People sometimes offer me alms thinking I’m a beggar –Ocheido, Pharmacy graduate in wheelchair
Despite becoming paralysed at age two, Blessing Ocheido beat all obstacles to achieve her dream of becoming a pharmacist. She tells TOLUWALOPE KAREEM about her struggles, triumphs and dreams
How did you lose your ability to walk?
When I was two years old I fell sick and I was rushed to the hospital by my parents. My mum said the nurse who attended to me was not professional. The nurse gave me an injection and the injection site began to bleed. My parents complained but the doctor said everything was going to be alright, that such happens sometimes.
My mum said when we got back home, I fell down and just couldn’t walk again. It was discovered that the fall affected my sciatic nerve and once that nerve is tampered with, it leads to partial paralysis. So, I have been partially paralysed from the waist down since then.
It must have been a very difficult period for you, growing up. How did you pull through?
Growing up in Nigeria, as we know, is not easy but because it happened when I was really young, I would say that one of the greatest blessings I had was having a supportive mum. I got support from my father, my mother and my three siblings and I don’t think I was ever treated differently. I had the same opportunities, the same privilege, the same care and attention as my siblings. My father never treated me differently. Like any of my siblings I had to do well in school and I was rewarded for good academic performance. If anyone of us didn’t do well in school, the person would get extra training. So, we were always trying our best to impress our parents.
I grew up knowing that I was loved and that I wasn’t different from my siblings. The only time I felt different was when I was in Primary Five. I was always taking the first position in my class and one of my classmates didn’t like it. When you came first in class, you got awarded and this classmate of mine said, “I wish I can break your second leg.” That really hurt me and stayed on my mind for long. In secondary school, I had good friends who were always willing to push me. I think people just tend to like me and I was in a boarding school so I didn’t feel different until I got into the university; that was when I knew I had a big problem.
What was the problem you faced in the university?
It wasn’t easy getting to lecture rooms because in year one I had a manual wheelchair. Eventually I got an electric wheelchair but getting to lecture rooms was still an issue. There were times I had to use the staircase. Aside my wheelchair, I had a walking frame which I used for a short period of time. But it was difficult climbing staircases, so my classmates had to lift me up every single time and on getting to the class, I would wish I hadn’t even bothered because the class would be so crowded and I wouldn’t even hear what the lecturer was saying.
There were also days I had to struggle with my walking frame up the stairs and some lecturers were so ridiculous that if I was five minutes late, they wouldn’t let me in, saying there was no preferential treatment for disabled students. It was later that I realized it wasn’t a case of wanting preferential treatment, I had the right because being disabled wasn’t my fault.
There was a time my father had to visit my school to assess my routes to lectures. It was in the university that I realised I had a problem. And after school, even getting a job was not easy. Disability is not the problem; the problem is how inaccessible the society is.
Have you been discriminated against on account of your disability?
As I said, I have been disabled for the most part of my life and I am going to be 28 years old soon. I have experienced discrimination in every way – people telling my parents to take me to spiritual homes; people doubting my capability to go to school; people judging me outright; some seeing me on the street and assuming I am a beggar and giving me N20 notes and N10 notes when I don’t even look like a beggar; people not wanting to employ me based on my disability. I have experienced all sorts of discrimination.
Talking about university admission, I wanted to study Pharmacy and I wrote the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. At the time, I wasn’t really knowledgeable about how universities work and the fact that you had to consider catchment areas. I had good grades in WASSCE and a high UTME score but I didn’t get called at all for an admission offer. So, my parents, not wanting me to while away time at home, made me apply to Madonna University. My mum and I travelled to Rivers State where I wrote the entrance exam. But the school called my mum and informed her that I wouldn’t be granted admission into the university due to my situation. They said that they had a mandatory exercise every weekend and they were sure I couldn’t participate in it. Although my mum tried to convince them, they were outright in their refusal. My mum was really downcast; she cried so much that I was even the one encouraging her. Eventually, I got into Ahmadu Bello University to study Pharmacy, which had always been my dream, but at a point, I was told that I shouldn’t have applied into Pharmacy because I would be a burden to my lecturers. I have experienced people just seeing me as an outcast. Even after my internship, trying to get employed was a different ball game. Almost every day of my life, I experience new forms of discrimination because people don’t see me as someone who can be independent; they see me instead as someone who should be pitied, and this should not be. And that is why I am creating an advocacy for disability. There is nothing horrible about being disabled. Disability is something that will happen to everyone at a point in life.
Has the experience changed now that you’ve achieved your dream of becoming a pharmacist?
I don’t focus on what people say I cannot do; in essence, I don’t focus on negativity. If you focus on negativity, you will never achieve anything. Instead, I focus on the positive things because I have a lot of support systems. I don’t care what people think when they see me. In life, when people belittle you, they are actually the ones cheering you on because that acts as your source of motivation. That is why I tell people to focus on the positive things.
Can you share your job hunting experience after graduating as a pharmacist?
I am currently employed by the Federal Government but before this happened, it was really not easy, despite knowing that I was intelligent and I could deliver. I didn’t get the jobs I wanted and I had to fall back to the government. I am currently working as a pharmacist in a government hospital. The discrimination is really high. There are a lot of people like me out there who can deliver and are really talented but aren’t given the opportunity. The discrimination has to stop. We can also add value and we should be given an opportunity.
How do your colleagues relate with you at work?
I have very amazing colleagues and they have never looked down on me. They support me a lot.
Do you belong to any advocacy group?
Yes. I am a strong member in groups that advocate for the right of the disabled. For example, I am a member of the Network for Disabled Women; and on my own, I run an NGO, Platinum Interventions Care Initiative, where I talk about the rights of the disabled, especially young girls and women, because they are even more vulnerable to sexual violence, abandonment and lack of education. My organisation advocates for this set of people and makes them understand their rights. We visit schools and put billboards on the streets to create awareness. We also hold meeting with governmental bodies and try to educate people in every way we can.
We teach people with disabilities how to make use of the Internet as technology has taken over, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. We also teach them financial independence as well as personal independence. We tell people that notwithstanding their disabilities, they can live happy and vibrant lives.
Do you foresee a change in the way society sees people with disabilities?
I think within the past three years or more, there have been more awareness and enlightenment on disability. In 2019, an Act of disability right was passed. It was like a big dream because people older than me had been fighting for this right over the years. Disability is very wide but people think it is just physical. I think there has been more awareness on the needs of the disabled ones. At first, people were outright hostile towards people with disabilities but now they are becoming more pleasant. I am looking forward to a total change in the coming years where there would be no problem anymore.
For people who are in similar shoes as you and have lost hope, what is your advice to them?
As I said, disability is very wide and I am still learning about different disabilities and the unique challenges. First, I would say that disability is not the end of the world. It is not their fault. Disability should not stop you from living your life to the fullest. A disabled person should know their rights and should speak up if they are being harassed. Don’t let people trample on you or pick on you. You are not different from every other person. Live the best life you can have while you are still here and don’t live a miserable life.
You mentioned sexual harassment; in the course of your advocacy, have you met anyone who has encountered such?
Yes. It is one common issue. Many people with disabilities, especially women, are sexually harassed every day. They are sexually violated by church members and even trusted people, just because they are disabled.
At any point, did you ever experience discrimination in a relationship?
This is one of the problems a disabled person encounters, especially women. People see us as not deserving of love and most times, they just want your company or probably to just take advantage of you; and even when they want to take you as a life partner, they have families and friends mocking them. There is stigmatisation. I have experienced it as it is very common and this is not something we should be shamed for, everyone should be loved and treated the same way.
If you were granted one wish by God, what would it be?
With what is happening in Nigeria right now, I feel there is a need for a change. I see bias, and the environment is not conducive and I want it to be better. Well, I want money so that I can travel around the world and invest more in my NGO and help people around me. My wish is that in a few years from now, there would be an improvement and people won’t have to go through the same problems I went through.