Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah Biography - Countered Disability with Mother's Comfort, Planned a Bike Ride for Disabled Rights
Saddled with a useless right leg, abandoned by his father, orphaned by his mother's death, and living in a country where physical deformities have traditionally been considered a curse, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah faced odds that would intimidate any Westerner. The best a disabled Ghanaian could hope for in a country with an annual income of less than $500 was to eek out an impoverished living as a street beggar. Yeboah had a better idea—he would take a bike ride. With just one good leg, he pedaled around the sub-Saharan nation in an effort to open his countrymen's eyes to the fact that disability does not mean inability. His 400-mile journey took Yeboah worlds away from his final destination. He was thrust into international celebrity, featured in a documentary, and given a brand new leg. Since then he has embarked on a new journey—transforming the lives of Ghana's estimated 2 million disabled people. "In this world, we are not perfect," Yeboah humbly told the New York Daily News. "We can only do our best. I just want to make life better, and help people benefit from my experience."
Countered Disability with Mother's Comfort
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in rural Ghana in 1977 with a missing right tibia, or shin bone. His foot dangled uselessly from the curled up stump of his lower leg. Yeboah told Sports Illustrated that in the deeply superstitious country of Ghana, "when you are a deformed child, people think your mother sinned." His father, ashamed of the child, abandoned the family soon after Yeboah's birth. Friends and family urged Yeboah's mother to abandon or even kill the baby. Comfort Yeboah, a proud woman with a deep sense of human dignity, did neither. Instead she lived up to her name by nurturing her son. "She gave me the idea that I could go to school and become a great man," Yeboah told Sports Illustrated.
Yeboah and his mother lived in a tiny home that lacked electricity and plumbing. His bed was the dirt packed floor. Despite this poverty, as a Ghanaian, he had access to free public education. Though disabled children rarely took advantage of this opportunity, Comfort insisted that Yeboah be educated. At first she carried him two miles each way to school. Later, when he was old enough to get to school on his own, he recalled to the New York Daily News, "I'd hop on my leg." Of 240 students, Yeboah was the only disabled child. He was teased by the other children and, of course, sidelined from sports.
At the age of 13 Yeboah dropped out of school against his mother's wishes. She had fallen ill and he decided to travel to Accra, Ghana's capital, to earn some money. Though the streets were teeming with disabled beggars, Yeboah preferred to work. He set up a little shoe shine box and earned $2 a day shining shoes. During a holiday visit home, Yeboah's mother died. It was Christmas Eve, 1997. Right before she died she pulled Yeboah to her side and told him, "Don't let anybody put you down because of your disability," Yeboah recalled to the New York Daily News. They were words that would change his life. "What my mother told me was a gift. I want to show everyone that physically challenged people can do something."
Planned a Bike Ride for Disabled Rights
After his mother's death Yeboah returned to Accra. Shining shoes on the streets day after day, he witnessed the resigned desperation of the other disabled people around him. Somewhere in the midst of their hopeless begging and the constant back and forth rustle of his shoe brush, an idea was born. Yeboah decided he would bike around Ghana to raise awareness of the plight of the disabled. "I wanted people to know that if you are a disabled person in your leg, you're not a disabled person in your mind," he told The Mercury News. First, he needed to find a bike.
A doctor told Yeboah about the California-based Challenged Athlete Foundation (CAF), an organization that supports disabled athletes. Yeboah had never written a letter before, yet he carefully prepared a request to the organization explaining his idea and asking for a bike. Bob Babbit, founder of CAF, was so impressed with Yeboah's vision that he not only sent over a new mountain bike, but also threw in biking gear and $1,000.
Yeboah's friends were skeptical. "Riding a bicycle 600 kilometers on one leg—who ever heard of that before?" Gordon Abodoe told the New York Daily News. However, when Abodoe and his friends saw Yeboah take the new bike out for its first spin, they gave him a rousing ovation of applause. "Emmanuel has a very strong spirit to do whatever he wants to do," he added in the New York Daily News interview.
Broke Disability Myths in Miles (380 )
For several months after receiving the bike, Yeboah juggled training with seeking governmental support. He tried several times to get a meeting with Ghana's King Osagyefuo, but was turned away at the palace doors. Disabled people were believed to be too unworthy to step onto royal property. Finally the king agreed to meet Yeboah. It was the first time a disabled person had been allowed entrance to the palace. Yeboah told the king of his plan and the bike he had received from CAF. According to an article on the Orthotics and Prosthetics (OandP) Web site, the king asked, "Why do you want to do such a thing, and what do you want from me?" Yeboah responded, "I want to prove that just because you have a disability does not mean you can't use your God given gifts, and I need your support." The king complied.
In 2001 Yeboah began his journey. He was 24. Over several months he rode 380 miles through Ghana, wearing a bright red shirt that read "The Pozo," Ghanaian slang for a disabled person. Along the way he stopped to meet villagers, speak with disabled children, and give speeches to dignitaries, church leaders, and the ever-present media. He was not afraid to speak out against the government's policy on the disabled, and politely, consistently requested that the disabled be given the same respect as the able-bodied. As a result, Emmanuel became a one-named celebrity in Ghana.
CAF officials closely followed Yeboah's journey and after he finished, they invited him to California to participate in the 2002 Triathlon Challenge, CAF's primary fundraiser. Yeboah took seven hours to complete the 56-mile bike leg of the event. After the race, Sports Illustrated recalled him saying, "I did not know San Diego was so hilly."
Received a New Leg Up on Life
While in California, Yeboah was examined by doctors at the Loma Linda University Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Center. They determined that he was a good candidate for a prosthetic leg and asked him if he would like to undergo an amputation to be fitted for the device. "At the Triathlon, I saw athletes like Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Paul Martin running and biking on a prosthesis," Yeboah recalled to OandP. "I accepted the offer so maybe I too could run, ride my bike with two legs, and even someday wear pants."
In April of 2003, Loma Linda performed the operation free of charge. Normal costs for such a procedure would have reached into the tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, when the staff at the hospital heard Yeboah's story, they opened their wallets to provide him with daily living expenses during his stay in the United States, as well as provide his family back in Ghana with the equivalent of the income lost during his absence.
The operation was a success. Not only did Yeboah get to wear pants and a pair of shoes for the first time in his life, six weeks after the operation, he returned to San Diego to compete in the CAF triathlon. With two legs, he was able to shave three hours off his time, finishing the course in four hours. Back home in Ghana, he donned a tan suit and walked on his own two feet into his church for the first time in his life. He quickly adapted to a life free of crutches and soon began to run and even play soccer. To cap off an amazing year, in December of 2003 he married a woman named Elizabeth. When the couple later had a daughter, they named her Linda after the hospital that gave made Yeboah's new life possible.
Founded Educational Fund for Disabled Ghanaians
Yeboah's achievements did not go unnoticed. In 2003, CAF named him the Most Inspirational Athlete of the Year. Actor Robin Williams presented him with the award along with a state-of-the-art running leg. From California he traveled to Oregon and the corporate headquarters of Nike, where he received the prestigious Casey Martin Award, given to honor an athlete who has overcome physical, mental, societal, or cultural challenges to excel in their sport.
The Nike award came with a check for $25,000. CAF matched that gift with another $25,000. Yeboah used the money to create the Emmanuel Education Fund in Ghana. "My goal is to make sure that children with disabilities get an education, receive proper medical care, and play sports whenever they want," he told OandP. He has committed to putting 15 disabled students through school each year and has helped organize the distribution of hundreds of wheelchairs to his countrymen.
His actions have won him the respect of fellow Ghanaian, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as King Osagyefuo, who has adopted Yeboah's cause. The king has provided financial and managerial support for the Emmanuel Education Fund and has arranged academic and athletic training for Yeboah. The king described Yeboah to OandP as "a man who leads by example and who is not driven by self, but driven to help others." The praise was not lost on the international sporting community which elected Yeboah to represent Ghana in the 2004 Olympic Torchbearer Relay.
Shared Gift of Pride with a Nation
Yeboah's rise from a one-legged orphan to a sure-footed athlete and disabled rights activist was the kind of human tale that begged to be told. Fortunately, talented twin-sister filmmakers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern heard about the tale in 2003 from a friend at the CAF. They spent several months filming Emmanuel's Gift in the United States and Ghana. They were there as Yeboah oversaw the distribution of 100 wheelchairs to Ghanaian street people. "Those people were literally crawling on their hands and knees," to get to the chairs, Lax told The Mercury News. "I was shooting as the scene unfolded, and I had to put my camera down because tears were streaming down my cheeks. People's lives were literally changing in front of your eyes." The documentary, narrated by Oprah Winfrey, garnered early critical acclaim and began the round of film festivals in 2005.
Meanwhile Yeboah continued changing people's lives. He has established cycling and running teams, and a wheelchair basketball team. He is negotiating funding for a Sports Academy for disabled athletes in Ghana and trying to form a Ghanaian team to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Having worked closely with the Minister of Education to pass governmental legislation for disabled rights, Yeboah has expressed interest in running for a parliamentary post in Ghana.
All of Yeboah's work on behalf of the disabled in Ghana is double-sided. On the one hand he has shown able-bodied Ghanaians, from paupers to princes, that the disabled are as normal as any one of them. On the other hand, he has taught disabled Ghanaians to believe in themselves, to pick themselves up off the ground and be proud. "His impact has been very tremendous," his friend Abodoe told the New York Daily News. "He's affected the lives of so many people who otherwise would've lived very depressed lives." All that as a result of a mourning boy's desire to fulfill his mother's dying wish. That is the gift of his disability.
Sports Illustrated, November 15, 2004.
"Disabled Athlete's Gift of Inspiration," The Mercury News, www.miami.com/mld/mercurynews/entertainment/columnists/bruce_newman/11059313.htm (April 10, 2005).
"Ghana: From Rags to Riches," New York Daily News, www.nydailynews.com/sports/story/289363p-247720 c.html (April 10, 2005).
"King of Ghana Visits Ossur North America and the Challenged Athletes Foundation," Orthotics and Prosthetics, www.oandp.com/edge/issues/articles/NEWS_2004-08-12_04.asp (April 10, 2005).
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