As Ethiopia develops, are its 5 million disabled people being left behind?

Ethiopia is often seen as one of Africa’s economic success stories, but that growth is not benefitting everyone. Hana Worku talks to blind lawyer and disabilities advocate, Yetnebersh Nigussie, about the gap between good intentions and reality

29 April 2017 // Hana Worku

Bustling with around 4 million people, Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a city so brimming with life it can sometimes it feels as though it’s bursting at the seams. Crossing rush hour traffic on foot can be harrowing, even for able-bodied people, and, despite the introduction of a new light-rail commuter train, there is insufficient public transport to meet demand. For those not able to stand for long periods of time in lines, those who cannot to cross the street unguided, and those who struggle to follow rapid directions yelled out from bus assistants, getting around is an even greater challenge.  

I met up with the lawyer and activist Yetnebersh Nigussie at her office to discuss the realities of having a disability in Ethiopia.  Nigussie, an internationally-recognised activist, has done her best not to be held back by her disability. She qualified as a lawyer and currently works as a senior inclusion advisor at Light For The World, an organisation which provides accessible eye care services and empowers people with disabilities in 15 countries across the world.

Yetnebers Nigussie

Yetnebersh Nigussie. Photographer: Didier Casagrande.

Nigussie sits squarely across from me and starts by chiding me for being late – after my appointment she has a meeting at one of the European embassies. I was keen to learn just what provisions there are for Ethiopians living with some kind of disability who, according to the WHO World Report on Disabilities from 2011, make up 17.6% of the population.

There are major challenges capturing accurate and reliable statistical information on persons with disabilities in Ethiopia, including: inadequate categorisation of disability; the unwillingness of parents to disclose that they have a child or family member with a disability; and the exclusion of some regions from the surveys due to undisclosed security reasons. Despite the challenges of data collection, Nigussie says Ethiopia has a “very favourable policy environment” with “some of the most progressive legislation in terms of disability”.  She recites the various legislation and protections, listing employment laws, building codes, tax proclamations, and international conventions and treaties, faster than I can write.

“I would classify Ethiopia as a state who has the willingness but not the capacity [for disability inclusion]”

But, as is often the case, policy doesn’t match up to practice, and the reality outside Nigussie’s office doesn’t reflect the legislation. Nigussie anticipated my question about this and answers readily: “I would classify Ethiopia as a state who has the willingness but not the capacity [for disability inclusion].”

She gives the example of a maternal health centre built to help meet the Millennium Development Goals, which though it provided free or low-cost services, was inaccessible for disabled mothers. Nigussie argues that if Ethiopia really wants to make progress towards the new Sustainable Development Goals, it needs “a disability adviser at a high level [in government] and to make sure all ministries have a disability focal point”.

The lack of oversight extends beyond healthcare. The high-rise apartments built to house Addis’ rapidly growing population often have very poor disabled access.  Currently, the government circumvents this by offering the ground floor to anyone who wins the lot and has a disability. This is not a long-term solution Nigussie says, reminding me of what most of us never consider: that temporary or permanent limitations can develop at any time – from an old person suffering a stroke to a young person getting in an accident.  When this occurs, individuals become unnecessarily isolated. “He will never be able to interact with people, he will never be able to go to the shop.  She will never be able to go the market, she will not be able to go to school,” Nigussie says.

“The good news is there’s much Ethiopia can learn from other African countries”

A local contractor, who preferred not to be named, told me that the building code does stipulate that elevators and wheelchair ramps must be included in a design for it to be approved. But many builders simply ignore the requirements once construction starts. “It’s a problem of attitude,” he said, echoing Nigussie on the broad change to culture that has to follow from good policy.

The good news is that there are plenty examples from other African states of practical ways Ethiopia can include its disabled population. Nigussie points to Kenya, Uganda and South Africa as leaders in this area.  In Cape Town, the local government offers subsidies for taxi drivers to focus on transporting populations that may need more time, guidance or special treatment due to disability.  The city has also prioritised obtaining buses that follow the rules of universal design.  

Perhaps, as some will certainly argue, that given the total population of 99.4 million, the persistent challenges of food insecurity, access to water, energy or work, that the government has to prioritise; or that, given the pace of economic growth, change will inevitably come for the estimated 5 million Ethiopians living with disabilities. But the question we must all ask ourselves is this: if new infrastructure projects which have become the pride of the nation are not accessible to all Ethiopians, what does it really say about the stage of development our country is at?  

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