'Good Morning America' surprises UM doctor with $1 million gift

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

A University of Michigan doctor committed to making sports and fitness as accessible as possible for those with disabilities got a big boost Thursday on "Good Morning America."

Michigan Medicine's Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, known as Dr. O, was surprised with a $1 million gift live on the morning show for his work building UM's adaptive sports and fitness program. It came from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with spinal cord injuries live full, productive lives.

"Disabusing disability was a trademark that I coined a couple of years ago to try to demonstrate that disability doesn't mean inability," Okanlami said on "Good Morning America" Thursday, surrounded by family and loved ones who surprised him with the announcement.

Robin Roberts with Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami on Good Morning American Thursday. Okanlami is a faculty member at Michigan Medicine and an advocate for people with disabilities. He was awarded $1 million on the show Thursday for his work with the University of Michigan's adaptive sports and fitness program.

Okanlami — an assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine, rehabilitation and urology at Michigan Medicine — also serves as the director of student accessibility and accommodation services and services for students with disabilities at UM, where he coined the catchphrase "disabusing disability."

"Everyone here has been touched by your kindness, by your big heart, by your perseverance," said "Good Morning America" host Robin Roberts.

"To me, Dr. O shows the example of a person that has endured tremendous adversity but is an amazing, dynamic person and it proves to me that I can do it too," said Vincent Pinti, a UM grad who was profiled last year by The Detroit News.

Born in Nigeria, Okanlami immigrated to the United States as a child and grew up in Indiana. He attended Stanford University and was an academic all-American track and field athlete before getting his medical degree at UM. But during his third year of an orthopedic surgery residency in 2013 at Yale, he had a swimming accident and broke his neck while jumping into a pool. He was immediately paralyzed from the chest down.

Dr. O was surprised with a $1 million gift forhis work with UM's adaptive sports program.

After undergoing two surgeries and intense rehabilitation, he regained some motor function and now uses a wheelchair. Okanlami then continued his education, earning a master's in engineering, science and technology entrepreneurship from the University of Notre Dame and finishing a residency in family medicine at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Indiana.

While working as a physician at Michigan Medicine, Okanlami made it his mission to build the school's adaptive sports and fitness program which makes physical fitness and recreational activities accessible for people with disabilities.

"Until I started to live life on the other side of the stethescope with my spinal cord injury, I did not realize how ableist our world was, how inaccessible the world was and unintentionally complicit to this world of ableism," Okanlami said on Good Morning America.

Surrounded by his mother, son and other loved ones, Okanlami said the adaptive sports and fitness program is "not a me thing" but "an us thing."

"Disability is not inability, disability is a fabric in the world of diversity that just makes us all have our unique contributions we can make," he said. "And the fact that the world is not accessible is not the fault of the individual with a disability. We need to then be given access to do what we can and instead of being limited based on what we cannot, we need to be given the access to show what we can."

hmackay@detroitnews.com