‘The blind will fly, the deaf and mute will operate a mall and the autistic will run businesses’ these have been the words inspiring my endeavour. But when I first took on this challenge, I never quite fully grasped how challenging the task would be. I knew from my over 8 years of experience in the travel and tour industry that it wasn’t going to be easy but what lay ahead, nothing had quite prepared me.
Never had I had the opportunity to take any person with disability along on any of my tours and I always wondered why. Weren’t they interested? Or they just didn’t have the opportunity? The later proved to be the truth. Nobody wanted to take that risk. Pushed by my passion for persons with disability, I did what every normal human being would do. I cashed out my entire savings, borrowed from friends and family to fund one tour as a trial for taking persons with disability on a tour.
Perfectly normal, right? Well, that wasn’t what most of the people I came into contact with thought. For every cedi I spent on the tour, I had one person tell me to my face how silly I was for taking this on. They wanted to know why a young guy with so much potential would rather bother himself with persons with disability. I have been asked out of offices because they thought I was just being ridiculous. I have been forced to listen to several hours of lectures looking to channel my energy and resources into more ‘appropriate’ ventures. Well, my answer has always been, persons with disability are just as ‘appropriate’ as could be. Most of the people I spoke to were those I had looked up to for years within my community, and I had expected at the very least, a vote of confidence from them, and possibly some support.
Now, the support I was looking for wasn’t necessarily money. I needed people to vouch for my credibility with the agencies involved. I needed a bus, which most of these people had. I needed moral support. I was denied all. I had my entire savings in hand and yet it wasn’t going to be enough. Yet again, I did what every normal human being would do. I went to Mampong. To see the school for persons with disability. I had to convince them I was interested in taking them on a tour, for free, to Accra to visit the mall. Now, you reading this may not think it’s a big deal, but for those kids it was. Their being deaf and mute, and the inability of any staff at the mall to communicate with them meant any attempt to seek assistance once at the mall would have proved futile. They also would prefer to avoid public ridicule, so they kept to where they felt safest, their school.
Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Get a bus. Get them on it. Get to the mall. They walk around. They get back on the bus and back to their school. Nope. Not quite that easy. I had to accept full responsibility for their safety. So I decided, well, while in Accra, why not add something educational to the tour? So we had a visit to Kwame Nkrumah’s Mausoleum and the cultural centre to tit. Well, if we are having a go at it, why not have a full swing at it with all we have. Well, in the end, it was a successful tour, free for the students, with no incident recorded. The joy and excitement on their faces were enough to get me going for a repeat.
Like any normal human being, if I was going to do it again, why not try another set of persons with disability, and confront a tougher to sell place and idea. Why not? Perfectly normal. So I decided it was time for Autistic children to meet a CEO. The CEO of Golden Tulip Hotel. Perfectly normal, right? Initially, they wondered why but later agreed to have the children over. Then they were amazed, and I was amazed. Once he had the kids there, he was very patient and willing to answer every question. I was impressed at how much time he was willing to spend with the kids and how far he was willing to go to interact with them. At the end of the visit there, he agreed to allow for some of them to intern there. He had been very impressed with the level of interaction the kids were capable of.
The kids from New Horizon School had completely sold him on the idea that they, kids with Autism could one day be CEOs of a company like he was. What I learnt from that visit was, once you are able to put these kids in front of people who are willing to create the environment within which they are comfortable, they are able to express and amaze just about anybody.
Well, once that was done. I just had to do something else a little bit more daring, didn’t I? A flying blind man. First I had to get permission from the school of the blind to take along some of their students and teachers to Kwahu Easter Festival Paragliding. Again, I was notified that the full weight of responsibility for their safety rested on my shoulders. I accepted the challenge. The next was to get tickets for the paragliding. I was turned down. Nobody was willing to take the risk of selling paragliding tickets to a blind person. They were scared of what could happen. An injury or worse would drastically affect their image and they were determined to protect their business, which I understood. So I had to buy the tickets for myself and pass it on.
Cometh the day of truth. It had taken me months to save up again to invest in this audacious attempt. The numerous calls to call it off only spurred me on. I was determined to proof that persons with disability could have fun just as the rest of us do. On the day, I had incredible support from the pilot who was virtually the only other person who thought it was perfectly normal for a blind person to attempt to paraglide. I was so scared I couldn’t watch. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and ringing in my ears. I could feel it pounding against my ribcage. I had put my entire life savings up, betting on persons with disability. Borrowed money to bet on persons with disability. Would he fly or would I could burst? If anything prevented him from flying and landing successfully, the Nay Sayers would be been proven right. I was so scared atop that mountain I cupped my face with my two hands.
When the MC heard the next person being strapped into the paragliding gear was blind, he began to announce it over the public address system. It felt like the entire Kwahu moved to watch if it was possible. Within minutes we had become the main focus of the Kwahu Easter festival. Then there weren’t sufficient winds to carry them so we had to wait. That only added to the anxiety. We waited, and the crowd grew. The persistent enquiry by the audience into who was responsible for the blind man about to fly only made me more nervous.
Then the winds finally came. The pilot was ready and the MC was booming on the public address system about how it would be the first attempt by a blind person to paraglide. Everything on the line. Absolutely everything to be lost. Reputation, trust that had been built over time and money. Soon enough, the first attempt by a blind man to paraglide became the first time a blind man was flying in Ghana.
Now I could boldly tell all who doubted, with evidence, that persons with disability could do anything they wanted to as long as they were afforded the opportunity. Most of them would love to enjoy and engage with us in the same way and manner we do with others. But the culture and attitude has to change. For that to change we need to demonstrate the abilities of persons with disability. It is perfectly normal for them to go on tour and see the lovely country they were born into. It is perfectly normal for them to interact with everybody else. It is perfectly normal for them to have as much fun as we do. It is not enough for them to be tacked away in institutions and isolated. Our infrastructure and attitude must afford them equal opportunity.
So I started LIONIZE TOURISM CONSULT with major attention on providing travel and tour packages for persons with disability. Wouldn’t it perfectly normal to push the envelope a little further? Why can’t we test how far we can go to demonstrate what persons with disability can do?
Joseph Ohene Obiri’s story
Written by Samie Sonka