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Disability Champions Series 15: Blessing Silas – Staying In The Game Through PUSH

Welcome guys to the series for the year!

Good to be back from the break. During the break, yours truly had taken time to catch up with current trends and thoughts within the disability movement – an exploration of disability narrative across cultures. In the process, I picked some really reinvigorating perspectives. Now the series will echo some of the challenging vibes from that foray. Enjoy!

Readers of this series would notice we started off with a bias for narratives of people with disabilities who have overcome odds to achieve what we consider remarkable levels of success – using that as the measure for a “champion”. That’s about to change! Why?

When we mark out a group of people to tell stories about them, we unwittingly create a kind of segregation among ourselves.

The truth we need to admit to ourselves is that the champions stuff isn’t just about inspiration from some extraordinary deeds accomplished. It’s also in the everyday efforts of ordinary, everyday people with disabilities, doggedly plodding on as they aspire towards arriving. The champions stuff isn’t just in triumphs and trophies, glitz and glamor. It’s also in the aches, the struggles, the scars and the deprivations that attend the eternal march to go past that which impedes the journey. Isn’t it time we learn to appreciate the champion’s spirit while yet in the throes of its struggles? This is a new paradigm shift that this series will be incorporating. Here’s the gist: we will continue to herald the traditional champions, the importance of everyday lives won’t go unheralded.

DCS 15 throws the spotlight on Blessing Adaeze Silas – a single mother of 3. She’s deaf. Hard work, grit, gumption and a generous splash of the street wisdom stands her out. With these, she meets barriers posed by deafness in a hostile environment. You soon discover that her key to weathering her peculiar circumstances lies in a persistent press, a relentless bias towards action – never waiting for the perfect wind to set sail. That’s PUSH! Here’s a single mother of 3, striving to afford a decent life for her kids, running a business for sustenance and pursuing an education. While trying to book an interview with her for this series, I dropped a message which went unreplied for a stretch. When eventually she responded her message read in part: “I got so busy I forgot I still have a phone”.

My interview with Blessing was both in person and via phone chats. Her narrative evokes strong emotions. Let’s dive in.

Growing up with deafness was tough

I am an indigene of Ogbunka Orumba, Anambra State but born and grew up in Lagos. I come from a middle class family with both parents working. Papa was a professional wrestler and mama did business. I am the third child of nine children. My growing up years were tough – discrimination, abuse, bullying and negligence within the family and from society.

The ripples of this disadvantaged early years reached far and when she became deaf matters worsened. Blessing recalls: “I’m unable to remember the exact cause of my deafness. It was a gradual process; very subtle. The first vague notice was few months after surviving a dreadful bout with measles – shortly after my 10th birthday”.  Accepting deafness was a long drawn battle for both the little girl and her parents in a setting where was no enlightened information about deafness. And so in a family of 9 children with all the competitiveness for parental attention, Blessing practically lost out. As she recalls: “When deafness came, I was simply forgotten by my parents who saw it as the end of the road”. Not long after both parents parted ways and the kids were put in custody of papa.

Home, School, Stigma, Trauma: A Vicious Cycle

In primary four, Blessing was pulled out of school by her father for unexplained reasons. For many months she stayed home where she regularly experienced abuse.
“An obviously frustrated papa would call me ‘nti okpor’ (dried up ear) and on occasions would land slap to my face for failing to respond when he called me by name”.

Urged to learn a vocation, she refused, insisting rather on going back to school. Her PUSH prevailed and she got enrolled into a conventional public school. Blessing captures the vicious cycle going from home to school in vivid imageries:

“That public school was the beginning of my nightmare as I couldn’t understand or grasp anything being taught there. I was the laughing stock of my mates and teachers for “not hearing yet speaking fluently”. Often, I was flogged and punished for failing class-work. The result was trauma and depression. I began to dread going to school – meanwhile home hell. When I was 14, I abandoned school and home and went searching for my mother. Luckily I found her. But that wasn’t the end of my travails. Mother put me back in school and the stigma and discrimination continued. When I got fed up and pulled out of one school mother will enroll me in another school. The vicious circle continued and mother eventually gave up on me!”

But the PUSH in her didn’t give up!

Unable to bear the stigma and discrimination in school, Blessing determinedly took to self-study while subsisting on a small business from which she gathered enough savings to sit for the senior school certificate exams. She was just 17 years of age then, facing life on her own, without any contact with the deaf community. The young lady brimmed with ambition spelled as PUSH. Still the combination of stigma associated with deafness, a disconnect with the deaf community and academic disadvantage narrowed her chances at a head-start. Undeterred, she labored at menial jobs – dishwashing, cleaning until she could gather enough resources with which she tinkered at a string of businesses – a number of which folded up. Did she give up? No! Today, this experienced, self taught baker owns and runs a small but steadily growing catering outfit.

I asked how the journey was mastering the peculiar challenges of her disability, the definitive moments and lessons gleaned.

The path to mastering my disability was a challenging one”, Blessing says, “but it was also a journey of self discovery and resilience”.  She sees the struggle as a continuous process laced with setbacks and challenges, progress and growth. “I learnt the importance of having a support system, to advocate for oneself, and to never give up”.

When this champion talks about the importance of a support system, she really means it. Her turning point came when she found one – the deaf community and sign language.

 Turning Point – The Liberating Power of Association And Language

My memorable moment was when I first joined the deaf world, the encounter and interaction with other deaf persons like myself, my first signed expressions. Oh, the joy of belonging and the peace associated with it!

How did it happen?

Before then, Blessing biggest drawback was having no link with the deaf community or their language. She couldn’t sign so communication was always a big problem. Her upward swing began when she when those gaps were filled. It happened in very fortuitous circumstances. She had gone for delivery in hospital and was having communication problems with the nurses who were surprised at a deaf lady without sign language. By chance, a deaf couple happened to be there who tried to communicate with Blessing. Alas it was all in vain as neither could understand the other. However through writing, information about local associations of deaf persons and the importance of knowing sign language was shared with her. She received every encouragement to report to the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs where her case could be better handled. She took to wise counsel after initial reluctance, joined a local support group of deaf and hearing persons (Friends of the Deaf Academy) where she made very helpful connections. Slowly, she immersed in the broader community, finding an identity and accelerating her progress.

Meeting Discrimination

“I experience discrimination everywhere – rejection, abuse, neglect. I have known the depression and trauma that comes with being discriminated against because of deafness. It is one hell I will never wish for anyone – not even an enemy”.

 How she manages these small cuts? Blessing says: “I built defense mechanisms – doing away with fear and shyness, training myself to be bold in word, and, as occasion demands speak out for my rights. Her response reminds of the character building potential of a disability so I ask how that relates in her own experience. Her response is instructive: “I learnt resilience, the ability adapt to situations as well as empathy toward others with my type of disability. Above all, my disability has helped me to be creative and productive”.

“Disability is a matter of perception, Blessing insists, “if you can do just one thing well, you are needed by someone”.

For advice, she urges persons with disabilities to always believe in themselves and their abilities. To focus on strengths and talents as they push toward goals. She advocates proactively seeking out opportunities, having mentors and joining support groups. “”Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. There is a strong community of persons with disabilities providing a strong support system out there“.

To a discriminating society

Blessing comes up with a poetic summary:

Our differences should be celebrated
It is important to recognize that diversity is not a threat
It is a strength that enriches our collective experience.
Discrimination limits collective possibilities
Let’s strive to build bridges instead of walls.

Giving Back

“As an experienced baker, I am extending an invitation to any person with disability wishing to learn the art of baking. I firmly believe that every individual, regardless of their abilities, deserves an opportunity to learn and grow in a profession they are passionate about. I understand that many of you may face financial constraints and find it difficult to afford professional training. Therefore, I am offering this opportunity as a charity initiative, aimed at empowering the less privileged disability youths in our society. It is my way of giving back and ensuring that you have a brighter future ahead. Baking is not just a profession; it is an art that brings joy and happiness to people’s lives. It allows you to express your creativity and passion through delicious creations. I believe that these qualities are essential for success In any profession”.

The Disability Champions Series, an initiative of Joy Bolarin (Executive Director, Jibore Impeccable Foundation) is anchored by Alexander Ogheneruemu. Special acknowledgements to T.O.L.A Foundation for constant backup support.

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