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An on-going plight for people with disabilities

An on-going plight for people with disabilities

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Addis Ababa is not convenient for people with disabilities. Living in a modern era, one can argue tyhat every design of public spaces need to incorporate every aspect of the society. Continuous growth in Ethiopia’s social make-up demands the inclusion of the less unfortunate with disabilities and their access to enjoy different amenities or services rendered. Representing about 17 percent of the country, people with disabilities find it hard to access basic services are, to a large extent, neglected, explores Senait Feseha.

An on-going plight for people with disabilities


Cities are the greatest inventions of mankind. Complex organisms generated by the collective minds of humans, for humans. However, more than a hundred thousand Ethiopians live in cities that are not designed for them. Even though it has been more than a decade since legislations and standards made it to the construction arena; designers, planners and developers are not ready to prevent human limitations and barriers in the built-up environment.

For the hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in the capital, the access that most take for granted is difficult, or achievable through prior arrangements or assistance from others. Independent access to transportation, employment and other faculties is restricted.

While the term ‘accessibility’ paints a mental picture of someone using a wheelchair, or a visually impaired person, for many accessibility is not just about those with registered disabilities or impairments. 

Disability is not a rare condition that affects only certain minorities. In a way, almost everyone is physically disabled; almost all face accessibility issues at a certain point in their lives. Chronic illnesses, unexpected accidents, sporting injuries, and the inevitable aging are common occurrences. As such, designing for the majority means planning for people with different types of disabilities and abilities.

For a built environment to be called high performing, many believe that it should ensure comfort and accessibility for all its end-users. Naturally, this is backed by a series of standards and legislations. But despite its promise, modern day Addis fails to help all its users. A large portion of its infrastructure is developed for typical non-disabled users, by “able-bodied” project developers and designers..

Melaku Tekle, executive director for Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development, spoke about inclusive design. “A good design is inclusive.” In addition to being accessible, inclusive design takes everyone’s need into consideration. “The need of individuals with disability concurs with the needs of the mass majority. If the design is comfortable for people with disability, it’s definitely comfortable for everyone.”

Yet, most architects and contractors are still uncomfortable with the idea of inclusive design, and some are hesitant to take risks that come with proposing “unrealistic, extravagant schemes” to clients and employers.

Tihtina Abay, an architect in the Real Estate industry argues that unfair amount of blame is put on designers and builders, “It’s a tough business decision to design for people with disabilities in our country. As employees, most of us will follow the developer’s specific request or else we risk losing the client to another professional. Concerned government entities should claim responsibility in imposing strict regulations.”

Familiar with the blame shifting that has been going on, Melaku and his team, while giving trainings and collecting data throughout the city, had encountered several service providers that were not ready to acknowledge the need of accessibility in public spaces such as ramps, elevators, wide entrances and the likes. “They said that ‘disabled customers don’t use our services’ or disabled customers are not within our target group.”

“Leaving the issues of morality and law behind, project developers are making a mistake of turning away profits. People with disabilities— representing around seventeen percent of Ethiopian population— have a noteworthy amount of spending power. They make up a market size of a small country and developers, business owners and the government are losing about five percent of the country’s GDP,” Melaku said referencing on “The Price of Exclusion” by the ILO.

Modifications made to meet building codes and regulations are much more expensive when compared to buildings that are designed to be accessible right from the initial design process. “

Most things are not cost implacable when they are right from the beginning.”

In response to some claims that a building that is accessible is less likely to be aesthetically pleasing, Melaku countered that buildings can be aesthetic without compromising functionality.

“Personally, I think the Marriot Executive Apartments is visually pleasing as well as accessible. I think it serves as a great example for other service providers.”

Yetnebersh Niggusie, a lawyer, an advocate for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Light for the World's Senior Inclusion Advisor, explained further on accessibility, starting from media design, to architectural and urban design considerations.

“Accessible design is a tool used to address the need of people with disability; its goal is creating a barrier free environment. Barriers can be found in buildings, such as the lack of ramps or elevators, or lack of proper signage or tactile paths in public spaces.  She discussed how contents from media outlets such as TV shows are unregulated; “it is common to find TV shows that are not viewer-friendly, and no considerations are made for those with intellectual disabilities, no captions for those with hearing impairments.”

“Although we have building code proclamations guaranteeing equally accessible infrastructure, there are no evident regulations and enforcements being made,” she said.

“Ironically, government owned buildings such as kebeles offices, schools and the like do not set proper examples for other developers; which by itself is robbing us ways of self-expression,” Yetnebersh said.

As Melaku added, inclusive design has not been put into application throughout the city, important signage is missing, physical barriers like trash bins and trees are found amidst tactile pathways on sidewalks, and confusions are always created by the audio-aids found on road crossings.

Accordingly, many individuals with disabilities rarely leave their homes, have access to standard education or find significant employment. The absence of these accessible infrastructures further segregates people with disabilities.

Yetnebersh referenced Bedesta Building, (head office of Light for the World, Ethiopia) as one of the most exemplary buildings in the city. “The building has ramps; the flooring is not slippery and the elevator is equipped with a braille system.” While mentioning that some buildings have an existing ramp, the ramps are often misused for plants and other barriers. Yetnebersh appreciated some efforts put by service providers like Yeha Building, which has accessible bathrooms and an elevator equipped with audio; Yod Abyssinia and Lucy Restaurant for having menus that are written with the braille.

To promote accessibility in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD) collaborated with Light for the World to prepare a “guide to accessible Ethiopia”. The purpose of the project was to assess the accessibility of selected public buildings and services in Ethiopia for persons with disabilities including: hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, shopping places, medical services, tour and travel services, museums and recreational centres among other establishments. The guide was and still is the first to provide accessibility and information on buildings and services in the major towns throughout Ethiopia serving both locals and visitors with or without a disability. This first of its kind project was awarded an innovative project award by Zero Project, based in Vienna, Austria.