ranmi Okanlami knew he wanted to be a doctor at a young age. “I was always interested in science and how the body worked. In medicine you have a unique ability to use your hands or your mind and effect change in someone else’s life,” he recalls. Growing up as the son of two Nigerian immigrants, he had lots of role models. Both of his parents were doctors and he had countless aunts and uncles in the medical field. Being a doctor was practically in his DNA. In 2013, Okanlami was in the final stages of realizing his dream. He was working as a surgical resident when he sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury diving into a pool. “I never thought, I can’t be a physician anymore,” he says. “The question was, ‘How can I be a physician?’” Finding the answer to that question led Okanlami on an eye-opening journey into disability, discrimination and more, and helped mold him into the thoughtful, passionate leader, affectionately known as “Dr. O.” As a speaker, educator and member of key national and regional committees, Dr. O has emerged as a respected advocate for rethinking the prejudices inherent in our medical system and creating a more inclusive world for people with disabilities.
Okanlami, 37, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to his mother, Bunmi, a pediatric critical care physician, and his late father, Femi, a neonatal critical care physician. They named their son Feranmi, which translates to “God’s love.” Lured by the American dream and opportunities to further their graduate medical education, Okanlami’s parents moved the family, which also includes his older sister, to the United States in 1988 when he was almost 3 years old. They settled in Maryland, before establishing roots in Indiana. Okanlami’s parents knew he was destined for something special at an early age. “When Feranmi was really young, he was a very quiet child, but someone who was older than his chronological years. He was kind and thoughtful. You could put him in a room with anyone and he was comfortable among people of all ages. He was quiet but when he spoke, you took notice, and people would say “who is t
his kid?” says Bunmi. “You had this feeling he was going to be somebody, but whom, we didn’t know.”
It wasn’t until my injury that I truly felt discriminated against. I’m not belittling my black experience, because yes, I have experienced racism, discrimination and stereotypes — but it pales in comparison. I was the same person, but people suddenly started treating me differently, looking at me differently, interacting with me differently, and expecting less of me.
He grew up in a com
munity with other Nigerian families that celebrated Nigerian and American culture. “All of the kids from those families were like brothers and sisters,” he says. “We had our Nigerian community, we had our Christian community, we had the schools we went to, and so I saw people that we were all different, in different ways. It wasn’t until later in life that I would experience discrimination.”
Okanlami says Nigerian culture is often seen as being strict, but he never felt family life to be oppressive. Education and hard work were emphasized. “My parents instilled in us the importance of education,” he says. “They told us education is the one thing that nobody can ever take away. They demonstrated that hard work was the thing you could do to make sure that you gave yourself the best opportunity. We were taught compassion, empathy, integrity, to put others before yourself and to have respect for everyone.” All of those lessons paid off throughout Okanalami’s childhood. He eventually graduated from high school as a four-sport athlete and class president, all the while excelling in the classroom. Upon graduating from high school, he was accepted at Stanford University. In addition to knocking out the prerequisites for medical school while earning an undergraduate degree in the Humanities, Okanlami served as the captain for Stanford’s track and field team during his last two seasons and achieved Academic All-American honors. By all accounts he was living his best life, the American Dream his parents had envisioned when they first came to this country.
Forging a New Path
After receiving his degree from Stanford in 2007, he attended medical school at the University of Michigan, earned his M.D. in 2011 and was accepted into an orthopedic residency surgery program at Yale that same year. In 2013, in his third year of residency at Yale, he broke his neck at a July 4 pool party, resulting in an incomplete spinal cord injury. Okanlami used the injury as fuel. “What I was going through was hard, but I never got down or sad or depressed. I’m not saying that I am better or stronger than anybody else, it just didn’t happen for me,” says Okanlami. “And while I wasn’t negative about things, there was still uncertainty, like, ‘How is this going
to be possible?’ ‘How am I going to define myself?’ ‘How are people going to look at me?’”
Over the next two years, Okanlami focused on regaining function and earning a master’s degree in Engineering, Science, and Technology Entrepreneurship from Notre Dame. He regained more function in his lower limbs but still used a wheelchair for community mobility and navigating his busy life. From 2015-2017, he worked as a physician in a family medicine residency at Memorial Hospital in South Bend. Working in family medicine exposed him to more aspects of medicine, and helped grow his perspective on the state of the field. “As a family medicine physician, I had an opportunity and a platform to talk about medicine and disability in a way I may not have been able to as an orthopedic surgeon,” he says.
Leading by Example
Okanlami didn’t realize how ableist and inaccessible the world was for disabled people until he started living life on the other side of the stethoscope as a person with a spinal cord injury. “It wasn’t until my injury that I truly felt discriminated against,” he says. “I’m not belittling my Black experience, because yes, I have experienced racism, discrimination and stereotypes — but it pales in comparison. I was the s
ame person, but people suddenly started treating me differently, looking at me differently, interacting with me differently, and expecting less of me.” In hopes of effecting change, he coined the catchphrase, “disabusing disability,” to demonstrate that disability doesn’t mean inability. “We all have our unique contributions we can make,” he says. “Instead of being limited based on what we cannot do, we need to be given the access to show what we can.” With this sentiment in mind, Okanlami has dedicated his life to becoming a disability advocate and creating an accessible and inclusive health care system for patients and providers with disabilities.
He returned to the University of Michigan in 2018. He now serves as the Director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services and oversees the office of Services for Students with Disabilities, two testing accommodation centers, and the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program. In addition, he is an assistant professor in the Departments of Family Medicine, Urology, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. As if that isn’t enough to take on, in 2021 he was appointed adjunct assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, where his responsibilities include working with the dep
artment on efforts of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion as well as participation in the development of an adaptive sports medicine program. Okanlami and his colleagues in Michigan’s Department of Family Medicine are working to raise awareness about doctors with disabilities. More than 20% of Americans live with a disability, but recent studies show only about 3% of them are practicing physicians. Okanlami is proud of the work he and his colleagues are doing at Michigan to close that gap, including making changes to the technical standards used for admission. Many medical schools require physical aptitude, which can inadvertently exclude applicants with disabilities. Dr. Philip Zazove is one of many colleagues with high praise for Okanlami. “Dr. O has had a huge impact in many ways,” says Zazove, an emeritus profe
ssor of family medicine at Michigan. “In our department of family medicine, we have a focus on improving health of people with disabilities, and there’s nothing like having faculty with disabilities as role models and who live the experience. For example, I am deaf. He brought expertise around mobility disabilities that we did not have.” Nationally, Okanlami serves as the Disability Issues representative on the Steering Committee for the Group on Diversity and Inclusion at the Association of American Medical Colleges, while also sitting on the National Medical Association’s Council for Medical Legislation. He was also selected by the White House Office of Public Engagement to participate in the Health Equi
ty Leaders Roundtable Series dedicated to exploring perspectives around access to care. To honor his collective efforts in medicine and his recent work in adaptive sports (see sidebar, below), the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation selected him as one of three recipients of its 2022 Visionary Prize award. The award is presented annually to influential voices whose contributions have improved the lives of those affected by spinal cord injuries. Friends, family and Foundation members surprised Okanlami live on national television last fall with news of his selection and the $1 million prize check.
“The Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize celebrates individuals who are not afraid to take bold risks, show a potential to enrich, expand, and advocate for new ideas. This is Dr. Okanlami,” says Kym Eisner, the foundation’s executive director. “He is an out of the box thinker and a thoughtful mentor, who leads by example.”
With everything that is on his plate, you might wonder when Okanlami sleeps. He says he only gets a few hours of sleep a night. There is always more to do. “I feel like to whom much is given, much is expected,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunity throughout my life, and I feel the desire, the need, the want, to pay it forward.”