Education was my only emancipator in life

In a country where disability is perceived as inability by many, there are few people who demystify this old established stereotype. Indeed Yetnebersh Nigussie is one among these very few brave personalities. The 35 years old advocate of human rights, inclusiveness and gender equality lost her eyesight at the age of five. 

However, her disability has never deterred her from moving up in education. It did little to stop her from rising to global prominence. It indeed didn’t hamper her from achieving her dreams and aspirations, and making contributions to the betterment of societies.

Yetnebersh has always been vocal about issues of rights and exercised leadership since she was a teenage girl. While attending secondary school, she had also been vocal through different clubs. Later, when she joined the Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 2001, where she studied law, Yetnebersh’s extracurricular activities expanded. She chaired the AAU Anti-AIDS movement for several years. She later founded AAU’s Female Students Association in 2006 and served as its first president. Yetnebersh who also holds a master’s degree in Social Work promotes human rights fearlessly pushing for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) as well as women. She is an outstanding advocate of the rights of PWDs enshrined in the UN Convention.

Over the years Yetnebersh has received a number of national and international awards one of which being the AMANITARE award which she received in 2003 in South Africa for her strong advocacy work for girls’ education. Yetnebersh was recently named a joint winner of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award, the “Alternative Nobel Prize” sharing the honor with Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismavilova, Colins Gonsalves, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, and American environmental lawyer  Robert Bilott. EBR’s Mikiyas Tesfaye sat down with Yetnebersh to talk about her journey in life. 

EBR: Congratulations for being a joint winner of the 2017 Right Livelihood Award, “the Alternative Nobel Prize.” What are you planning to do with the latest prize and recognition for all your efforts?

Yetnebersh: I am going to use the award money, roughly USD118,000 to support the provision of education for girls with disabilities. Globally, I will work with, Light for the World, an international disability and development organization, I am working for. So, half of the award money will go to projects that are implemented by Light for the World. The organization runs a program called “One Class for All,” an integrated classroom and is currently being implemented in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso in Africa.

The other half of the money will be used in Ethiopia through the National Association of Ethiopian Women with Disabilities and Enat Bank. I really believe the most precious gift one can give is education. And access to education to girls with disabilities becomes difficult in Ethiopia. So we are in talks with Enat Bank to establish a scholarship program, with the aim of putting in place economic empowerment schemes for mothers of kids with disabilities.

My focus on education is because it was my only emancipator in life. And I can only promote what I have tasted. I am very humbled by the support of Ethiopians here at home and abroad. And while deserved, this ad-faced award has motivated me to do even more, linking disability not only to a charity but also a viable business model.

Ethiopia, and particularly the capital Addis Ababa is going through construction boom. What do you think of the attention given to safety of pedestrians, especially to persons with disabilities (PWDs)? 

I would like to classify this issue into two. First, what is the impact for the general public? Addis has quite so many pedestrians. But, the development endeavours consider mostly drivers, cars and other means of transportation. Though there are so many pedestrians, they are the least considered when it comes to safety. Most of the budget goes to building roads for cars. So, the low level of attention given to pedestrians is a general problem.

Secondly, when you look at the safety challenges faced by persons with disabilities, and how they cope with the rapidly growing infrastructure projects in Addis, we can see it from the standard of roads and sidewalks. For instance, the road designated as Comoros Street near British Embassy is a good example when it comes to accessibility for disabled people. It has an elevated structure easily felt by a visually impaired person with cane and has colour combination and accessible ramp for a person who uses a wheelchair. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find the same type of roads in many parts of the city.

There is also the case of high-rise buildings sprouting across the city. Even though the Building Code instructs public buildings to be accessible to disabled people, the institution in charge of this is well behind action. As a result, you see, even the government, violating its own laws when constructing multi-storey buildings for woredas [lowest administrative units in Ethiopia/equivalent to counties in many countries] without considering issues of accessibility for disabled people.

Putting legal procedures in place only would not make change happen. We need to come up with proper institutions to make sure that these laws are implemented. It’s important to consider if the country has sufficient resources for the implementation of the regulations. Ethiopia is very rich with laws that promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, there is a low level of awareness about the laws. This is on top of the poor institutional capacity of the country to execute the laws.

How do you evaluate the considerations of private businesses to meet the needs of persons with disabilities? 

In general, the image for persons with disabilities in the country is dark; many associate disability with just begging. When it comes to specific sectors like hotels, most of them do not even think that persons with disabilities have the power to purchase their services.

Most hotels have ramps, which we call the ‘suicide ramp’. Since the ramp is so steep, it may cause people on wheelchairs further damages. Some of them were originally built for transporting suitcases. How can one see a world that respects suitcases and does not recognize disabled people as customers?

At a personal or family level, do you think inclusion and accessibility are given proper attention for persons with disabilities in Ethiopia? 

Most people who are building their homes usually do not really put a lot of thought to the future. Since aging and disability are highly interlinked, when you construct a home, you need to make sure that the house is built considering the needs of senior citizens who will likely face a range of disabilities and health complications.

While disability is a possibility for all, quite so many people do not think they will get disabled at any given moment in their life. And once getting disabled, most people find it difficult to accept their situations. They usually feel there isn’t life afterwards. So, it is wise to construct homes with considerations of accessibility for all including disabled people.

There is a misconception and prejudice towards investing in accessibility because people think it’s expensive. But, it only becomes expensive when we do not plan it ahead. A recent study in the US showed that it costs less than 1Pct of the total expense to incorporate accessibility facilities in buildings if planned ahead.

As the agrarian based economy is growing and starting to diversify into the service and industry sectors, how can Ethiopia ensure inclusion and employment of persons with disabilities? 

In 2008, a proclamation that promotes the diverse interests of persons with disabilities was approved by the Parliament. The proclamation states disability is a cross-cutting responsibility for all. Ethiopia is making efforts to ensure all development programs are inclusive for persons with disabilities and there is the political commitment. There is also specific proclamation which requires persons with disabilities to be hired as long as they meet the requirements.

There is social security for disabled people in some regions. But when it comes to budget cuts, it’s these funds that are readily axed. Ethiopia is in a promising legal framework era. But we need to bring back the quota system, which I do not think is a charity, in hiring PWDs in every institution. We need to revisit our laws, empower PWDs to effectively ensure inclusion in employment.

Let’s talk about technologies and their role to scale up inclusion of people with disabilities

I think technology is unquestionably the best equalizer. I do my own phone calls, emails and technology has significantly helped people with disabilities to have a relatively better and independent life style. Especially in a poor country like Ethiopia, where PWDs cannot hire help for every need they have, or where the government cannot provide assistance, I think technology can bridge the gap, it provides the means to increased self reliance. User-friendly and affordable technologies are also crucial not to be left behind in today’s fast moving world. In this social media age, PDWs need to use technology to socialize as well. It’s educational and employment potential for disabled people is also significant.

You lost your eyesight when you were five years old and described your situation as an opportunity in disguise. What do you mean?

Had I not been blind, I would not have been brought to the city. I was born in a rural area where early marriage was widely practiced. In that community, if you are blind, you are no longer considered fit for marriage. My grandparents insisted I should leave for Addis to receive treatment. When the treatment failed to restore my eyesight, I was taken to a boarding school for the blind in Shashamane, a town in the State of Oromia.

I found my path to life through education. None of the girls in my village had that opportunity. That is not the case for quite so many blind people. Quite so many blind people even those born in cities are deprived of going to schools. Nobody believed in their abilities, people see their one disability and undermined the more that 99 abilities they have.

Where should change in attitude start in societies like Ethiopia? 

It’s a matter of wrong investment. The country has invested money, energy and commitment trying to fix the persons with disabilities to make them fit into the system. We have to accept that disability is a social construct. The focus should be on removing the barriers. One of the major barriers is the attitude of people. The society needs to be sensitized and there is a need for people, including the government, who discriminate against persons with disabilities to be held legally accountable. We need to invest on quality of education that improves inclusiveness and fix our school system to reduce and ultimately alleviate discrimination.

You have established a primarily school in 2008 and currently have more than 400 students. What was the motive for establishing the Academy besides the usual profit drive?

We established the school to show people that inclusion is possible, even in a private setting. A lot of the private schools do not have the commitment to enrol students with disabilities. We have more than 15 disabled students out of the more than 400 students attending integrated classes. At our school, we build the capacity of teachers to enable them cater more for the needs of the disabled students. We invested on the school compound, even though we only rent it, to make it more accessible and suitable for persons with disabilities. Inclusion without a reasonable accommodation is the worst kind of discrimination.

You are a wife and mother of two, how do you interact with your kids to shape their personalities? 

There is a lot of storytelling. I anticipate the kinds of gender-related challenges they will face and I try to incorporate some words of advice in the stories I tell them. We also play the piano together and have movies night on Fridays.

I am so grateful for my kid’s understanding because I have a very busy schedule. I braid their hair as a special treat when they do something extraordinary. We also do assignments from school together.

I heard you also have a good cooking skill. Tell me about it.

I’m not famous for being a great cook, but I can go to the kitchen and fix something quick to feed my family when we do not have a maid. I can cook a lot of dishes, but I can’t bake injera.

My grandmother used to give me tasks around the house which gave me the opportunity to practice cooking. At the boarding school, we practiced to be self sufficient by helping out others in routine tasks such as cleaning. I also took some training in housekeeping at the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind Women’s Wing. Using my experience, we usually cook as a family whenever there is a birthday and my daughters help out.

Do you do sports? 

I swim, it is my favourite sport. I know other people with disabilities do karate and weight lifting. Sport, I think, is one of the most effective ways to demystify the stereotypes that consider disabled people as unable to do anything.

Who picks up what you wear? 

I pick most of my clothing. Fashion starts with comfort and since I can see colours and consider myself with an instinct to pick combinations. I sometimes get assistance from my family.

Many people describe you as a gifted poet. How has poetry helped you express yourself and enabled you to further your cause? 

I discovered I could write poems when I was in grade three. I wrote a poem about birds. Poetry is the best way to hammer your thoughts, to bring out different perspectives for a single idea.

6th Year . December 2017 . No.56

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