What could a young woman on crutches in a faraway nation expect from a world in which she was shunned? The better question, it turns out, is: What could the world expect from her? Veronica Umeasiegbu, a graduate of Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, is helping women with disabilities take a second look at their lives—and their opportunities.
Written by Cara J. Hayden
Every Saturday, a high-school student visits the house of a neighbor. She travels by foot and carries a bag filled with homework. Although she walks with a crutch, it doesn’t take long for her to traverse the bustling streets of the Nigerian city, Enugu. She’s eager to reach her destination.
The neighbor, Veronica Umeasiegbu, greets the girl warmly, as though she’s welcoming a younger sister. Inside, the home smells of warm rice, freshly cooked. The two chat, which is part of their weekly routine. The neighbor knows that her young visitor is beautiful and smart, but she also knows the teenager doesn’t see this. Instead, the girl is shy and insecure, especially about her disability and her crutch. Umeasiegbu understands.
Each week, they share a meal of rice with okra or yams or peppers. Afterward, the student pulls books from her schoolbag and begins to work. As she composes an essay, she stops to ask for advice about grammar, how to connect paragraphs. Umeasiegbu helps with these tasks, but she also offers unspoken gifts—of encouragement, possibility, and joy—the same gifts that she received from a family member years earlier, the same gifts that have multiplied during her own remarkable journey.
Umeasiegbu was born in Eastern Nigeria, where she contracted polio at the age of 2. The disease left her legs paralyzed and her mother ashamed. Some neighbors believed that her illness was the result of witchcraft or punishment from God. Before long, Umeasiegbu’s mother left the family. Her father raised her until he died, when she was in elementary school. Then, her half-brother, Rems Umeasiegbu, took care of her and made sure that she continued her education. He paid her school tuition and challenged her to read books and newspapers. He became her guide through life’s shoals.
A literature professor and a scholar, he was known as a “story hunter” because he traveled across Nigeria collecting oral folklore from storytellers.Umeasiegbu hunted stories, too, in her own way. She enjoyed moonlit nights when family elders would tell folktales about tortoises, clever women, and the virtues of hard work and helping others. At school, she liked reading about every subject, especially science, politics, and art. When she wasn’t able to get to school on her crutches, she nagged friends and cousins to let her borrow their textbooks.
Eventually, through her own resilience and with Rems’ support, the young Nigerian understood many things about the world beyond her doorstep. She also knew she could help others like her find their way in that larger world.
Umeasiegbu enrolled at the University of Nigeria, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical therapy. Soon, she began working to help others with physical impairments. Every day when she was shopping or commuting to work, she saw in the streets disabled beggars, including mothers and toddlers. She knew that, without her education and family, she could have been squatting in those same dusty places. The beggars needed more than crutches.
Umeasiegbu also knew that disabled children in Nigeria, especially girls, are often hidden at home—because of shame, poverty, or low expectations—instead of being sent to school. So, in her free time, she volunteered with an organization that helped these girls to attend school. As part of her role, she traveled to rural churches and encouraged families to educate their disabled daughters. During her presentations, she showed her crutches and explained that she held university degrees. Look at me, she said. I am not begging for alms. Your daughters, too, can accomplish things.
She also volunteered to mentor newly enrolled schoolgirls, like the teenager who made pilgrimages to her home every Saturday. Often, these girls had psychological, academic, and social issues that went far beyond their physical disabilities. Umeasiegbu counseled them based on her own experiences with a disability, but she didn’t feel prepared to offer comprehensive solutions. Although she was a seasoned professional with a graduate degree, she decided that she needed more education. She wanted to learn how to help those with physical disabilities in a more profound way.
In 2007, with a scholarship grant from the international Ford Foundation, Umeasiegbu traveled more than 5,000 miles to Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences to begin studying rehabilitation counseling in Pitt’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology. The program trains students to empower those with disabilities to become fully integrated into their communities. The Pitt students learn how to provide career counseling, psychological therapy, and management of medical plans.
From the moment Umeasiegbu was greeted by fellow students at Pittsburgh’s airport, she knew she was not alone in her quest to help women with disabilities to improve their lives. For sure, she wouldn’t be the first such woman to glide through the automatic, handicapped-accessible doors of Forbes Tower, where the department is located. Women from many regions around the world, including Russians, Palestinians, and Saudis have studied rehabilitation counseling here in recent years. About 20 percent of the department’s graduate students are international. Students have completed internships in New Zealand and India. Several faculty members have built high-profile international careers, while also facing the challenges posed by their own physical circumstances.
At Pitt, Umeasiegbu began using a wheelchair instead of crutches for the first time in her life. Although she thought the hills and rivers of Pittsburgh were beautiful, the things that impressed her the most about the city’s landscape were its wheelchair ramps, dropped curbs, concrete sidewalks, and buses that could hoist people in wheelchairs directly inside. In Nigeria, the lack of that infrastructure makes wheelchairs impractical. In Pittsburgh, she zoomed to the store to buy rice or flowers. She zoomed to Hillman Library to hunt for stories and to read her textbooks. She learned not only how to navigate a motorized wheelchair, but also how Pitt researchers are creating innovations in wheelchair technology through the University’s Wheeled Mobility Research Center and the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, among others.
One reason that Pitt’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Tech-nology has so much international activity is its emphasis on developing the newest assistive technologies, which advance what’s possible for those with disabilities. The curriculum of the rehabilitation counseling program is one of the few in the world that incorporates mandatory courses in the use of assistive technologies such as motorized wheelchairs, software that reads newspaper articles aloud, and devices that allow people to control computer cursors by blinking. With these devices, people can overcome physical challenges in ways that were never possible before. That knowledge is important for rehabilitation counselors as they help others to retool lives disrupted by disabilities.
During her classroom experiences, Umeasiegbu learned about a gamut of assistive technologies, including a conference-room hearing device that one of her professors who has a hearing disability used during class discussions. With this device, students speak into a wireless microphone that connects to a hearing aid in the professor’s ear, enabling her to listen and respond to students’ comments. It’s just one example of how assistive technology removes obstacles and creates entirely new possibilities.
That professor, Katherine Seelman—the associate dean of disability programs in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences—is another significant mentor for Umeasiegbu, who has spent many hours in Seelman’s colorful office, which is bulging with books and contains photos of Seelman posing with international dignitaries.
During the Clinton administration, Seelman served as director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Currently, she’s part of an international committee that’s creating the World Health Organization’s first report on disability. Last summer, she teamed up with Pitt colleagues to arrange a two-day international conference, where the hot topic was the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a U.N. treaty that’s being signed by countries around the world. She also has connections with the international Ford Foundation, the organization that helped Umeasiegbu get to Pitt.
From the start, Seelman expanded Umeasiegbu’s already optimistic view of what is possible for those with disabilities. She shared stories about traveling all over the globe and meeting with many others who are striving to improve the rights of the disabled, as well as the opportunities for them. She emphasized that there is work to be done everywhere—in the United States, in Nigeria, and far beyond those boundaries.
Not long after she began these mentoring sessions, Seelman encouraged Umeasiegbu to apply for an internship with the World Health Organization—and the encouragement worked. In 2008, Umeasiegbu spent a thrilling summer in Geneva, Switzerland, at the World Health Organization, where she used her physical therapy expertise to strengthen evidence-based reporting about rehabilitation. She organized and prepared materials for a rehabilitation conference in Thailand. She attended biweekly meetings about polio eradication, and she initiated two book drives to send textbooks to a university and a nonprofit organization in Nigeria. On weekends, Umeasiegbu also achieved some personal dreams by visiting the grand European cities she’d read about in books.
On top of all that activity, Umeasiegbu wrote an essay for a competition that challenged interns at United Nations agencies to think of ways to implement the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. In her essay, Umeasiegbu contended that the U.N.’s goals for improving education, health care, and gender equality—established by world dignitaries in 2000—would not be accomplished by the 2015 deadline if women with disabilities were left behind. The judges agreed with her vision of a world where all women are respected, educated, and empowered. Her essay was a winner in the U.N. competition.
In April 2009, Umeasiegbu earned her Pitt master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. Now she is pursuing a PhD in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Kentucky. With her newfound expertise, she is ready to expand the possibilities for others beyond any seeming boundaries. “I see myself as one who can make an impact in every part of the world—who can do research in Africa and who can still contribute to the field in the United States,” she says. “I see myself as someone who can go anywhere at anytime.”
Meanwhile, Umeasiegbu sends regular e-mail updates about her progress to her longtime mentors, including her half-brother and Pitt’s Seelman. She trusts, too, that elsewhere in the world, a young woman who used to visit her on Saturdays now looks in the mirror and sees her true self—beautiful and smart, a story still unfolding