Cosmas Okoli

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Cosmas Okoli's work was prepared when Cosmas Okoli was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991 .

Introduction

Cosmas Okoli, who at the age of four was disabled by polio, is working to create a society in which the disabled can live full lives and have pride in themselves. He manufactures special protheses, manual car controls, and sports equipment for the disabled and concurrently has established a National Association for Physically Disabled Youth.

The New Idea

Cosmas is building two mutually supportive institutions: his national association and a venture that manufactures special equipment for the disabled. Both seek to enhance the mobility, productivity, and independence of disabled people.Cosmas believes that a disabled population that has the ability to be fully productive will be a valuable asset to themselves and to society. To achieve this end, it is necessary to reach out to and engage young disabled people. Bringing them together enables them to share their experiences, to inform each other of opportunities, and to supply the necessary support to achieve their goals. His program also includes an organized sports program for disabled youth and a network of positive peer counselling.As Cosmas has faced a variety of problems endemic to the disabled, he has been able to devise creative solutions to them. He first developed a more effective and efficient leg brace than existed before in Nigeria. More recently he developed hand controls that allow those who, like himself, have lost the use of their legs, to drive automobiles.Cosmos plans to introduce large-scale production of these and other apparatuses for the disabled. Doing so will serve multiple purposes. It will provide training and employment opportunities for the disabled; it will allow this population greater access to affordable special aids for mobility; and it will supply funding for the rest of his work on behalf of the disabled.

The Problem

According to United Nations statistics, ten percent of most populations are disabled. This means that some ten million Nigerians are disabled, a number greater than the entire populations of most neighboring West African countries. Like many other developing nations, Nigeria sees investment in services for the disabled as a luxury it can ill afford. A large percentage of the disabled population are thus dependent on their families or are forced out to become street beggars. Very few are able to support themselves; they become a liability, rather than an asset, to the economy of the nation.

In addition, both the disabled and the able-bodied populations are generally ignorant about the rights of the disabled and what and how they can contribute to society. Brought up in the midst of defeatist and fatalistic attitudes about disabilities, disabled youths generally have poor self-esteem, which is debilitating in itself. They sorely feel the lack of opportunities for personal and social growth enjoyed by others, be they in education, sports, or careers. The country as a whole suffers by neglecting the talents and abilities of so many people.

There are almost no facilities for the disabled in Nigeria. There is no wheelchair access for street crossings or into public buildings, and no special provisions for public transportation. Affordable and practical mobility aids are still rare; if a person is physically disabled, he or she generally does not leave home.

Some government rehabilitation centers do exist, but they are very limited in number. Furthermore, these programs offer training which has little relevance to the qualifications of or the realistic opportunities available to the trainees --- and there is negligible follow through when the training is completed.

Legislation on behalf of the disabled is desperately needed; to date, only two administration directives exist. The first requires that work places hire at least two percent disabled workers and the second provides tax relief to these workers. In reality, these directives are not honored and must be passed into legislation and vigorously enforced to have any appreciable effect.

The Strategy

Cosmas' strategy for attaining increased mobility, productivity, and independence for the disabled starts with his equipment-producing enterprise. He started the enterprise with individual donations and loans, as well as his own funds, including the proceeds from several national awards he received. He now has eleven workers and to date has designed and produced hundreds of car controls, limb braces, and special crutches.

This enterprise has several functions. Using locally available materials, it produces very much needed equipment economically. (Cosmas also plans to mobilize resources from the community so that he can offer sponsorship or subsidized prices to those who cannot afford to pay full price for his appliances.) It also provides jobs and valuable training for the disabled where they learn both production skills and some of the basics of business management. They (or others) could then start similar ventures in other parts of the country. Cosmas also plans to further train his production and sales staff to be counselors to the people who order their equipment. "When people come to buy our equipment, they will not just get a caliper," says Cosmas, "they will come out with much more. They will be counselled and encouraged by others like themselves who have positive messages to share."

Finally, Cosmas hopes that these equipment lines will produce sufficient sales to provide a core financial foundation for the rest of his work for the disabled, especially youth. Here, his chief concern is in creating the National Association for Physically Disabled Youth. Through his program of peer counselling, he is working to ensure that these young people have positive self images and attitudes to life. The Association already has 300 registered members and he hopes to establish chapters in other parts of Nigeria. He also hopes to develop a TV program, using his library of video "success stories," and provide a "hot-line" for viewers to call in with questions and advice.

He is now actively pressing for full legislation ensuring employment and associated tax benefits for their employers. Cosmas won potentially useful support from the last President of Nigeria, who opened Cosmas' center and made a personal contribution towards his work.

Cosmas has also launched a substantial national sports program for the disabled. For a long time, the government's program remained stubbornly little more than an organizational chart. Cosmas' arguments that such sports programs have proven their ability to build hope, confidence, and important life skills changed nothing. However, when he created a competing private national sports organization, and especially once its events began to capture press attention, the government began to move. He and his organization have now stepped aside on condition that the government continue to develop athletic programs for the disabled. He will be watching the government's performance closely.

The Person

Disabled by polio in 1966 at the age of four, Cosmas could not walk until he was ten. Rehabilitation and access to protheses were impossible during, and for some time after, Nigeria's civil war in the ravaged eastern region that is Cosmas' home.

However, since his father was a headmaster, other students carried him to and from school. When he was finally able to go through a rehabilitation program in 1973-75, he continued his studies. His ability impressed one of the nurses, who encouraged him to continue his studies from home in an integrated national school.

His father planned to have him learn shoe-making, but he refused, insisting instead that he go for the same level of education and type of career as his siblings. Cosmas -- who is determined to lead "as full a life as Franklin Roosevelt" -- won the argument and graduated from the University of Lagos with a degree in medical physiology. His Rooseveltian drive to excel also helps explain his inventing such support devices as better leg braces and manual controls that allow him to drive. Using a sports wheelchair that he designed, he has also become a world silver medalist in table tennis in international competitions for the disabled.