October 20, 2022, was a normal Thursday for Dr. Feranmi Okanlami ’15 M.S. He woke up, brushed his teeth, and went to the University of Michigan’s indoor track facility to shoot a local TV spot highlighting an upcoming event that members of his adaptive sports and fitness program would be participating in. The topic was close to his work at Michigan — and his personal life after suffering a broken neck jumping into a pool at a Fourth of July party almost a decade prior.
It was just another ordinary Thursday, as Okanlami moved around the facility in his wheelchair, not letting the spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down stop him from experiencing the joy of sports.
Then, he won a million dollars.
In 2019, Okanlami had been featured on Good Morning America as part of Robin Roberts’ Thriver Thursday series, which highlights people who have overcome incredible adversity. This time, Roberts came to Okanlami, surprising him at the facility with seven gold balloons — a one followed by six zeros — to honor him as one of three winners of the Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize “to celebrate influential voices in the world of spinal cord injury.”
The reveal left Okanlami almost speechless. But he has a lot to say about those with disabilities — and just as importantly, the world around them.
“I didn’t know that much about the disability community (before my injury),” Okanlami said. “I didn’t realize how ableist and inaccessible our world is until I entered what I called the other side of the stethoscope.” The cervical spine injury he suffered from the 2013 party left him paralyzed from his chest down with limited use of his upper extremities. Okanlami had worked with disabled patients before. Being one, however, was a completely different experience.
Before his accident, Okanlami excelled not only in his studies and work — as he was completing his orthopedic surgery residency at the time of his accident — but was also an Academic All-American student-athlete in track and field at Stanford. But as a Black man, Okanlami was also familiar with discrimination.
“My Deerfield, Stanford, Michigan, Yale, Notre Dame degrees seemed to … buffer that (discrimination) a bit. Disability was not able to be buffered in that way,” Okanlami says. “I think people view disability as a less-than, as it means that you cannot do. The truth is, every single person has a limit (on what) they can do.”
It is easier to put this in perspective with a more common experience. Okanlami, like over four billion adults, wears glasses. Without that aid, his sight is not perfect. It has its limits, just like a wheelchair user has theirs.
“Prior to being a wheelchair user, people didn’t think of (me) as unable because I wore glasses. I needed an accommodation, I needed a resource, a tool to fully access the world,” Okanlami says. To him, a person should not be viewed differently just because they require something to help them get through each day, whether that thing is glasses, a wheelchair, or anything in between.
His academic credentials are impressive, having attended some of the most elite schools in the country. After graduating from the prestigious Deerfield (Mass.) Academy, he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities for pre-meds at Stanford before graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School. To top it off, he also earned a master’s from Notre Dame.
But the work he is most proud of has come during his five-plus years at Michigan, where he has served as a clinical assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine & rehabilitation, and urology, and director of student accessibility and accommodation services. His work includes what some might think of as the basics of solving inaccessibility, like building ramps and providing testing accommodations. He even managed the school’s COVID hotline during the early days of the pandemic. But it is also centered around Okanlami’s true passion: creating an adaptive sports and fitness program.
The University of Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness program began in 2019 with the goal of “providing equitable opportunities to physical and emotional health and wellness for individuals with and without physical disabilities.” He made sure to emphasize the end of that mission statement — “with and without physical disabilities.”
“Our mantra is, ‘If you can sit, you can play.’”
The level of competition goes all the way from Paralympic caliber — one of Okanlami’s medical students is Sam Grewe ’21, former Irish track and field star and winner of the gold medal for high jump in the T63 classification at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics — to “people that just need access to physical fitness.” The program has three competitive sports — wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, and track and field — with plans to add wheelchair rugby next year, as well as a para-equestrian program through a partnership with a local organization.
Okanlami has both led and been a part of numerous initiatives to raise awareness of the program and adaptive sports and inclusive recreation as a whole. These efforts have included partnering with a local organization to develop an adaptive sports curriculum for every sixth grader in Ann Arbor Public Schools, working with physicians and clinicians to introduce adaptive sports to their patients, and even giving TEDx Talks. But if this sounds like a one-of-a-kind initiative, it should not.
“It’s not the first program in the country. We didn’t invent adaptive sports,” Okanlami says. Still, it was a new concept to him following his diagnosis, and the lack of awareness among the general public is something he is looking to combat to ensure others know there are adaptive sports programs available to them. And while the program is not the first adaptive sports organization, is rather unique in its outreach, from its connections with physicians and schools to providing the chance to offer competitive events that make accessible sports even more accessible and in line with what different individuals hope to get out of them.
Like any hero, Okanlami does not consider himself one. Even if you catch him off guard with a seven-figure check, he is still quick to thank those around him. He does not hesitate to mention the multiple layers of support within Michigan’s adaptive sports and fitness, something that not every group like it has.
“It was all about our team, and that’s the most exciting part, “Okanlami says. “I don’t do the work that I do for credit or for recognition. That was a blessing.”
To so many people at Michigan and beyond, Okanlami’s work is viewed the same way.