When you ask former West Hempstead resident Christian Ekunwe, 31, who now works as a VIP host at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, about the clientele he meets on the Strip — or what he likes to call the “adult Disneyland” — he will say that people often seem to pretend to be someone else during their visit.
According to Ekunwe, however, Vegas has taught him to own his identity after a lifetime of coping with spina bifida, a birth defect that prevents the spinal cord from fully developing. Now he works the nightclub circuit in a wheelchair.
“Anything is possible — it’s such a cliché thing to say, but it’s true,” Ekunwe said. “No one’s ever given [disabled people] the credit that we deserve. I don’t want you to feel bad for me, I just want you to respect me.”
Years before making a name for himself in Las Vegas, Ekunwe, who was born in London and lived in Nigeria until he moved to West Hempstead in 1989, dealt with a range of severe effects of his congenital disorder, ranging from bladder and bowel issues to stunted growth. He also relies on a shunt implanted in his head to help fluids flow to his brain and keep him alive.
At 17, Ekunwe started using a wheelchair, after undergoing spinal surgery and lying on his stomach for two months while recovering — which later necessitated the amputation of his right foot.
He grew up in the Malverne schools, and he recalled that classmates often teased him about his appearance, but he kept his emotions under control despite their ridicule — and despite the fact that he regularly faced life-and-death situations owing to his disorder.
“At the end of the day, if you laugh at it, you take the funny out of it,” Ekunwe said of learning to deal with his condition. “I just wanted [people] to think I was this happy-go-lucky person living a full life, even though I was dealing with all these obstacles.”
After graduating from Malverne High School in 2002, Ekunwe attended Southwest Minnesota State University, where he studied radio and television, and eventually headed farther west, settling in Las Vegas with his brother, Joshua, four years ago.