On May 5th, 1977, in Ghana, West Africa, Emmanuel Osofu Yeboah was both born – and abandoned. Upon discovering Emmanuel had a severely deformed right leg, Dickson Kwadjo Ofosu, disgraced by his son’s disability, walked out on his family. Emmanuel’s mother, Comfort Yeboah, was advised to kill her son.
But rather than surrender to society’s perception that disabled children are the result of a family curse, or a punishment from a deity for a parent’s past transgressions, Comfort neither killed Emmanuel, nor sent him to the streets to beg, as expected. Instead, she enrolled him in school and taught him to believe that he deserved the same treatment, opportunities and privileges as able-bodied Ghanaians.
The Early Years
But in his early teens, Emmanuel was forced to leave school when his mother fell sick and could no longer work to support the family. Now an adolescent, dealing with his own affliction, Emmanuel faced the responsibility of paying his mother’s hospital bills, while also caring for his younger sister and brother.
Refusing to check his dignity at the street corner and beg for money, he learned a craft. With his crutches, a box to sit on and tools to shine shoes, he left home against the wishes of his mother to work on the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital. After a couple of months earning two dollars per day, he returned home with support funds and proof that he could manage on his own.
Before she passed away on Christmas Eve 1997, Comfort Yeboah taught her son that disability does not mean inability. In the years after her death, he felt an increasing desire, if not duty, to share that message. So, he made the fateful decision to honor his mother by reaching as many of Ghana’s 20 million citizens as possible. Emmanuel decided to ride a bicycle across the country. And though he’d mastered pedaling with only one leg, there was yet another obstacle: He didn’t own a bike.
Getting The Bike
Through a missionary in Accra, Emmanuel learned about the California based Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). He sent a letter in which he explained his goals and asked it was possible to receive a donated bike. Bob Babbitt, CAF Co-Founder, recalls, “What impressed me from the very beginning about Emmanuel is that what he said in his note wasn’t, I’m a poor kid from Ghana and I’ve got a deformed leg, please send me money.” It was “Send me a bicycle because I want to help other people. I want to prove a stereotype wrong.”
Intrigued by Emmanuel’s story, the CAF sent him a mountain bike and other equipment to help make his journey — and mission — possible. In July 2002, Emmanuel embarked on a bike ride across his homeland, wearing a shirt that read “The Pozo,” slang for a disabled person who is doing something great. His journey was documented in newspapers and on the radio. In the time it took to reach his destination, Emmanuel had become a national hero.
One year later, the CAF flew Emmanuel to San Diego to compete in a triathlon. Arriving with two crutches under his arms and three dollars in his pocket, he rode a 56-mile bike segment as part of a relay team. But, perhaps his greatest victory at that event was meeting Jim MacLaren and Rudy Garcia-Tolson, two disabled American athletes who would come to inspire, teach and befriend him and whose own stories serve as gripping reminders that the most important steps we take are those we take together.
A Brand New Life
On that same day, two employees of the renowned Loma Linda Medical Center, who work closely with the CAF, suggested that doctors evaluate Emmanuel. When it was determined that his leg could be partially amputated and fit for a prosthetic that would free him of his crutches, a team including surgeons, prosthetists, and physical therapists agreed to carry out the costly procedure. And they offered to do so for free. In April 2003, Emmanuel was given a brand new life.
Emmanuel has since turned his focus toward improving the lives of Ghana’s many disabled citizens. Another provision in the country’s constitution says, “As far as practicable, every place to which the public have access shall have appropriate facilities for disabled persons.” But in practice, Ghana has few resources for assisting its handicapped citizens, and even fewer for rehabilitating them.
At Emmanuel’s urging, a bill that calls for Ghana to better accommodate its handicapped has been revived. In November 2003, Emmanuel made his third trip to the United States where he received the 2003 Casey Martin Award from Nike. The award honors an individual who has excelled in athletic pursuit while overcoming significant physical, mental, societal or cultural challenges and/or who proudly serves as an advocate for fellow athletes with disabilities.
Invited By The King
The Challenged Athletes Foundation matched the $25,000 award from NIKE with a $25,000 grant, and Emmanuel will use this money to help other physically disabled Ghanaians. A five-year plan has been instituted to further educate Emmanuel and provide him with the tools to become a stronger leader. The funds will also be used to educate other disabled children from each of Ghana’s ten regions.
In April 2004, Emmanuel began implementing his plan at a ceremony at the King’s Palace in Kibi, Ghana. He awarded education scholarships to fifteen disabled children and presented five disabled athletes with sports wheelchairs.This ceremony was a historic and unprecedented event. Never before has a King invited a disabled person to his palace, let alone have a ceremony in his honor and guarantee his support.
“The society and country are not set up to take care of handicapped people. Emmanuel has tenacity, endurance and he has a strong heart to do the things that he is doing and to use what he has done as an example for other disabled people. We will support him and tell the government that they are also part of us – they may be physically challenged, but mentally and intellectually they are the same as us.”
King Osagyfuo Amoatia Oforipanin II
Setting The Next Goal
During an equally moving ceremony, Emmanuel distributed over one hundred wheelchairs, donated on his behalf, by The Free Wheelchair Mission, to fellow disabled Ghanaians who literally crawled on their hands and knees and were lifted into their new chairs. To witness people’s lives so forever changed was a moment of raw triumph and pure emotion.
Today, Emmanuel’s goal is to build a state-of-the-art sports academy for both able-bodied and challenged athletes, but will employ only the disabled. Until that time, he is using his funds to bring high-tech basketball wheelchairs to Ghana in hopes to organize a team of disabled athletes to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Emmanuel’s ultimate goal is to further his education and make a run for political office.
A seat in Parliament, which would be unprecedented for a physically disabled Ghanaian, would provide Emmanuel with the nation’s largest platform from which to fight for guaranteed political representation and enhanced legislative support for all physically challenged citizens. And along his remarkable journey, Emmanuel reached some milestones in his personal life, as well. In 2003, he married Elizabeth Yeboah, after having asked her father for his consent. The idea of a disabled man asking for, let alone receiving permission to marry an able-bodied Ghanaian woman was simply unheard of.
On July 17th, 2004, Emmanuel and Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Linda, after Loma Linda Medical Center. And on July 14, 2005 Oprah Winfrey presented Emmanuel and his friend, Jim MacLaren with the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s. The two men received an emotional, five-minute standing ovation. Previous winners include Muhammad Ali, Jim Valvano, and Billie Jean King Remarkably, with all his accomplishments, Emmanuel’s life is just beginning. And so too is the impact he’ll have on a nation – and the world.
Watch the trailer at: http://emmanuelsgift.com
Buy Emmanuel’s story on DVD: Emmanuel’s Gift
It will look like this: Emmanuel’s Dream – Disability Does Not Mean Inability