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Speaker examines ability and disability

| Monday, November 16, 2015

Among the tailgates, pep rallies and Glee Club performances stands another Notre Dame game day tradition, The Dooley Society Lecture.

Matt Hubbard, founder of the Dooley Society, opened Saturday’s lecture and said “our goals are the same as we started with: mentorship, education, global service to humanity and reinforcing Catholic values.”

The Dooley Society Lecture Series, held every football Saturday, is one of the programs created to carry out those goals. The speaker for Nov. 14 was Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., from the Memorial Hospital of South Bend, and he gave a lecture titled, “Disabusing Disability.”

Okanlami is a decorated scholar and holds an undergraduate degree from Stanford University, a medical degree from the University of Michigan and a surgical residency from Yale University. He most recently graduated from the Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Master’s (ESTEEM) program at Notre Dame.

Okanlami was president of his class at Stanford, captain of the Stanford track team, leader of the Christian-Athlete organization and director of a production at Michigan.

On July 4, 2013, Okanlami hosted a gathering for his colleagues from the Yale residency program. He jumped into a pool, which resulted in a C-6 incomplete spinal cord injury. As a result, Okanlami had no motor control from the chest down; minimal use of his right and left hands, wrists, and forearms; and no sensation below his chest.

“This wasn’t something that happened to me that was out of my control. I took an action. I jumped,” Okanlami said.

Okanlami’s colleagues rushed him to the hospital, and Okanlami received the treatment necessary to recover. However, many people still speak to Okanlami about the potential he had before his injury.

“From day one, I never thought that my potential had been diminished in any way … Not a day went by where I felt sorry for myself or felt like I can’t do something. And that’s why the title of this talk is ‘Disabusing Disability,’” Okanlami said.

“I can do lots of things that someone with has never had a spinal cord injury can’t do,” Okanlami said. “So therefore, where do you draw the line?”

He then spoke of the fine line between the unable and disabled, and its applicability to the lives of others. Although someone might not be physically struggling, Okanlami said everyone has something that they are struggling with.

“You should treat everyone in that way,” Okanlami said, “ … If you treat everyone like you treat the person who has the disability, and you give them the benefit of the doubt, and you give them that assistance, and you offer them your love and support, then that’s the best way to live your life.”

Okanlami then continued his personal story and spoke of his path toward healing. Since his injury, he has had a miraculous recovery, regaining the feeling of sensation and better control of his core. He also entered the ESTEEM program at Notre Dame and began a family medicine residency at Memorial Hospital.  

In this work, Okanlami said, “I want to empower people to know that they can do more for themselves … I see in my practice every day people that didn’t even know that they could want to do more for themselves because of the culture that was created around them. [Society] made them feel as though they were disabled.”

Okanlami said this kind of helplessness traps patients.

“Things happen in life that none of us would ever ask to happen … But it’s not that things happen, it’s how you react to those things that happen that truly write the story of what your life will be,” he said.

Okanlami takes an active role in the community, leading organizations that head both wheelchair basketball and sled hockey. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has appointed Okanlami to the St. Joseph County Board of Health.

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