Why did I dread watching this flick? Yeboah "overcomes adversity." That tired inspirational trope that dominates stories of disabled people's lives. He rides a bicycle across Ghana. I've never really understood athletic endeavors meant to be attention-getters for some cause. Go pound some nails instead, okay? Do some activity with actual value beyond it's celebrity. And the film is narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who has never before uttered the words "disability rights," though she has no problem exploring the medical aspects and social misfortunes of impairment. Oh, Winfrey's had guests who happen to discuss ableism and crip rights -- Chris and Dana Reeve (to some degree) and William H. Macy* (eloquently) are celebrity examples. Never once did I see her take that bait and follow the thread of social injustice or call for people to demand change.
So I had reservations aplenty.
But here's the thing: In Ghana, where an astounding one in ten citizens have some sort of disability, infanticide of visibly disabled infants is common. If they aren't killed or hidden away shamefully, disabled Ghanaians become beggars on the street. That is the range of options.
So a guy with one working leg riding a bicycle across the nation -- 380 miles -- and calling for disability rights and opportunities had an incredible impact on a society that thought it had everyone in their rightful place.
When Yeboah was born, his father saw him and promptly abandoned the family. His mother was encouraged to kill her son, but instead she sent him to school and taught him he deserved all the privileges and opportunities nondisabled people have. When Yeboah had trouble getting the other schoolkids to let him play with them, he ingeniously saved his money (no easy feat) and bought his own soccer ball -- a rare commodity. The price of playing with it was letting Yeboah join in the game using his one full-grown leg and crutches.
With his mother ill and medical bills to pay, young Yeboah shined shoes for money. He left his village and family behind to go to Accra, the nation's capital, to earn $2 per day shining shoes instead of just $1 per day back home. So, he's a teenage boy on crutches shining shoes far from home to support his family -- mom and two younger siblings, I believe. Yet after his mom dies and he applies to the Californian Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), he asks not for cash but for a bicycle because he's thinking big. He wants all Ghanians to see that disabled people can do more than be street beggars.
Yeboah's bike ride makes him a national hero and celebrity. The film follows his visit to America, where he competes in some athletic events and decides on amputation of his limb so he can wear a prosthesis. He returns home without his crutches, but with political momentum. We see him meeting with tribal chiefs, disabled beggars whom he encourages to reach for more, and most poignantly, the father who abandoned him.
The film's slick editing interferes with the story, but the celebrity created by Yeboah's bike ride forces public officials to reconsider national disability policy and respond, as one canny bureaucrat notes, that ''we may have underestimated the urgency of the matter." Returning to the United States, Yeboah meets with fellow Ghanaian and then-U.N. President Kofi Annan, and also receives grant money for his goals of helping other disabled Ghanaians and starting a wheelchair basketball team for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
In a historic meeting at King's Palace in Kibi, Ghana, where because of superstition and stigma no disabled person has ever before been invited, King Osagyefuo praises Yeboah and throws his support as leader of 2.5 million people in Eastern Ghana behind efforts to improve the lives of disabled citizens. Says King Osagyefuo:
“The society and country are not set up to take care of handicapped people. Emmanuel has tenacity, endurance and he has a strong heart to do the things that he is doing and to use what he has done as an example for other disabled people. We will support him and tell the government that they are also part of us—they may be physically challenged, but mentally and intellectually they are the same as us.”The King's statements are nothing short of revolutionary in a culture where disability is commonly believed to be the karmic result of immorality.
Yeboah hopes to become a member of the Ghana Parliament one day. In the meantime, he's married -- to a nondisabled Ghanaian woman, which is apparently a feat of disability acceptance in itself due to cultural stigmas -- and has a daughter. The film fails to show these last and most ordinary achievements in his life, but Yeboah's story shines through any directorial shortcomings to show what a single person can achieve when he is taught his own self-worth.
* IIRC, Macy appeared on Oprah after the release of Door to Door, his award-winning made-for-tv true story of Bill Porter, a man with cerebral palsy who confounded all expectations by becoming a top door-to-door salesman. Macy had become a national ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and when prompted by Oprah about his volunteer position he spoke eloquently and at length specifically about disability prejudice and discrimination.
Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade