Children with physical and mental disabilities experience personal limitations in the social, psychological and economic spheres, some of which can be alleviated with parental, community and governmental support. Some say that the critical task is developing and maintaining a focus on abilities rather than on disabilities, then honing those abilities to provide the greatest degree of personal autonomy. In Ethiopia, though there is a policy framework, disabled children face immense difficulties, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
“Imagine, when you envision a lawyer, what do you see? Do you see a woman? Is that the first thing that comes to mind? How about someone using a wheelchair? Do you see someone who is deaf and signing? Or even, do you see someone who is nice?”
This is an excerpt taken from the speech of Haben Girma—the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard University Law School— while making her Tedx Talk in 2014. The Eritrean-American Haben, who captivated the whole world with an inspiring story, is a sign of hope and persistence even in one’s darkest moments. In her speech, she gives an insight, which is overlooked, and the journey that should be taken to bend possible mainstream rules in impossible situations.
“My disability is deaf-blindness. Helen Keller paved a path of possibilities for deaf-blind children and adults who came after her. These individuals need to move forward as pioneers, in a world designed for people who can see and hear. Many members of minority groups move forward as pioneers.”
Born from Eritrean immigrants and being deaf-blind she defied the mainstream expectation of not being able to make it in a world designed for able-bodied people. She enrolled in Oakland public school district in California and talking about her childhood she acknowledges her privilege that provided her the luxury of being a child and a student. Her teachers did not say she has to learn braille and rather introduced her to the love of reading with braille through playing a game of Guess the Dots.
Through the help of a flexible system she even learned how to dance, how to ski, how to cook and other extracurricular activities. She even became a celebrity where she met US President Barack Obama. At the White House Haben was seen talking to Obama one on one, telling him that “technology can bridge the gap for people with disabilities.”
She is one of the success stories. Her story was able to capture many people’s ear, inspire a community and attract the attention of the mainstream media. This is a privilege for someone coming from Ethiopia. A huge number of disabled people are on the street begging without there being any opportunity. Unfortunately, for many being disabled is seen as a “curse” from God.
Though it is associated as a “curse” in the traditional Ethiopian teaching, many disabled people were able to reach the higher level of education. In that regard, many of them were able to defy the odds and become successful professionals.
However, this seems to be interrupted with the introduction of a “modern education” system that could not provide alternative techniques for disabled children.
There are so many students who have never learned brail or sign language or have never learned mathematics because the schools did not have teachers. This worry is deeply felt by Halima Awol, who has a son, Osman Reshad, 8, who is deaf and has speech impairment.
According to Halima, Osman was diagnosed with hearing impairment at the age of three. Though they did not know if he was able to talk they decided not to rush enrolling him to the special education school.
The reason for that was, if he learns to communicate well using sign language he might resist talking. So they waited for some time and they heard about Yekatit 23—a school that follows an inclusive education policy and enrolls deaf students together with other students.
They were happy in getting this opportunity and enrolled him in kindergarten. He started picking up sign language but could not communicate when he gets home. “For almost six months this situation confused him. We did not know how to communicate using sign language,” Halima says.
They wanted to be a part of his life. So they started taking a course on how to communicate using sign language. Though they wanted to support him, according to Halima, the school was problematic because they brought together every kind of disabled children and mix them with adults.
“There were many adults as far as up to 40 years old with an intellectual disability problem and also mental situations. Mixing these children with adults is problematic. What makes it worse is that some of them get violent. This was a very scary situation for a child,” Halima says.
In addition to that, when Osman was promoted to 1st grade, the situation started to change. He started facing teachers who did not learn sign language. Halima says that they left these children in the dark where they do not understand when a paragraph is read out loud, when homework is given and instructions for exams are dictated.
“They are not learning. Osman sometimes struggles by himself to read the books but he cannot understand everything by himself,” Halima says.
Halima, who is also a member of the Parents and Teacher’s Committee, is involved in her child’s affairs. Together with concerned teachers and parents, Halima took the issue of access to sign language to the school officials, the woreda, sub-city and the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, they did not get a satisfactory answer.
“Most of the parents are not interested in the education of these children. This is a dumping site for the parents so they can be out of their sight and many officials see these students as a burden,” Halima says.
The Ethiopian Deaf Association offers free sign language classes and gives transportation money for those who want to take the classes but, according to Halima, most parents with deaf children do not want to learn sign language. In that regard, these children do not receive the necessary support from the school and their parents.
Proud of her son’s effort, she says that his spirit is breaking by the day since most of the teachers do not know sign language and even those who know sign language do not know how to teach mathematics, science and other subjects.
“I know he is a smart kid but he is not learning at all,” Halima says.
Though Halima offers to help, he is a proud child who persists in not needing help from his mother. However, nowadays his sister seems to get involved in his world where they are collectively supporting him to excel.
Osman is one of a kind to actually have this support but in that school there are grade eight students who cannot do basic writing or reading. Alem Geremew is one of the teachers in Yekati 23. She says that it breaks her heart to see the situation of the children.
According to Alem, to begin with; the school was designed for able-bodied and disabled children to learn separately. This situation was not welcoming for disabled children who were mocked, teased and bullied by the other children.
So the school introduced an inclusive education strategy in such a way that children with and without disabilities can participate and learn together in the same class. With that in place, they hoped that in the future they can integrate in society easily.
According to Alem, countries follow an inclusive education policy in order to bring children in an environment where every child is valued equally and deserves the same opportunities and experiences.
Alem strongly believes that the initial motive was a good one but the practice went wrong. According to Alem, the school wanted to fit children with disabilities in a school system that is designed for children without disabilities. There was no inclusive system without specially designed materials or resources for these children. Alem says that deaf children are visual learners so supporting their lessons with various models, videos and photographs, which are necessary. However, the school did not have that.
According to Alem, an inclusive education system focuses on an individual education plan, which sees the children’s capability and needs so that they can participate in a meaningful way.
It is not only the resources that are the difficulties. Another tough task is the sign language. The Ministry of Education allocates most teachers without considering what the situation at the school is. In this school’s case, the teachers neither knew sign language nor had trainings on special care for students with intellectual disabilities.
Some teachers make extra efforts in learning sign language or learn how to care for children with disabilities but in most of the cases Alem says that many teachers are not interested in making that extra effort by learning sign language.
“This is a denial of their right to get proper education. The Ethiopian Constitution declares that children have a right to learn in their own language. And for these children sign language is their language; however, it became a privilege in giving them that,” Alem says.
The other issues are related to books, which are homogenous to every group. The books have long passages, and when it comes to mathematics, physics and chemistry, the teachers, who even know sign language, do not have the concept of teaching these subjects using sign language.
Sadly, Alem says that many students cannot write and read and one of the proofs was that out of 13 deaf students, who took the eighth grade national exam, only two passed.
According to Alem, when they were children it was easier to make them understand by bringing practical examples such as vegetables to show them practical demonstration but when subjects started to get complicated there are no literatures that guide teachers.
When it comes to intellectual disabilities, the situation is worse since their level is not revised by experts. Most of them could not take care of themselves and that escalated the problem. Alem boldly says that for the intellectual disabilities this became a place to spend their day; not a school to learn something new.
“There was supposed to be a strategy which is designed to help these students so they can be able to help themselves and support themselves in the future. That is not implemented yet,” Alem says.
This year the school has been renovated and moved temporarily to Dagmawi Birhan School, which resulted in suffocating students. In addition, noise from nearby classes interrupts the learning process. In addition to that, according to Alem, the sitting arrangement for deaf students, which has to be U-shaped so they can see one another’s sign language, matter a lot but since the class is very narrow the sitting arrangements prevents them from interacting.
Furthermore, this school does not have access to students with physical impairments. Like many of the buildings in Addis Ababa, the school building, the bathroom and also the classrooms are not easily accessible for students with physical impairment.
The universal accessibility standard states that stairs should have handrails on the side, the upper one being 90cm and the lower one being 70 cm from the floor. Ramp should provide direct access to the buildings. Many of them are forced to use the bathrooms while lying or putting their hand on a bathroom seat or on the floor in an undignified and uncomfortable way.
They requested these problems to be rectified, which was received with harsh criticism by school officials as they said that it is luxurious. Teklay Belete, who went to Abiyot Kirs, remembers these issues. A man who walks with the help of crutches suffered a lot when it comes to using the lavatory. In addition to that, the treatment they received from the guards and some teachers was not proper. He refrained from drinking water in order not to go to the bathroom, which he says was a nightmare. When he had to go to use the facilities, he had a lot of shameful experiences. In addition to the bathroom, the classrooms were not comfortable and he recalls that he had a severe concussion on many occasions. One time he had to repeat sixth grade because of a severe concussion. A teacher in one of the private schools says that it is still painful to bring up those memories. “My parents did not care if I learned. I pushed so hard and it was painful. One new guard taught I was a beggar and hit me with a stick. Though I had good friends, there were mean children who named me names. It was just dark and I don’t want children to pass through what I passed through,” Teklay says.
Though it is painful for many disabled people, Mussie Tilahun, communications director at the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development, says that the Ethiopian government is progressing with special education and inclusive education policy.
A strategy was implemented in 2004 regarding the inclusion policy that identified the need for favorable climate for disabled students, access to resources and the need for special education departments in higher learning institutions.
The country also ratified and implemented many international conventions including United Nations Conventions on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 and is part of Ethiopia’s Constitution.
Though he appreciates the country’s strategy and policy, he says that the practicability is disappointingly minimal.
He mentions a 2013 abstract from the Ethiopian Ministry of Education regarding the enrollment of students. According to the abstract, 18 million students are in school and from this number only 70 thousand students are disabled.
According to Mussie, the number of disabled children in Ethiopia is estimated to be 1.8 million, which makes the number of disabled children in schools only four percent.
There are many reasons for that including the lack of access to the strategy and the policy regarding inclusive education and the shortage of equipped expertise regarding inclusive education. He says that in the report, which was issued by the Ministry of Education, 2,000 people are trained with special needs education in the country.
Mussie doubts the approaches of the training, which he says is only theoretical. He says that many of them do not know how to read braille or use sign language. In most of the cases Mussie says that there is integration rather than inclusiveness. “We twist these children to fit the world of the non-disabled children,” he says. Regarding resources, he says that many of the schools do not have braille writings, braille slates, abacus and canes.
In addition to that, he says that many handicapped children are forced to drop out from school or suffer from the unfavorable environment, and sometimes are forced not to urinate, leading them to be diagnosed with kidney failures.
The first blind school in Ethiopia was established in 1924 around Piazza and in the 1960s the Sebeta School for the Blind followed. Currently, it has expanded and there is a special need education courses at university level.
According to Mussie, former president Negaso Gidada’s father is one of the first persons to actually learn using braile. In the early 1990s the Government of Finland contributed in supporting special needs education in Ethiopia but it is still lagging behind.
According to Mussie, the first step is parents’ involvement in disabled children’s learning process.
There are specialized schools for blind students in the country namely: Sebeta, Wolaita Sodo, Shashemene and Gondar Kidane Mihret. For deaf students, there are specialized schools in Hosanna, Shinshicho, Aleta Wondo, and in the Tigray Regional State.
When it comes to inclusive education policy Mussie mentions the German Church School that teaches blind students with other students. According to Mussie, this is one of the good schools that were able to bring resources and involve blind students in extracurricular activities. Though Mussie appreciates the initiative, he says that there should be a lot of work that should be done to give access to and fulfill the right to education for people, which is being totally neglected.