Sharon Ifeoma is a Port Harcourt, Rivers State-based corporate trainer. Despite being afflicted by polio as a child, her drive to be a star has not slowed down. In this interview with Eric Dumo, she shares her life’s journey and things that motivate her
At what point in your life did you encounter polio?
According to my parents, I was only 10 months old when I was struck with polio. I had already started walking before it happened. It was not as if I was born with the condition.
What were some of the difficulties you faced at that stage of your life?
I can’t really tell because I was quite young then. I’m sure there were challenges but to be honest, I can’t really remember much of the happenings back then. It’s a long time ago.
How did the other children relate with you as a result of your disability?
It was after I started mainstream school that other kids started bullying me. I was four years old at the time. They were the ones that actually pointed out my disability to me. They made me aware that something was wrong with me.
How did the condition generally shape your growing up?
I had a beautiful upbringing and a happy childhood. My parents and the entire family were very supportive of me; however, being aware of my disability made me question a lot of things.
I questioned my family’s love for me. I questioned the society I lived in as well as people’s attitude, actions and perceptions towards me. My condition made me grow up really fast.
What were the ambitions you nursed at that period of your life, and what informed such?
I desired to be a lawyer because I wanted to be an authority and in a place where I could exercise such. A place where my voice would be heard and respected as a lawyer, a position where I could easily effect the changes I wanted to see, impact lives and be a role model.
Today, I am not a lawyer but a corporate trainer. I am using every platform I find myself in to pass my message. People pay attention each time I facilitate trainings because I’m very confident. I understand very well the type of job I do and I thank God for the privilege.
Were you able to start school as and when due considering your condition?
I think I was four years old when I started school proper. My parents never joked with my education. I did not attend school for the handicap because my parents wanted me to mingle and learn with other kids, hence their decision to send me to the mainstream school.
My parents knew the importance of education and they made sure I got the best they could afford.
Education is still the best foundation because it opened doors for me to further my studies abroad, travel to places I never thought I would ever be. I have a Master’s degree in view and my dream is to become a university lecturer someday. I can’t even imagine what my life would have been like had my parents not sent me to school.
Parents who have children with special needs should make education a priority for them. Education should never be compromised because it is the best investment they can ever give to their children. I’m glad my parents made that investment.
As a growing child, did people write you off in life as a result of your disability?
I won’t say people wrote me off because nobody had the power to write me off. However, I was bullied a lot. It was hard especially in my teenage years. Bullies almost made me drop out of school. But I learnt to fight back through the help of my mother.
There are mean people out there but over the years with experience, I know better how to handle such people.
I have realised that I am in charge of my own happiness. I teach people how to address and treat me and by doing so, I take back the control and authority.
As a result of my disability, people have said nasty and horrible things to my parents, especially to my mum. I remember one occasion when a neighbour accused my mum of being the cause of my disability. Hearing that further complicated how I felt at the time. I became a troubled teenager looking for answers to why my leg looked different. I resented my mum for a long time because I thought our neighbour was right. Nothing my mum said made sense to me at the time. I’d never seen my mum that sad and heartbroken; in fact it was the most challenging and difficult period of my life. I am glad we got through it and I know better now.
What stigma have you had to deal with as a result of your condition?
Funnily enough I have never been stigmatised. I think it is because of the way I carry myself. However, people tend to pity me a lot which is very unnecessary. They often try to restrict me when it comes to doing certain activities judging from what they see and I don’t blame people. It comes with the territory but I wish people asked more questions rather than assume on what I can or cannot. People shouldn’t be blinded by myths and stereotypes surrounding persons living with disability as they are very limiting.
Do people favour you due to your disability or you’ve had to fight for your success?
I have enjoyed priority services which in most cases I’ve had to demand for but I would proudly say I have worked really hard to achieve the things I have today.
I worked hard in school and at my job because I’ve always had to prove people wrong. I am very competitive and assertive but above all, I like to win. Nothing has been thrown at me just because I have a disability, I work very hard to earn and achieve. This is real life. Nothing is free.
Have there been times when people tried to take advantage of you as a result of your disability?
Anyone who has heard me talk or has been privileged to hang around me knows better than to want to try nonsense. I don’t allow certain things or people in my space because I am in control. So, I have never been taken advantage of whether sexually or otherwise.
You are a known advocate for the rights of special people and also a coach; do you think as a society we are doing enough to make life better for people in this category?
Individuals and groups are trying when it comes to helping persons living with disabilities. They are taking baby steps and there’s still a lot of areas to cover and so much more to be done because the society is not designed with people like me in mind. However, the government is not doing enough to cater for the needs of persons living with disabilities in this country.
The burden to care, feed and educate a special needs child still lies on families and it is weighing really hard on these families. Some have taken to street begging, been exposed to unhealthy situation, hidden away and abandoned. It is not supposed to be so.
What policies would you love government to enact to make life easier for people living with disabilities in Nigeria?
We want the government to give us a level playing field; create an environment that allows and encourages inclusion, access and participation. The disability bill is yet to be fully passed by one of the houses, so the President can assent. It will be a good start for the disabled community.
We are human first and protecting our rights should be a priority to our government. Opportunities and services should be tailored to suit our needs. We want to feel belonged. We want to be included so that we can actively participate on all levels of government because we are capable.
Are there things you think your disability has robbed you of?
My disability has not robbed or denied me anything. I have a family that loves me, I have a job place I go to, I am very active in my community. Above all, I am a role model to a lot of children with disabilities. I mentor, train and coach them when I have the time, to lead independent lives. Faith and hope are restored because I am a living testimony. So, I’m happy.
What are some of the biggest barriers you’ve had to break to get to where you are today?
I still struggle with man-made barriers but my biggest barrier has always been people’s attitude. I’ve always had to school people who are ignorant. I’m gradually changing the narrative and perceptions by sharing my story and living a good life.
How best do you think persons in this category can maximise their potential to come out successful in life?
Self belief is very important no matter how bad the situation or condition is. Persons with disabilities need to understand that personal efforts and hard work pay. If you do your best, the universe will respond to you.
Secondly, family support and encouragement is very important and essential for success. The family needs to lay the foundation the child needs for personal growth. The family has a duty of care, love and acceptance. With all these in place, the pace is already set for growth.
What has the experience been with men, especially finding true love and acceptance?
To be honest, I have not really had sorry tales when it comes to relationships. I got engaged when I was 25 but I had to walk away from it because the guy’s mother was against the relationship. He couldn’t balance things because that would mean choosing between both of us. It was a very difficult place to be in for a woman like me at the time.
In life, there are some battles you cannot win, so you have to choose your battles very carefully. In this case, I chose myself.
For a man to want to be with a woman living with disability, he has to be sure about what drives him. Does she meet his requirements? Does she respect and give him peace? What is she bringing to the table?
If she ticks all the boxes, he would have to stoop to conquer himself, his friends and family to be with her so long as what drives him is stronger than her physical limitations.
I want to be in love again and have my own family. I know it will happen for me but I don’t know when.
What’s your biggest source of inspiration?
I know this will sound selfish but I am my biggest inspiration. Sometimes, I am surprised at some of the things I do.
Also I am inspired by death, life, my environment and most importantly, my family.