“It is impossible for light (enlightenment) not to get noticed, especially in the dark…”
What immediately strikes you about this enigma is an imposing physique and presence. But then, you soon get to realize that beneath the impressiveness of “sheer size” lies an even bigger mind – well forged in the flames of enlightenment and learning.
Further down, you find a robust intellect capable of huge amounts of retention and recall. He still has fixed there the very last words he heard before being deafened at the tender age of seven… It was an emotion laden flashback:
“I was taken to Professor Oshuntokun — one of the most famous Christ School alumnus– at University College Hospital, Ibadan. That was where I heard my last words to this day. We were on the 3rd floor balcony waiting to be called. Everywhere around me was silence. But, three floors down, a security man was scolding a driver in Yoruba: “Mo ti so fún é tipé tipe pe ko ma parki sibi mo, sugbon o gbo.” (I have told you many times you can’t park here! And you’re still parking here). The words came through loud and clear.
Now, it does not take long for anyone meeting this ”walking encyclopedia” of a human to be bowled over by his spontaneous display of brilliance, articulateness and versatility across vast fields of knowledge. And the big lawyer is unapologetic about it because he knows this deep truth:
“knowing others is wisdom and knowing oneself is enlightenment”.
Clearly, in Barrister ‘Bunmi ‘Gbenga Aina, our Disability Champion number 07 in the series, we see a man whose essence sends a crushing blow to preconceived notions of small minded stereotypes on Deafness and Deaf persons. We see, too, the triumph of mind over matter – the conquering of Disability with an enlightened mindset.
Indeed, “those who are enlightened never stop forging themselves”.
Having personally sensed it from afar, I wasn’t surprised when an older colleague of this intellectual giant (at Christ’s School) eulogized his all-out personality in words of gold:
“‘Bunmi was very friendly, smart and intelligent. There were no dull moments around him and fellow students were fond of him. He participated in activities without betraying any disability challenge. Not until you moved close to him did you notice his hearing issues”.
So here’s the gist in one sentence: “‘Bunmi simply shatters stereotypic notions of Persons With Disability”. In a society darkened by the discrimination and prejudice of small minded stereotypes toward Persons living with Disability, he’s a light that is impossible to go unnoticed.
On a lighter note, I think Christ must have had this big, deaf lawyer in mind when He uttered the sage wisdom: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid”.
TREASURED CHILDHOOD MEMORIES IN A LOVING ENVIRONMENT
He was born in Ile-Ife, Osun State of Nigeria, in the then Western Region into a family of Seventh Day Adventists.
‘Bunmi, the fourth of five children, recalls having a rich and eventful childhood in a loving home and among great friends. He was very fortunate to have educationally inclined parents which turned out a strong foundational factor in his colorful journey in the halls of learning.
He started school in Inisha, Osun State as a hearing kid. In that school, His dad was the headmaster (later to win a postgraduate scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the United States) and his mum a teacher.
Below, he gives some insight into what family meant to him in the course of trumping Disability:
“I was fortunate to be born into a very loving family. My parents were never hesitant about supporting my aspirations. My older brothers were powerful allies and guides, and our youngest sister, ‘Ronke, was my muse. Beyond that, there was this fabulous extended family on both sides that always made me feel ten feet tall. I was part and parcel of a large family with commensurate rights and a voice. I enjoyed being at home and being with my family – and this is important because, due to integration and communication issues, the organic family of affinity (deaf friends) sometimes bond stronger and better than the blood family in deaf culture”.
It was this wonderful family, alongside the rich friendships and experiences enjoyed in that idyllic environment which gave the young boy a great head start on the pathway of the broad, cosmopolitan mindset that would distinguish him as an adult.
Then deafness struck!
Nugget 1: Every child’s first chance at a meaningful life is coloured by family influence. Endeavor to make that influence a memorable one.
When a bout with the dreaded meningitis left him deaf sometime in 1971, ‘Bunmi was a primary 2 pupil in Ife. He was 7 years old or thereabouts.
At that time, Deaf education in Nigeria was still in its fledgling state and the young boy (for lack of relevant information about deafness and deaf education) had to drop out of school for a while. However, that was for a brief while. Parental love and concern propelled by a strong belief in education wouldn’t let the academic hiatus linger longer than necessary. The enlightened Ainas were ready to go the longest haul to ensure deafness didn’t rob their son of the chance to get a full education and a living a meaningful life.
In the meantime, the search for a panacea continued.
MADISON, A DEFINITIVE CHOICE
In 1971, the older Aina left the country for the United States on a scholarship for postgraduate studies (same year ‘Bunmi became deaf, before deafness). On receiving news about the situation at home, he requested that the boy be flown over to join him in Madison, Wisconsin, where he could access special education opportunities for deaf children.
That one choice proved most vital, for it was during those three eventful years in Madison that the first seeds of enlightenment that would prove so definitive in the making of a cosmopolitan with a broad and versatile outlook on life were sown.
Madison was super rich in many ways as the big lawyer himself tells us in a thrilling flashback narrative in which he again displays his uncanny power of recall:
“We arrived in Madison, Wisconsin in the winter of 1971.
My first school in Madison (capital of the State of Wisconsin) was a fine place called Frank Allis Elementary School. Frank Allis is situated on Buckeye Road, Madison. It was a regular school with separate classes for Deaf children. The school took an oralist approach to pedagogy in which ‘teachers and pupils voiced to each other’.”
This however posed a challenge, for, not being an English speaker at the time, the lessons were lost on young ‘Bunmi and as a result he made no progress.
BARBARA GLANDER, IVA EKLOF – EPITOMES OF A TRUE TEACHER
“A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others.” –Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Fortunately for ‘Bunmi, there was this teacher at Frank Allis named Barbara Glander. Ms Glander recognized the problem and recommended to Bunmi’s parents that he should be transferred to a different school where Sign language was used. Glendale School.
Nugget 2: A teacher’s duties go over and beyond the classroom for only then can she touch eternity. Be that teacher.
At Glendale (now Dr. Virginia Henderson Elementary School), the young boy had his first exposure to sign language and Deaf teachers. So for the first time ‘Bunmi met a deaf teacher. Her name was Iva Eklof. Of this lady, Bunmi remembers: “the deaf kids looked up to her as an inspiration and she was clearly respected by the staff”.
As a teacher or minder of children, ask yourself this question: “What will I be remembered for?”
Barbara Glander visited the Aina family twice a week to teach them American Sign Language (ASL). There were two main benefits to this: One, it helped accelerate Bunmi’s integration at Glendale. Two, it made communication with family more meaningful.
It was also at Glendale under the tutelage of great teachers that young ‘Bunmi began to love reading. Many years later, when he asked why he chose to study law, he instantly connected the dots:
“I chose law from having read too many Perry Mason novels as a boy in Wisconsin. I fell into reading very early on to fill that new, soundless void. I thought law was a way to make a difference on a macrocosmic level. You use the instrumentality of law as a vehicle to drive change, and in my case, I wanted to see change in our environment with regard to its impact on deaf populations in Nigeria”.
‘Bunmi’s emphasis on the influence and impact of dedicated teachers in his story is a long drawn one. It didn’t stop at Glendale. With ever glowing ardor, he remembers the great teachers under whose tutelage he sat at the famed Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti.
He calls those teachers (many now gone to their eternal rewards) a “dedicated crop of masters and mistresses” who struck a fine balance between high expectations and allowing us to be teenagers”.
At the old University of Ife where he studied Law, ‘Bunmi retains evergreen memories of two rare academicians – Mrs E. K. Balogun of Health Science and Dr ‘Dipo Fashina (Jingo), both, he recalls, went out of their way to help him cushion the drawbacks of deafness as he struggled to blend into campus life and the rigours of academics.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” – Henry B. Adams.
So much for the eternity touching potentials of dedicated and committed teachers/educators.
ADAPTING TO DEAFNESS
So was it easy adapting to deafness? Asked this question, the “Hard Man” as Bunmi is known within close circles is very frank in his response. He minces no words talking about the hurts and toughness involved.
He warns, “It’s never a walk in the park. I can tell you that losing any sensory ability is traumatic. Getting over it and accepting one’s deafness is the work of decades”.
I was about 26 or 27 when I finally came to accept my deafness wholly, wholeheartedly and completely. Imagine that for a dude who became Deaf at age 7.
Nugget 3: “The process takes time; it’s a long, hard game nevertheless with the right attitude and support system the possibilities are enormous for Persons living with Disabilities”.
The “Hard Man” further enlightens: “You see, Deafness introduces one to a different world, a different community, a different culture.
To have started out hearing, then be abruptly thrust by fate into a world of silence, you have options: “you can go in there kicking and screaming or you can take it in resigned depression. You can also choose to soldier on with stoic fortitude or a generous blend of each – and some more”. “Each choice has outcomes”, he reminds.
Also, learning sign language is extremely helpful to the adapting process.
“I realized I had a means of communication, I was learning, and learning 2 new languages at the same time. Those realizations helped me accept the Deaf part of my identity”, ‘Bunmi intimates.
Another helpful factor to adapting was unbiased hearing friends. These accommodating fellows were very much at home taking this deaf dude to their hearts. One way they did this was by learning sign language to ease communication. They included him in social and recreational circles. As a young boy, ‘Bunmi featured prominently in the football team at his Alma matter – the famous Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti. There he made a name for himself: “‘Bunmi Aina of Christ’s School fame”. Thanks to an outgoing nature which endeared him to fellow students.
He wraps up thus: “the point I am making is a simple one: being included by hearing family and friends helped me cope with the trauma and eventually adjust”.
Which takes us to Nugget 4: “Remember your connection with the Cosmos”.
You see, too many of us PWDs, because of disability, tend to shrink into our shells or limit our circle of influence to the various Disability clusters. The example of this Disability Champion teaches us otherwise. It tells us that:
“When we open up to the universe the universe invariably opens up to us”.
STILL, DISCRIMINATION IS REAL
Yes, we will all experience it at one point or another. It doesn’t matter how good, talented, or exceptional we are. The hard fact is, as long as there’s a devil to incite people with small minds, discrimination on the basis of disability will never cease to be. Perhaps the best one can do is:
“be himself while accepting that being different is a blessing and not a curse”. Celebrate difference!
In an apt summary of society’s tendency to discrimination against persons with disabilities, ‘Bunmi quips with resignation: ‘The base part of human nature is wired to exploit or avoid people who are different. I have faced discrimination everywhere’. And he still faces it.
So does it hurt? Sure. Not even his “Hard Man” toga could stop ‘Bunmi from freely admitting that some of his lowest moments as a Deaf person include: “those times when someone has tried to exclude him from a programme, activity or responsibility because “he is deaf”.
Surely, it hurts! But how does he manage it? ‘Bunmi responds with a touch of the philosophical: “I manage these 1,000 small cuts with large doses of patience, mainly because there is no value in antagonizing or embarrassing others. Everyone can be an ally”, he concludes – re-echoing Martin Luther King Jr’s lofty idea when he said:
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Nugget 5: We must learn to maintain dignity and restraint in the face of discrimination.
THE SILVER LINING
Sooner or later, the enlightened soul learns to see the bright linings in a dark maze and to capitalize on them.
‘Bunmi believes that deafness actually gave him some advantages. He gives as an example his mastery of at least three different sign languages (Nigerian, American, South African) and of course, the English language – a potent weapon in his arsenal for navigating a predominantly hearing world.
Besides, this Deaf identity has afforded the legal practitioner a wide range of opportunities, privileges and friendships across international boundaries where he effectively employs his law background in promoting Deaf-centric causes.
Today, Barrister ‘Bunmi is living his childhood dream of making a difference on a macrocosmic level by using the instrumentality of law to impact Deaf denizens across the globe.
He is founding President, Strategies To Advance And Network Deaf Africans for Ubuntu, Inc (STAND-U), Vice President, Global Deaf Aid Foundation, Inc – both registered Non-profit organizations in the United States and dedicated to advocating for Deaf persons in Africa and beyond. In Nigeria, ‘Bunmi served on the board of Deaf-centric Education Advocacy Foundation, Inc.
BECKONING THE YOUNG, UP AND COMING GENERATION OF PWDS
“Your mind shines brightest when you enlighten others, your heart when you encourage others, your soul when you elevate others and your life, when you empower others”
A repository of knowledge, Lawyer ‘Bunmi has pearls of wisdom at the tip of his fingers that he is ever willing to share with the searching soul.
‘Play the long game’, he prods the younger generation who have been programmed to take ‘short cuts’.
Project your character – the finer angels of your distinct personality, he urges. ‘Bunmi implies here that “In this life, there’s a valid place for seeking our own path, making our own decisions and having the courage to use our own intuition”.
“Life is struggle – go all out to meet it!”
A confirmed veteran of the disability war, the big lawyer knows by experience what the struggle takes. He shots a knowing gaze at the gifted seeker and admonishes with gravity: “Overcoming the struggle demands more than talent. It demands discipline and timely application”.
Make friends. Meet new people outside your comfort zone – stretch yourself!
Read – this broadens and enlightens your mind.
Travel – this offers you exposure and education outside the walls of a classroom.
Broaden your worldview!
And when we sum it up, it’s amazing how we get the very picture of the man himself – “the enlightened mind”, and its mastery.
Disability Champions Series is a collaborative project of the Jibore Foundation and Inclusive News Network.