Okoli Bibiana Ifeoma is a lady with visual impairment. She hails from Ezihu Igboukwu, Aguata Local Government Area, Anambra State and is the first child in a family of nine. Her parents are late Mr Vincent Obiabunsi Okoli and Mrs Ijeoma Beatrice Okoli.

In this interview with Inclusive News Network, INN, Ifeoma Okoli recounts her eventful journey into the world of darkness, the harrowing experiences she’s had to endure and the indomitable spirit that has sustained her through.

INN: Please give us your educational history.

Okoli: For my basic education, I attended Okpaugwu Primary School and later switched to New Layout Primary school which was closer home when I was in primary four. I made a good result in my Common Entrance Examination and was admitted into Girls High School, Azuiyiokwu.

During my final year, while writing WAEC, I slipped into a vision blackout which put me out of school for years. Fortunately for me, I got to know of St. Joseph Centre for the Visually Handicapped, Obudu, Cross River State and enrolled for a two-year Orientation program. Afterwards, I enrolled at Girls Secondary School, Obudu to complete my secondary education. After a couple attempts at JAMB, I got admission into the University of Ibadan, my dream university, where I did my undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

INN: What type of disability do you have?

Okoli: Visual Impairment (Blindness).

INN: Tell us a little but in-depth story of how you looked your sight.

Okoli: When I was in primary one, i had returned from school one day and as was the custom of the house, I showed my books to my mother before going to have lunch. She realized as she screened my work that my writing was way above the line and didn’t keep to the margins. She noticed this in all my books and became concerned. I was scolded for not paying attention in class. However, I kept insisting that I did not write above the line or passed the margin as I couldn’t notice the error she was pointing out.

Mother related the incident to my father and I was taken to an eye clinic where I was given some eye drops and other medications. Not withstanding, my vision kept deteriorating over the years and life became a tour from one eye clinic to another. The scary thing was that none of the opticians could diagnose what was responsible for my rapid loss of vision. By the time it was diagnosed as Retinitis Pigmentosa, it was already too late to remedy the condition. A lot of damages had been done to my eyes owing to the different medications, eye drops and glasses I had used.

INN: How did the disability affect your growing up thereafter?

Okoli: As early as my primary four, I was using double lensed glasses. I was a very shy person and having to wear those glasses at school was embarrassing. Further more, my incessant complaints got me some of the severest beatings of my life from my father. Once during my WAEC at Girls High School, Azuiyiokwu, I went into a total blackout and had to stay out of school for about ten years. This was one of the most challenging years of my life. More so, the challenge of having to switch from using my eyes for seeing, reading and writing to get adapting to braille was really hard for me. In fact, it took a severe beatings from a friend before I could get an edge on braille. Also, it had been my dream to be a Reverend Sister however my sight loss effectively put an end to that dream as I was rejected admission into the convent after a couple applications. My lack of vision was the sole reason. I finally chose to study Guidance and Counselling, but due to my condition, I was advised to switch over to Special Education.

INN: What feats have you been able to achieve in spite of your disability?

Okoli: To the glory of God, I have achieved a whole lot in spite of my disability. Foremost, in the area of education, I have got a B. Ed., M. Ed., and finally, a PhD. Furthermore, I have published a number of scholarly papers, some of which are herein cited:
Okoli, B. I. (2019). Security Emergency in Nigeria : Ordeal of Persons with Special Needs (visual Impairment) Center for Democracy, Research and Development (CEDRED), Nairobi, Kenya.
Okoli B.I, Nwazuoke, I.A,  Eskay, M. and Akinbile, S. O (2019), Knowledge, Perception and Attitude of Secondary School Teachers towards Inclusive Education as a Consequence of Globalization in Anambra State, Nigeria, Journal of African Renaissance. Vol. (8) Chapter 10.

Okoli, B. I., Nwazuoke, I. A., Ezeanochie, B. O. and Oduwole, J. B (2019). Inclusive education in Nigeria: Issues to be addressed. Journal of special education ; Vol. 17 (1) 1-10

More so, I have travelled to different parts of the world for conferences, seminars and symposia. At each of these conferences, I did paper presentations. I have been opportuned to make acquaintances of dignitaries and personalities that I would not have dreamed rubbing shoulders with. Furthermore, I enjoyed different privileges such as sponsorship throughout my undergraduate, and scholarships during my postgraduate. I have also been on radio and television for different shows. Also, I became the first female student with visual impairment to earn a doctoral degree in Special Education in the University of Ibadan; a feat which I attained on January 15, 2020.

INN: As a PhD holder, can you share some of the challenges that blindness may have caused you during the scholarly journey?

Okoli: It is rather unfortunate that our schools, both basic and tertiary are planned without taking into cognizance the needs of persons with disabilities. This makes the environment unfriendly. It was a big challenge during my undergraduate and postgraduate days. I could not enjoy leisure or recreation. I could only be in class, my room, library or the chapel – and in all these places I needed the help of friends to be there. Further, I had a great difficulties doing my research. I relied on the help of research assistants and I had to tip them for the work they were helping me do. More so, transcribing GES courses into braille since no provision was made for persons with special needs cost me a lot more as I had to send them to Lagos to have them transcribed. I still recall with emotional pains, how I was denied the opportunity of being elected Hall Governor because of my visual impairment.

INN: What are you doing to positively advance disability advocacy in Nigeria?

Okoli: Part of my aspirations is to create an enabling environment for Persons with Disabilities to thrive. I have never hesitated to fight for the rights of persons with disabilities. I once had the privilege of encountering the then Speaker, House of Representatives, Honourable Dimeji Bankole, when he came visiting at University of Ibadan. I engaged him in a heated discussion about the passage of laws to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities in Nigeria. Twice I served as the Vice President, Special Persons Club and as Postgraduate coordinator, Persons with Special needs.

I am currently a member of different groups and organizations that seeks to promote, protect, and rehabilitate persons with disabilities. These include: Willing Hands, Gender Main Stream, Special Persons Club, and National Association of women and girls with disabilities. Just recently, as a member of Willing Hands, I was nominated by the Chairperson of International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Oyo State Chapter, Barrister Deborah Collins, to participate in the passage of the bill: Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act in Oyo State, which was signed into law on 25th of February, 2021 by the amiable Governor, Engineer Seyi Makinde.

INN: Please share with us your working experience so far and career aspiration

Okoli: Unfortunately, other than the short time during my years of blackout when I had to drop out of school for many years and worked as a clerk at St Theresa Nursery and Primary School, Azuiyiokwu, Abakaliki, I have not been gainfully employed. I am currently searching for a Job. It is my desire to take up a teaching appointment in a university, particularly at my alma mater, The University of Ibadan if granted the opportunity. It is also my ardent desire to set up an NGO that will cater for the needs of persons with special needs in their bid to live meaningful lives

INN: Has blindness limited you in any way?

Okoli: Of course it has, especially when you consider the unfriendly environment and stigma that our people attach to these disabilities. It is rather sad that most people hold that people who are visually impaired aren’t good for anything. Nobody wants to employ you. People look down on you. However, it is left for us to prove that there is ability in disability. People marvel when they hear of my achievements. I did not allow the limitations of my blindness to define me. I found a way around it and now I am standing tall, dining and wining with people in high places – it is the reward for determination and hard work!

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