By Julie Carrington
Janeil Odle is no stranger to achieving firsts in her life.
In 2007, she was the first blind student to write the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE), commonly known as the Common Entrance Exam, in Braille and passing for Combermere School.
Fast forward to December 18, 2020, when Janeil became the first blind attorney in the island to be called to the Bar; is the toast of her alma maters, the Irving Wilson School for the Deaf and the Blind and Combermere; and a symbol of triumph against all odds.
The 26-year-old attorney-at-law, who has an interest in human rights, children and family law, and representing the marginalised, recounted how she navigated life as a blind person, and her academic achievements and working life, as a hands-on mother to a one-year-old son, during a recent interview with the Barbados Government Information Service.
Janeil was like any other active child growing up, until a life-altering injury claimed her vision. Understandably, her parents, Heather and Jeffrey Odle, though shattered, “hunkered down” as a family and strategised, as to the best way forward for their daughter — despite her disability.
Janeil recalled the sad events of that fateful day: “At the age of five, I fell off a bicycle and hit the back of my head. Following that, I had a lot of headaches and pains about the body, and the doctors, at that time, thought that it had nothing do with the fall at all, and thought it was meningitis or dengue and they were treating me for that. But, it turned out, that it was a blood clot in the brain. By the time the doctors realised it, when I was overseas, it was too late; the blood clot led to the optic nerve being damaged and that is what led to the blindness.
“My mother would say that I coped surprisingly well. I never used to cry or be depressed…she took it harder than me,” she shared.
As a student at Irving Wilson, there were few children in her age group to interact with. Her doting parents, recognising her academic potential, arranged lessons, three times a week, at Wilkie Cumberbatch Primary School, in grammar, mathematics and composition for the BSSEE.
While at Combermere, Janeil navigated the hurdle of transitioning from an environment, where students practised Braille, both written and oral, to an environment, where it was non-existent.
With the ambition to become a lawyer firmly in view, the absence of no printed books in Braille was no deterrent. The courageous young woman taught herself the computer and became proficient in a program, called JAWS – a screen-reading program for the visually impaired. She also joined the school’s Literary and Debating Society to help enhance her arguments, in preparation for her legal career.
“If you have a dream, if you have a goal, you need to go after your dream. There will be obstacles; there will be people in the way to stop you from achieving your dream, but you should know yourself best…. You know what you are capable of; give it your all; nothing is out of our reach…,” Odle advised.
Additionally, Janeil’s father, Jeffrey, and other relatives, stayed up late at night to assist with homework, by reading the chapters in the printed books, as she Brailled the material for her various classes, to ensure that their “whiz kid” kept up in class.
She attained eight Caribbean Examinations Council passes and that paved the way for more academic success to come.
“Sometimes, I used to be tired and frustrated, but I had a lot of good friends at school, who read to me, over the phone…or read to me in class and that helped a lot, because, as I said, the books were not in Braille. I guess all the extra hard work paid off, because I came first in class, most of the time, at least for the first three years, when the school was giving positions.
“My father had to do a lot of the models for Math class, so that I could feel the different shapes, participate, and know what was going on in class. I had some other teachers as well, who would use Bristol board and other items that they created for me to feel, and diagrams so that I could follow in class,” she recalled.
Janeil’s scholastic achievements continued at the Barbados Community College (BCC), where she gained a Barbados Exhibition in English Literature and Law. The BCC experience, she added, was like “school heaven”, as academic books in PDF format made it easier for her to ace every subject and eventually become Valedictorian in 2014.
The exhibition winner entered the Law Faculty and graduated, at the top of her class, in 2017, and later journeyed to the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad, where she shook off bouts of anxieties about living in a strange country, away from her family, and successfully completed the Legal Education Certificate.
Janeil also has a Master’s in Public Law.
Currently attached to Queen’s Counsel Leslie Haynes’ Chambers, Janeil offered this advice to other visually-impaired students, who believe that academic achievement is out of reach: “If you have a dream, if you have a goal, you need to go after your dream. There will be obstacles; there will be people in the way to stop you from achieving your dream, but you should know yourself best….You know what you are capable of; give it your all; nothing is out of our reach, especially since there is so much technology out there.”
A strong advocate for the inclusion of the disabled, the attorney stressed that there is always room for improvement.
“There is always more that can be done. I would like to see more places catering to the disabled. I am not only talking about wheelchair accessible places and bathrooms that are accessible to the disabled. I am talking about places, where we have more forms that are accessible; documents that are accessible; places, where we can just go online, that have accessible websites as well, so that we can access information and have access to places like normal people.”
Janeil continued: “I would like to see more people being disabled-friendly and more businesses being disabled-friendly. COVID-19 has placed us in a position, where we really have no choice but to put a lot of stuff online, and that has been very advantageous to a lot of disabled people, especially as it relates to delivering systems and online ordering.”
She is also advocating for the removal of physical and social barriers in schools and the workplace, as she appealed for an end to “employers looking down at the disabled.
“We still have employers looking down at us and saying: ‘hey you are a liability I can’t have you in my workplace’. So, until we can get rid of these barriers and just allow disabled people to be themselves, to develop, to grow and access the things that normal people can access, then we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Janeil does not see herself through the lens of a disabled person: “I see myself as a normal person. I like to do things like normal people do. I like to hang out with friends, before COVID-19. I like to go out; try different restaurants; drink a few cocktails; go to the beach; listen to music; spend time with my son, my family, and I like to go places. I am a normal person.
“Because you are disabled doesn’t mean that we are any less than anybody else. We might just be lacking in a particular area, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot make up for it in other areas, that we can’t live and just be normal.”