROWING UP in a loving family had always played a critical role in how humans respond to the challenges life throws at them. Whether poor, middle-class or upper-class, often times the first seeds of a victor are sown in bonds of family love. Chike describes his upbringing with the words “Love for God, love for one another, discipline”.

A CAR CRASH AND SPINAL CORD INJURY CHANGES HIS TRAJECTORY: Life was normal till one fateful day in December 2006 when an accident rendered him paraplegic – consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. At the time Chike was in his prime – bursting with ambition and energy. How did the young man handle the abrupt transition from limbs to wheels?

THE WHY QUESTIONS – DIALOGUING WITH GOD

Prompted by his pious upbringing, Chike remembers questioning God soon after that tragic accident. It was the usual “why me” questions.

Lord, why me of all persons?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Lord, I have this promising future ahead of me, now this?

You promised to keep Your children from harm, didn’t You, Lord? The questions were endless.

Fortunately for the young man, he would understand it further along the way. In fact, the time came when he looks back on that tragic incidence and calls it a blessed day without which he wouldn’t have made it thus far in life. “I became strong and now use the experience to teach and encourage others”, Chike says.

NUGGET #1: Disabilities don’t happen in a vacuum. They often come with a bigger purpose/calling which must be discovered.

IF NOT YOU, WHO ELSE? The following month, January 2007 brought the answer. While still in throes of the “why” questions, the Divine voice answered: If not you, then who else?

A daft Chike replied: Lord, can I bring a replacement?

God: By all means do. You are free to look for someone you hate strongly enough to take your place.

That was an eureka moment accompanied by great searchings of heart. Chike soon realized he couldn’t find anyone he hated so much as to wish his circumstance upon. Gradually, he came to an understanding that there was a divine strategy hidden in what appeared a tragedy and that he had to find it. Amidst the soul-searching, a voice whispered deep down within – I will lead you and guide you.

NUGGET #2: Do not wish your load were lighter, rather pray for a stronger back. Learn to embrace your disability.

Chike shares lessons from that experience: “Whatever cannot kill you makes you stronger. And he follows up with the advice – Never allow life (disability) to define you, let it refine you.”

That dialogue with God certainly taught Chike the meaning of the pious cliché “let go and let God”. There is no better way to cope with the challenges of disability.

CHIKE ON DISCRIMINATION

The subject of discrimination is a recurring one in the Disability narrative. Often there is a consensus among PWDs: “Society is always wrong”.

But the analytic mind will want to stand back and ask if this is really so?

Every now and then, we find few dissenting voices who believe that discrimination is often a matter of perception. Dr. Chike is one of those. The point is simple: there are times when it isn’t discrimination per se. Another time, it is just one of those negligible flaws of human nature. So why hype it?

Bottom-line: We must learn to distinguish between the real and the imagined.

A quick example: Fifteen years into the paraplegic experience, Chike’s response to whether he encounters discrimination was nothing short of remarkable. He says: “the first and only major one was that December 2020 experience at the airport. That says a lot. Again the point is simple: Be sure it is discrimination before you shout!

However when we look back on that airport incident one can’t help asking what else the offending airline operator want from a client who has fulfilled all just requirements – except that  one – being on a wheelchair. So it is real – this thing called discrimination, and Chike acknowledges it. However he heavily tasks PWDs with the responsibility of bringing about the desired change as we shall see shortly.

Responding to the reality of a discriminating society, Dr. Okogwu quotes Ban Ki Moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations: “Any society that does not cater for her disabled and vulnerable persons is shortchanging itself of 15% Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is a message for society to think about.

DEALING WITH DISABILITY OBSTACLES (C.O.R.E)

On this topic, Chike delves into the old cliché “Disability isn’t inability” breathing new life into it. For him, the keys to thriving with disability are acronymed “C.O.R.E” – Courage, Opportunity, Responsibility, Empowerment. These principles, he believes are what enables a PWD to create value, excel and achieve.

Developing Courage to meet the challenges of living with disability.

Seeing and seizing opportunities as they come.

Taking responsibility for opportunities and staying empowered through wise application of  knowledge.

Chike however highly rates offering “value” as a PWD. Drawing from personal experience, he says the PWD who trades “value” will win empathy. Offering value as a PWD will make kings and leaders come down from their elevated positions to hear you. He means this literally and figuratively.

At this juncture, he shares some of his guiding philosophies for meeting the challenges:

There’s so much strength in perceived weakness. Get creative how you use it.

Turn adversity to prosperity by “creating values” in disabilities. People respond more to creating values than to “stretched out hands”.

Your attitude to your disability determines your altitude. Take a positive turn of attitude. “ I have a great attitude which often makes people comfortable around me”, he says.

Love mankind.

Let disability refine and build character in you.

THE HUMOR SIDE TO COPING

The Lion of Ibusa certainly has a wonderful sense of humor. He doesn’t think twice about making hilarious jokes over his circumstance. When we asked him how he deals with those obstacles which invariably comes with using a wheelchair, he responds with a mischievous wink: “where there is a ‘wheel’(pun referring to his wheelchair) there must be a way”.

NUGGET #3: We should learn to find fun and healthy humor in our disability – when we do, we lighten the load and create relief out of grief.

While on the subject of creating comedy from a wheelchair, Chike speaks about his bulky physique and the difficulty to movement often encountered when obstacles lie in the way. At such times, I have to be manually carried, he says. So to lessen the stress for his carriers, he would crack a favorite joke: “Hey, let’s lift Nigeria’s problem o”. At other times, when he has to give speeches at public functions he would say, humorously: (since he can’t stand to deliver his speech) “I want to ride on existing protocols”. He however had to change it to “Please, let me ride along with existing protocols” because the former was considered offensive. This humour approach has made life more fun for him and he says, “I create and determine my happiness. It is like the air, I just breathe it”.

I will repeat for emphasis: “If we are creative enough, if we maintain a healthy sense of humour with regard to our disabilities, there’s a big possibility of wringing happiness and cheer from that which, ordinarily would cause us unhappiness.”

I just showed you a big secret to coping with disability.

 A WORD TO UPCOMING PWDs

Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for country” J.F Kennedy

With a quick paraphrase of J.F Kennedy’s inaugural address, Chike sums it up: “Think more of what you can do for the community than what the community can do for you”. That forms the core of his charge to an army of young PWDs whining at society’s discrimination and lack of employment/empowerment opportunities.

Gather your experiences together and use them as building blocks to make a living.

Look at what you know how to do best. Do it so well that the world will take notice of you. You should have something to offer at all times.

Find a niche or missing gap and be a solution to problems.

And in that tricky matter of heated hearts called ‘finding love’, he says: “Love yourself first, then find love. Loving yourself increases your value.

The Disability Champions Series, a collaborative project with Madam Joy Bolarin, Executive Director, Jibore Foundation, is anchored by Ogheneruemu Alexander (Disability issues blogger).

Special acknowledgement to T.O.L.A Foundation for constant back up supports.

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