By the time Elijah Akinyemi (’83, MS ’84) came to America at the age of 23, he knew his calling was to open doors for people with disabilities. Born in a small farming village in Nigeria, Akinyemi’s life trajectory was altered by a bout with measles at the age of two that caused permanent blindness.
“All my life and everything about me is built around disability,” Akinyemi says. “If I had not lost my sight, I would be a hunter or farmer. I’m the only one from my village with a Western education. Now I’m propagating good things.”
In fact, Akinyemi has been cultivating positive social, political and institutional change for more than 30 years.
Akinyemi was the son of the village Chief, and his family explored both traditional and medical means to restore the young boy’s sight, but no methods worked. A visitor to the village told Akinyemi’s parents their son could learn to read and write at the Pacelli School for the Blind and Partially Sighted Children in the town of Lagos. Although he would need to live in a boarding house in another town, Akinyemi’s parents wanted a bright future for their son and agreed to the move.
The young Akinyemi thrived at the Pacelli School and then attended Igbobi College Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria. He went to the United States on a scholarship that took him to Eastern Washington University before he transferred to PSU.
“Going to America was a dream fulfilled,” he recalls. “I lived at the Ondine with many other students and made so many good friends that I’m still in touch with today. PSU greatly contributed to my development and I had many helpful professors. Drs. Dick Sonnen and (Sheldon) Shelly Maron, and professor Jean Edwards were influential figures in my life.”
The Voice of Change
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Social Studies and a Certificate in Black Studies, Akinyemi earned his master’s in Special Education. He planned to alter his homeland’s conservative society, so people with disabilities could be fully integrated into the mainstream.
“I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to study special education as a person with a disability,” Akinyemi says. “In Nigeria, there were no laws protecting the rights of those with disabilities. We were not as privileged as people in the U.S., and I knew I wanted to return to Nigeria, be a voice for my kin and effect change.”
Akinyemi applied to work with Nigeria’s Ogun State Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. He faced discrimination and had to apply several times but his perseverance paid off. In 1988, Akinyemi became the first blind person to be employed in the state’s civil service. He worked at Ogun State for more than three decades in a range of positions, starting as Senior Education Officer and culminating in his appointment as Permanent Secretary.
Akinyemi spearheaded many programs to improve the lives of disabled persons, including the Computerised Braille-book Press. In 2017, he partnered with the country's National Association for the Blind and other groups to get a law similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act authorized. After three attempts, the law was finally signed by the government and state assembly in 2018.
Now retired, Akinyemi remains an active advocate. He is Board Chair at New Dawn For Disabilities Rights and has become a champion for the rights of the elderly. Most recently, Akinyemi penned his autobiography, “Vision Beyond Sight.”
“It is only the individual that changes the perspective of society,” asserts Akinyemi. “With my hard work, discrimination became integration. I cherish the fact that I helped make that change.”