Beyond the Barriers

Pursuing one’s artistic call is a luxury even for healthy people with decent jobs, let alone for those with disabilities. That is why all great art communities flourish when civilizations peak and citizens have secured their basic needs. When these basic needs are fulfilled, human beings tend to pursue higher values in life.
However, there are people with disabilities defying this fact. Not only are they pursuing art, but they are also using it to heal others. EBR’s Lidya Yohannes has explored the growing power of art on healing people with disabilities and their successes in the face of challenges and obstacles.

Abel Mulugeta, 12, is among students at the special needs class at Lebne Dingil Public School when Katim Disability Dance and Artistry, an inclusive dance team, came to the school two years ago. The team embarked on treating students with disabilities using unique tools like dance therapy. Abel, who was initially very aloof, had a speech impairment problem, and became emotionally disturbed whenever communicating with people, has now changed by leaps and bounds. Over a year into the dance therapy with Katim’s team, he has significantly improved speech, friends, communicates more clearly, and is actively engaged in the classroom. Abel is one example of how using art and creative teaching methodologies can play a significant role in teaching children with disabilities. But beyond using art to heal, a number of persons with disability are pushing the boundaries to become artists.

Amanuel Solomon is Leader of Katim, an inclusive group with 43 disabled and non-disabled members. Amanuel mentioned Abel as an example of how using music and dance to teach children with disabilities brings impressive improvement both physically and mentally. “These activities boost their confidence, minimize the time it takes to train with the assistive devices, inspires to dream bigger, and work to attain those dreams. Society perceives people with disabilities as unable to perform art. We are proving that that perception is wrong.” The team plans to work with both public and private schools, rehabilitation centers, government institutions, and NGOs by creating inclusive workshops and programs.

Amanuel has organized two editions of the inclusive art festival Enchilalen, which translates to “we can,” in December 2019 and April 2021. One of the major goals of these festivals is to create awareness. In the first edition, 90Pct of the invited guests were non-disabled. Over 700 people were in audience to enjoy greetings in different languages by deaf children, followed by music, poetry, theater, short story performances, and speeches. One of the most intriguing parts of the festival was that members of the audience and honored guests, including renowned artists like Serawit Fikre and Fantu Mandoye, used wheelchairs and different assistive devices during the event to familiarize themselves, albeit for moments, with the experiences of persons with disabilities (PwDs).

The second edition of the festival also had diversified performances. But an additional important message was relayed by organizers on the streets of Addis regarding the negative effect illegal markets have on people with disabilities, the elderly, and pregnant women as well as on our environment. On top of the inadequate infrastructure within Ethiopia, illegal markets in Addis Ababa hoard pedestrian walkways, hindering PwDs’ movement. This crisis was artfully displayed through a contemporary dance performance in Megenangna and Piassa, two of the most crowded and illegal market prone areas of the city. Similar to the first festival, organizers encouraged non-disabled pedestrians to try out wheelchairs to get an insight into the daily life of a PwD, be aware of the differences, and gain a new perspective.

Amanuel says their team came to life because of the training they received from their mentor and teacher, Tadese Gebriel, also known as Jackson. Jackson is a renowned dancer and impersonator of Michael Jackson’s moves. Amanuel says “he was the one who trained us, believed in us, and supported us in many ways, even covering our transportation costs from his pocket at times.” Jackson also used to organize inclusive festivals a few years back in collaboration with the National Cultural Center. These festivals were discontinued when the center dissolved into other departments.

Amanuel and his team generate their own funding from different events and sponsors. One organization they previously worked with in regards to sports and school activities is Dires for Development Charitable Association which focuses on using sports as a tool to improve the lives of PwDs and help them integrate with society. Previously, the association used to get funding from different international organizations but only one remains currently, pushing them to work on making their organization sustainable.

“The main challenge that people with disabilities face is accessibility issues, especially when it comes to cultural and art centers. Many PwDs engage in different arts but have no outlet venues to perform or showcase their works. Lack of funds is another major issue,” said Mamo Tesema, General Manager of Dires.

Another well-renowned figure who has travelled far in the Ethiopian art industry is Brook Yeshitila, whose disability allows him to only move his hands. He uses mixed media like paint, broken glasses, eggshells, and many more to make his deep and expressive artworks. Since his first exhibition in 2018/9, Brook has had seven solo exhibitions, fifteen group exhibitions, and one international exhibition.

Brook’s work, life, and achievements are inspiring for all, with or without disabilities.

Brook says being a youngster in this time has many challenges and advises to not let the challenges change our core identity. “The main challenge to artists with disabilities comes from the prejudice and stigma in society. Many attach a sense of sympathy and charity when they experience and buy their artwork. It becomes about their disability instead of the artwork which is the most important thing for any artist.” Even though Brook had the support of his family, he believes that most families in society don’t support their children with disabilities to be involved in creative and artistic activities as they fear the judgment of others.

For his first exhibition, in what Brook calls “life changing,” he was supported by an NGO called Ethiopian National Disability Action Network (ENDAN). This organization organized an exhibition exclusively by artists with disability and included Brook and two other artists, Artist Afework Mengestu and Artist Alem Tesfaye. The exhibition held in 2018/9 was one of the first exhibitions exclusively presented by artists with disabilities. The exhibition had a huge impact and was an inspiration for many.

Brook sees international institutions like the British Council, Goethe Institute, Italian Cultural Institute, and Alliance Ethio-Francais as the ones providing significant support to artists in general. “The government should support artists with policies and subsidies as well as work with relevant NGOs and associations to set up a platform where artists can showcase their works. This will lead to developing an inclusive and fair artist community in Ethiopia which could be exemplary for the rest of Africa as well.”

Brook always finds alternative ways of attaining his goals whenever faced with barriers and challenges. “They must find alternative ways to achieve their vision and not to change their vision every time they are faced with challenges. One of the positive things that technology has brought through social media is a medium to promote our works, attain visibility, and earn a living from the international market. We make our future by being in the present and working from the inside and emerging from our identity. Art lives in everything. Although many people consider it as a luxury and something secondary, art is in our daily lives and if accepted and used properly could heal us in many ways.”

The national prevalence of PwDs in Ethiopia is at 17.6Pct, as per surveys conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO). As per UNICEF’s 2015/6 report, 2.2 million of the total PwDs in Ethiopia have very profound difficulties. Over 47,000 PwDs in Addis Ababa were also under a severe disability problem, while it is 342,000 in other urban areas of the country. The World Bank and WHO estimated that around 1 billion, 15Pct of the global population currently live with some form of disability, and about 80Pct of them live in developing countries where rehabilitation services are poor or non-existent. In Ethiopia, 95Pct of all persons with disabilities are estimated to live in poverty.

Government has been providing support to 412,867 PwDs as of 2019/20, according to the National Planning and Development Commission (NPDC) data. This is far from the close to 17 million PwDs in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Urban Development and Construction (MoUDC) states that it plans to include 689,195 PwDs into the urban SafetyNet program, up from the 78,739 as per an evaluation report in 2017.

At the federal level, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) is the main governmental organ responsible for the provision of social and vocational rehabilitation of people with disabilities. “This directorate was only formed a couple of years ago with the new reform. The issue was previously overlooked for long and serious work needs to be done by all of the responsible offices,” said Asalifew Ahmedin, Director of the Disability Affairs Directorate at MoLSA.

The main gaps in government institutions claiming to work with PwDs, is that there are no specific offices or officials allotted to work on the needs of people with disabilities. Service standards also lack. For example, accessibility of cultural and art centers is a major problem. One possible solution could be to dedicate an office or position that will focus on the required services for PwDs and report to the federal level. Policies, laws, and standards also have to be given due attention.

There are numerous domestic and foreign institutions and organizations claiming to work on PwDs in Ethiopia. But in actuality, very little action and funds are trickling down to the ground level. Government also needs to place standards and evaluation mechanisms to control their performance as per their pledges. EBR

9th Year • Jun 16 – July 15 2021 • No. 99


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