Gabriel Olusean Soje, PhD.
MY STORY: MENTAL HEALTH A DISABILITY STORY
It will interest us knowing that for persons with disability, some issues can result in loss of interest in living and possibly depression culminating in lacking social networks, change in the way life is perceived, realizing that there are fewer opportunities for/to work or have a family. Notwithstanding, many disabled persons have surmounted great obstacles to emerge victorious over adversities and as an individual my story, below, will serve as a reference point to enable us appreciate that there is “ability in disability” and consequently adore our Almighty God for His omnipotence, Omniscience, and omnipresence.
I am Dr. Gabriel Olusesan Soje. I was born in the Yagba East Local government area of Kog State, to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Omokore Soje. I grew up normally. I am the third child of my parents, amongst the six other siblings I have (four boys and three girls).
I did my Elementary Education at the Baptist Primary School, Kafanchan, in the present day Kaduna State. From Primary one to Primary six I was a regular hearing pupil. For my Secondary School education, I attended the Kwara State Schools for the Handicapped, Ilorin. Thereafter proceeded to the University of Ibadan, Ibadan for my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees respectively. Upon completing my Master’s Degree program, I taught briefly at the Mum and Dad (MD) Primary School, in Lagos and equally worked with the Children’s Developmental Centre, Surulere, Lagos, a Non-Governmental Organization (NG0) catering for Autistic Children and Youth. It was while working with this Organization that I was fortunate to win a Ford Foundation International Fellowship and subsequently proceeded to the Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC, United States of America, to pursue my Doctorate Degree.
At the completion of my Doctorate Degree, I began my faculty (lecturing) career at my alma matter (Gallaudet University) where I taught English Language, General Studies, Research Design (Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Method research), and Business Writing.
Thereafter, I proceeded to the College of the Marshall Islands, Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific, where I left my teaching footprints in the areas of Special Education, Classroom Management, American Sign Language (ASL) and Clinical Supervision of Teachers in training, and Distance Learning, in the Pacific. It is on record that I was the first Deaf faculty (lecturer) to be employed by the institution.
Journey into Deafness
The Issue of Deafness came up when I was almost completing my Elementary Education. It was a sudden attack of Malaria fever and upon diagnosis, it was discovered that I had Cerebral Spinal Meningitis. I spent almost a month in the Hospital while the sickness lasted.
The situation ushered me into the World of Deafness and completely changed my feelings, my perspective, my initial beliefs about myself and the world at large, my orientation, and my relationships. It was extremely difficult coming to terms with the condition and accepting the unexpected change that occurred to my entire being. Then I usually ask myself “why me”? “why me”? Due to the unbearable trauma, disappointment, initial hopelessness occasioned by the situation, I twice contemplated committing suicide. It was very difficult believing that someone who was hearing barely a few days ago is now Deaf and could not freely mingle with his friends, the regular way again! The situation was made worse by the taunting and mocking of some of my supposedly called friends who found it difficult to accept the sudden change in me and uttered many unprintable words about the “new” me, and were told by their parents to be careful with me, so that they would not be infected by the strange condition that befell me. In sum, the initial experience was harrowing, demoralizing and painful. However, I give glory to God for overcoming the dark period.
Funny enough, at the onset of the condition, I was thinking that I am the only person in the world that was deaf! Despite the challenge, I was determined to cope, along with the support of my siblings. Although my siblings could not communicate with me in Sign Language, I was able to utilize Lip Reading and gestures to communicate and interact with them and others around me. Still, at times, I utilized the pad and pencil method of communication, though at that time I did not know that it was called “Pad and Pencil” method. I simply decided to do what was most convenient for me in terms of communicating with those around me. On the whole, despite the occasional loss of confidence, shame of being different, and reluctance to freely mix with others, for fear of being mocked, I was able to cope well. One strategy I adopted then to successfully cope was reading, reading and reading! I read everything in sight. I was lucky enough that my dad, observing my strong desire for reading, usually bought Newspapers every day for my sake, to enable me read them. Also, my eldest siblings also bought Football magazines for me to read, along with the James Hardly Chase Classic novels, and other like collections, to while away the time with and keep me occupied. I was and still is an avid reader. These readings, many years later, proved highly beneficial to my proficiency in the use of the English Language.
Contact with Sign Language
My initial contact with Sign Language occurred when I enrolled into the Kwara State Schools for the Handicapped, Ilorin, Kwara State. At the onset, I found the experience very funny and was also scared and wondered what communication mode that was. I kept on wondering how people could be using hands in such a way. However, looking around me, I discovered that that was the only available means of communicating and interacting with others, and I simply had to adopt what I saw and also adapted to the situation I found myself or else I would not succeed in my education, I reasoned. Consequently, I braced up and learned the basics of the language in two days! Since then I have not looked back.
Based on my experience of using the Sign Language, I have discovered that the language liberates the mind of the Deaf child and the adult. It empowers. It bridges gaps between the Deaf and Hearing persons. The language serves as means of courage, hope, and inspiration for success for/to the Deaf. Hence, its use must be fully utilized by all Deaf persons, Special Education policy makers and stakeholders. I feel very fulfilled being conversant with the language. The language is an eternal blessing to the Deaf! Despite my very proficient speaking ability, I still crave to use the Signing Exact English (SEE) and the American Sign Language (ASL) for communicating with both Deaf and Hearing persons.
Advice for the Deaf
I will advise my fellow Deaf folks to be courageous. To neve tor be ashamed of being Deaf. To believe that God has a plan for them. You are in the midst of the Deaf for a purpose. They should accept the challenge that Deafness impose on them. They should boldly confront the condition and not care what people might say about them. They should make judicious use of you their inner strengths and talents for personal benefit/personal development and for the benefit of the world around them. Being focused, determined, hardworking pay handsomely. Never give up on your dreams. Lastly, I encourage all Deaf persons to get good mentors among other Deaf persons. Mentors who will stir them on the right path and give them the needed leverage and support to make correct choices in their life journey. Having good mentors is highly essential for success.
It is noteworthy that in spite of my Deafness, I was able to successfully teach in an all-hearing institution (College of the Marshall Islands, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands). A feat that most people thought is impossible.
As a researcher, I have travelled far and wide. I have published in the field of Special Education. I have attended several international conferences and presented academic papers. I am an Alumni of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship. A member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA). Also a former member of the American International Council on Disabilities (AICD). A former President of the Lion’s Club International of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific, Republic of the Marshall Islands. An honorary member of the Rotary Club of Maryland District #7620, United States of America. A member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And still have other milestones to attain, God willing.
Gabriel Olusean Soje, PhD.