November 19, 2012

Emmanuel Used His Disability to Break Barriers and Help Disabled Ghanians

I watched an amazing documentary called ‘Emmanuel’s Gift.’  It tells the story of a young man who made a huge difference first in his community, then in his country.  I wanted to share his story because he shows us all that we can contribute no matter what condition we are in.

Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in Ghana to a young couple.  Unfortunately, he was not born perfect—one of his legs was shriveled up and bent.  Here in America, doctors would attempt to correct the disability, and if that wasn’t possible, they’d come up with a prosthetic leg or other way of getting around it.  But in Ghana, a disability like this was usually a death sentence.  Emmanuel’s mother was advised to poison him or leave him in the woods to die.  But she would not consider it.  Instead she took Emmanuel to doctors to see what they could do.  When they told her his condition was permanent and that there was no hope for improvement at all, she vowed to teach him to be independent anyway.  Hearing this news, Emmanuel’s father left the family and married someone else.

In Ghana, about 10% of the population is disabled.  Strangely, there is a stigma about disabled people.  Many believe they are disabled because someone did something bad.  I guess it’s like the biblical question asked of Jesus, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents:  but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”  So that must be a really old idea.  Because of this stigma, people won’t hire disabled people.  They are reduced to begging on the street.  It makes for a hard life for the beggars and upsetting for people to see such beggars all over the city.

Emmanuel’s mother didn’t want her son to beg.  So she taught him that he could do anything.  She gave him chores and sent him to play with the other kids.  Emmanuel learned how to play soccer with crutches.  And he’s good at it!  He also could climb coconut trees as well as his two legged friends.  His mother sent him to school, another unusual thing.  Normally disabled kids are kept at home since they will not learn a trade but will be sent begging when they are older.  Emmanuel still struggled to fit in, seeing that most people assumed that he was a beggar because of his disability.  Sometimes the kids wouldn’t play with him or they told him he was too stupid to learn.  

Fortunately for Emmanuel, his mother believed in him.  That helped him to believe in himself.  That belief changed his life from one of begging to empowering others.  And he impacted thousands of others for good.

Emmanuel had been shining shoes before school to bring in money for his family.  When he finished school, he decided to move to Accra, the big city, to shine shoes.  He figured that there would be more customers there and maybe he could double his earnings to $2 a day.  He was stunned to see so many disabled people on the streets begging.  Many scooted around on skateboards or crawled.  He learned that he could earn 10 times what he had in his village by begging.  That must have been tempting, but he wasn’t raised to be a beggar.  He instead shined shoes as he had planned and sent the extra money home to his family.  

Bothered by the many beggars, and sometimes being confused with beggars asking for a handout, he decided that the best thing he could do to help Ghana was to convince people that disabled people could support themselves with honest labor and not beg.  That was a huge change in thinking and required bold action.  

Fortunately, Emmanuel had a bold plan.  He heard of a charity in America called ‘Challenged Athletes Foundation’ (CAF) that helped disabled people around the world.  He wrote to them and asked for a bicycle so he could ride across Ghana and show people that disabled people can do normal things.  With only one leg, it would be bold enough to capture the imaginations of the people.  

The charity was stunned to hear that this disabled Ghanian wasn’t asking for a handout for himself.  They were so impressed that his request was really for the benefit of others that they sent him a bicycle, a helmet and several sets of biking clothes.  Emmanuel was ecstatic!  He began learning to ride a bike with only one leg, and training for his trip across Ghana.  He completed his 300 mile ride across Ghana and got a lot of attention for this amazing feat.  He was changing attitudes!

The CAF was so impressed that they flew him to America to compete in a Triathlon in San Diego.  Emmanuel completed the event, gaining more attention and bringing more people in to his cause.  One of the CAF founders wondered if Emmanuel could get some medical help while he was there.  Doctors looked at his bad leg and determined that Emmanuel was an excellent candidate for a prosthetic leg.  With some reluctance and worry, Emmanuel agreed to have his leg amputated so that a prosthesis could be fitted to the upper thigh stump.  He contacted his family back in Ghana and had them pray for him.  

This successful surgery truly changed his life.  He remained in San Diego for 4 months to heal.  Within a few weeks of his surgery, Emmanuel completed the same Triathlon and shaved 3 hours off of his original time!  Going home a hero, Emmanuel used some of the money to give wheelchairs to the disabled.  He is now building handicapped friendly sports centers and schools.  That’s an amazing amount of money, when one considers that Emmanuel made $2 a day shining shoes.  Emmanuel married and is raising 3 children with his wife in his hometown.  

Emmanuel is realizing his dream of changing attitudes and perceptions about the disabled in Ghana.  He was raised believing he could do anything in spite of his disability.  Now he is helping others by teaching them what his mother taught.  It truly is amazing what we can do when we trust in God and believe in ourselves.  

I consider what Emmanuel would have become if he had been with two normal legs.  He would have been an average man living in poverty in Ghana.  Because of his disability and his belief in himself and God, he became an exceptional man as he overcame his disability and helped others do the same.  Sometimes our trials are actually wonderful gifts to prod us on to excellence. 

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