When Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was a child growing up in Ghana, the other kids wouldn’t play with him because he had a deformed leg.
But Yeboah wouldn’t let them burst his spirit. The boy, who came from a destitute family, got a part-time job shining shoes and earned enough money to buy a soccer ball to loan out to the other kids, also too poor to afford one. Yeboah told them they could use the ball on one condition—that they let him play soccer with them.
Now in his early 30s, Yeboah, a competitive cyclist and triathlete, possesses that same spirit. He is a champion for disabled people in his home country of Ghana and abroad, and the subject of the documentary “Emmanuel’s Gift” narrated by Oprah Winfrey. The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center will present a discussion with Yeboah in a program called “Emmanuel’s Gift,” In Conversation with …Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah” at The Standard Club in Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 7.
The speaking engagement complements the current traveling exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race”—produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—which examines how individuals in professions traditionally charged with healing and public good use science to help legitimize Nazi policies.
The exhibit explores the Nazis’ use of Eugenics theory to define, persecute, and murder individuals and people of “inferior” races—including Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill, and other minorities.
When Yeboah was born many people in Ghana believed that a disability is a curse from a deity. Disabled people account for 10% of the population of the country, some two million people, who had been treated as second-class citizens, expected to be beggars in the streets.
And that’s what was expected of Yeboah too. Because Yeboah was born disabled, his father abandoned his family, assuming his son’s life would be worthless. Yeboah’s mother became ill when he was a boy. Yeboah quit school, against his mother’s wishes, and moved to Ghana’s capital Accra, to earn more money as a shoe shiner—$2 per day—to help pay to support his mother.
Soon after, his mother passed away. After her death, it was her memory that motivated Yeboah to aspire to greatness. “My mother inspired me a lot in my life to do so many of the things that I do,” he said. “I believe that without my mom and God, it would have never been possible to do what I do. My mom wanted me to do more with my life.”
Despite all the obstacles that stood in his way, Yeboah persevered and became self-sufficient. To show that disability doesn’t mean inability, he bicycled 379 miles around Ghana using only his left leg.
Yeboah later traveled to California’s Loma Linda Hospital and was fit with a high-tech prosthetic leg, thanks to the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Weeks after his surgery, he was running, biking, and swimming in training for a triathlon.
He returned to his home country to a hero’s welcome. Galvanized by his success, 600 disabled people took to the streets to fight for equal rights. With a grant paid for by Nike, Yeboah helped facilitate in Ghana wheelchair construction, scholarships for disabled children, and sports team participation for the disabled. He also fought to make phone booths and libraries in the country wheelchair-accessible. The University of Dreams Foundation has also been assisting Yeboah in his efforts to bolster the disabled in Ghana.
Yeboah received Nike’s Casey Martin Award and is a co-recipient of the 2005 ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award. He continues to spread his vision through the Emmanuel Educational Foundation & Sports Academy for the Physically Challenged.
His life’s mission is to help disabled Ghanaians become contributing members of society treated with dignity. He inspires people all over the world, disabled and not, to live their best lives. “I believe I can share my life story with people to help them move forward in their life. They can use my life as an example,” he said.
The late Jim MacLaren, known as the fastest amputee athlete and later rendered a quadriplegic, helped inspire Yeboah to be a great athlete—and in turn the Ghanaian athlete inspired MacLaren. Interviewed in the documentary, MacLaren said, that instead of people saying of Yeboah, “‘Oh my God, thank God I’m not like him,’ they now say, ‘Oh my God, perhaps I can be more like him.’”
“Emmanuel’s Gift,” In Conversation with…Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah” is generously sponsored by Bank of America. The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s presentation of “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” is generously sponsored by the McCormick Foundation. The discussion with Yeboah is free with registration. Call (847) 967-4844 to reserve a ticket. The exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” will be on display through January 2, 2011. For more information, visit www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/ .