Facing up to life’s challenges
Janeil’s independence wish is for a more inclusive Barbadian society
Since falling from her bicycle at six-years-old, Janeil Odle has been unable to see.
However, she has gotten back on her bicycle and has not allowed her physical disability to stop her from going where she wants to go.
In fact, she hasn’t stopped peddling up to now.
Just recently, she became the first blind valedictorian of the Barbados Community College (BCC) after she achieved a near perfect grade point average of 3.97, which helped her to gain a prestigious national Exhibition award.
Odle, who enjoys the tremendous support of family and friends, is a very hard worker and possesses a positive mindset.
For her disability is not inability. And wants the Barbadian society to view members of the disabled community in much the same way, giving equal attention to the needs and aspirations of persons like her who refuse to be held back by physical challenges. These points were highlighted in her warmly received speech at the BCC’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, November 8.
As she recalled the pleasant memories of that night a smile broadened her face. In that moment, she said, she was no longer that blind girl that no one knew or really cared about or even wanted to hear or take advice from.
She said she felt more like the top girl, who was able to stand in front of hundreds of people and grab their attention.
“That was a very significant night for me. I would have been extremely nervous in the beginning because I had no idea what I was getting into. I was panicking in the morning, calling my brother, harassing my parents and my friends telling them, ‘I don’t think I can do it’. But when I started and I realized that I had everyone’s attention, I was on top of the world.”
Being able to stand before a large audience and deliver in the competent and inspiring way that she did, was a “huge accomplishment” for Janeil.
“Not only for me as a person with disability but as a step forward for Barbados going forward. A step forward in a sense that we are able to stand up and say, ‘well, yes we have reached a point in which can no longer stash away her [the island’s] disabled people, but include them in our school system, our colleges.
“We have reached a point where we can as disabled people can also be extremely successful,” the eloquent speaker said.
Though she keeps riding, Odle has encountered several hurdles while studying and one of them was accessing material.
“At one instance I remember having to sit in the Kerry-Ann Ifill Unit at the University of the West Indies while I was at BCC to scan a book so that I could read it. It was a West Indian book and it is not available in Ebook format, which is a problem with a lot of our West Indian literature.
“I sat in the library for eight hours consecutively so that I could scan that book and put it on a flash drive so that I could have it in order to read in class. I was at BCC so it was extremely difficult for me to get to UWI all the time to continue studying and reading a book there. Obviously, that would have set me back a lot because eight hours is an extremely long time which I could [have been] using to do other work.
“I had to depend on people to read to me sometimes, to help me get from class to class. But luckily for me, some classes were in the same building and I was able to get around on my own.”
As a blind student, Janeil also needed help to navigate around the school compound but it had to be done and Janeil, who was determined to get good grades stuck to the course.
The former student of Combermere School and Wilkie Cumberbatch Primary, located next door to the Irving Wilson School, which she also attended, has encountered challenges all along the way.
In fact, in order to learn, Odle was forced to become a tutor herself.
“I had to be teaching them a lot of things so that they could teach me in the process. I had to explain to them that when they are writing on the board they had to read aloud so that I could understand what they were saying. One of the biggest problems I had back then though was the fact that I had very little access to material and I remember many nights I would come home and have to be relying on my parents or my brother to be reading these books to me so that I could be brailing them out to have for the class the next day.”
Odle recalls there were several occasions when she was forced to stay up until two o’clock in the morning beating the books.
“It did pay off in the end but then I would be receiving a lot of negative comments from people in the class who thought that I was getting special treatment because of my disability. I would have come first all three terms in first year and because of that I would be hearing things like teachers are just favouring me. Or because I was subjected to doing a lot of my tests orally, they would be saying things like, the teachers are giving me the answers, which was not the case. It was from studying and putting in the time,” she maintained.
Studying continues to be a challenging process for Odle, who is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of the West Indies, but, as usual, she does not intend to give up her dreams of becoming a family lawyer and a voice, not only for the disabled community.
“Also, I have a dream of being in politics, but that would be explored at a later date,” she said with a grin.
“There is just a lot of changes I want to contribute towards and in a sense of having our youth play a bigger role in our community and especially the disabled or people who are taken for granted in our community,” said Odle, whose personal mentor is blind President of the Senate Kerryann Ifill.
As she recalled the terrible fall, which changed her life forever, she said a blood clot at the back of her head was diagnosed late after it had already damaged the optic nerve.
Her immediate family did not take the news well at all.
“Surprisingly, I would have taken it calm. Well, more calm than my parents would have been,” she told Barbados TODAY.
“I don’t think I really understood what was going on for a while. I was in the hospital and I remember my aunt, who was visiting from overseas, bringing a book for me and asking me to read it. I couldn’t even see the colours of the book and they [relatives] started to panic. But I think I was calm most of the way through it.
“While my brother and my parents were wondering what was the next step forward for me, I think I was the optimistic one because I continued playing and I actually got back on my bicycle riding up and down the neighborhood. From that tender age I never allowed anything to get into my way,” she boldly recalled.
Her mother Heather is the one she calls on mostly for help but her father Jeffrey always urges her to look for the silver lining behind the dark clouds. Her brother Kashi is the one she turns to not only for personal advice and academic guidance.
While grateful for their support, Odle said she always aims to be independent, just as she wants Barbados to also continue to strive forward on its path towards self-determination at age 48.
“As we grow older each year I would really like to see us develop in such a way that we are able to include everyone in the island, especially as its progresses.
“As we develop I would like to see everyone in spite of their disability or socio economic challenges being able to take part in the productivity of the island,” she added.