One in seven Ethiopians has a disability. In Ethiopia, disability is generally considered to be a curse, so families as well as communities discriminate against people with disabilities. In the past, only 0.7 percent of disabled people in Ethiopia have had access to an education. This situation has been changing as education for the disabled in Ethiopia is becoming more and more inclusive.

The 2011 World Report on Disability states that attitudes toward disabilities have been shifting “from a medical understanding towards a social understanding.” Today, inclusive education is no longer an amenity but the target approach to education in both developed and developing countries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2009 Guidelines on Inclusion in Education state: “Inclusive education is essential to achieve social equity and is a constituent element of lifelong learning.” This means that inclusive education is not a marginal issue but is a necessary component of a quality education for all learners and the development of inclusive societies.

Inclusive education means that marginalized and mainstream children are schooled together unless that approach does not provide an education of equal quality. Some services, such as physical rehabilitation or learning Braille and sign language, can still be provided outside the mainstream classroom when necessary. Marginalized children are not just children with disabilities but have been excluded due to gender, HIV and AIDS, ethnicity, language, religion, economic status and social standing.

Inclusive education is a challenge in both developed and developing countries. It requires changes in a community’s attitude, educational system and finances. It is also strongly linked to the Education for All goals and the Millennium Development Goals. In order to achieve these goals, attention must not only be paid to ensuring that all children attend school, but that they are also provided a quality education. Children who are excluded are not receiving an education of good quality.

The Ethiopian government recognizes the significant role of education in reducing poverty and sustaining economic growth. It is committed to accomplishing the EFA goals and the MDGs. In 1994, the government established an education and training policy with an overall goal of including all citizens in active participation in the community and society. Aligned with the Ethiopian constitution, the policy promotes inclusive education.

In 2009, UNESCO noted that Ethiopia had made considerable progress in reaching the EFA goals but also noted a gap in the ability to provide access to all children. It noted these specific barriers to realizing inclusive education: lack of knowledge about diversity, inadequate preparation of teachers and educational leaders, poor teaching methods, inflexible curriculum, inappropriate learning equipment, insufficient needs identification and inadequate assessment procedures. These gaps resulted in obliging students with special needs to adapt to the schools instead of adapting schools to the needs of the students.

These gaps also pointed out the need to adjust community attitudes, educational services and financial priorities in order to succeed at inclusion. In 2005, Rehabilitation and Prevention Initiative Against Disability, an organization that works to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, began providing services in Ethiopia that address these three needs. RAPID provides community based services that focus on changing negative community attitudes and supporting children and youth with disabilities to participate as equal members of the community and contribute to the economy.

RAPIDs programs operate on four essential principles in order to realize effective inclusion of children and youth with disabilities:

1. Provide comprehensive physical rehabilitation to serve the poorest children and youth
2. Create programs and projects that help schools to ensure inclusion
3. Lead awareness raising activities that help communities learn about the causes and effects of disability and advocate for government implementation of existing policies regarding disability issues
4. Develop opportunities for youth with disabilities and their families to enter mainstream sources of employment

Since its inception in Ethiopia, RAPID has made progress on many fronts. These are some of the highlights as of 2013:

The community based rehabilitation programs have reached 450,000 people in four cities in the Arsi Zone of the Oromia Region.

  • Staff estimated that nearly 80 percent of the communities served are not only aware of disability issues but also recognize the abilities of people with disabilities.
  • Health centers provide free treatment for people with disabilities.
    The government funds a bus that transports people to rehabilitation services.
  • Accessibility of health centers has improved with sign language training so staff can communicate with deaf people.
  • During 2012, 210 people launched income-generating businesses.
    In 2009, all parents who were given a loan and training to earn a sustainable income and support their children to go to school reported earning a better income.

In these ways, schools in the Arsi Zone of the Oromia area of Ethiopia are adapting to the needs of the children and youth with disabilities. Ethiopia is on its way to removing the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from obtaining the common services of not only education but also healthcare, employment, transportation and information.

Janet Quinn

Sources: CBM, Inclusive Education in Action, WHO, IBE
Photo: USAID