“I no longer have to crawl to school,” says Etenesh, a 14-year-old Ethiopian child with a disability

“I no longer have to crawl to school,” says Etenesh, a 14-year-old Ethiopian child with a disability

In the lush, green, Hadiya Zone of Ethiopia sit several schools dedicated to educating and empowering young people. The schools have large compounds, multiple classrooms and can accommodate hundreds of children at a time. No one would guess, just by looking, that these schools fall short in serving disabled, underprivileged and marginalized children. 

In Ethiopia, hundreds of thousands of children are uneducated simply because they fall into one of these categories. Many children are denied access to education or are offered minimal support by institutions and teachers who often refuse or are reluctant to make adjustments to their teaching methods. Access to education for children with disabilities is further limited by a lack of understanding about their needs, and a dearth of trained teachers and learning facilities. As a result, many children remain out of school or drop out prematurely.

To address this challenge, People in Need (PIN), together with the Czech Development Agency, created the “Supporting Inclusive Education in Primary Schools of Gedeo & Hadiya Zones” project, in the Southern, Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia. The goal of this project is to remove learning barriers and create a culture of respect toward individual differences.

Map of Hadiya Zone:

With this in mind, PIN selected 10 schools and built resource centers stocked with learning materials, mobility aids and accessible toilets to enable universal access. “Since the compounds were often built on rough and inconvenient ground with poorly-built entryways, PIN built bridges and paved pathways of red lava rock so children could move more easily from one place to the next,” says PIN Education Advisor Terefe Memru. “PIN selected and trained teachers to provide tailored support to children with disabilities and appointed community workers to identify which children were out of school and why, and to carry out frequent home visits and follow up visits.”

My teachers here are very nice

Tarikua Tiqemo, a 14-year-old girl with a mild learning disability, attends Danama No. 2 Primary School, one of the chosen schools for PIN’s intervention. Her mother, Doge Liranso, says: “We never made the effort to send her to school before, fearing she wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the children. We attempted home schooling, but quickly abandoned our efforts for fear she would not understand the lesson.” And so Tarikua, illiterate and with little hope of receiving any education, spent her days at home doing housework before PIN’s community workers visited her home to convince her parents to allow her to attend school.

Nine months later, her mother had this to say: “We are very appreciative of all that PIN has done for my child. She is now able to understand basic numbers and letters and every day she learns something new. The community workers are always following up on her progress, going so far as coming to our house to encourage us to continue to support and believe in her education. I am relieved that she no longer has to sit at home. I know she is capable of reaching great heights.”

Tarikua is equally upbeat. “My teachers here are very nice; they give me pens and pencils so I can do homework at home and a school bag to carry all my books. They also give me soap, tissues and sanitary pads whenever I need them.”

My daughter used to crawl 5 kilometers to get to school

Tarikua is not alone. Etenesh Elias, also 14, was born with stiff legs. She joined the school after PIN’s intervention, but unlike Tarikua, she attended another school during the first four years of primary education. “The school she attended before was not very far from our house, but the teachers never gave my daughter the individual attention she required,” says Abebe Gage, Etenesh’s father. “She used to crawl up to 5 kilometers just to reach the school because we couldn’t afford to buy her a wheelchair. Her mother and I would always fear she would get run over by a car or get trampled by bulls.”

Etenesh’s new school is a dream compared to those days of hardship. “In my old school, the teachers never liked me because I wasn’t as active as the other children. They would leave me alone most of the time and I would just sit there doing nothing,” Etenesh explains. “But here it’s different. The teachers are more patient with me; they always assure me that I am as equal as the other students.”

PIN also provided Etenesh with a wheelchair. “The wheelchair has made it easy for me to move around the compound and I no longer have to crawl back and forth from school, which often caused my palms and elbows to bruise,” she says. “The teachers have been very supportive in this regard too, when my parents can’t come to pick me up from school, they take it upon themselves to push me all the way back home.”

My son is often misunderstood because he stutters

Asmamaw, one of Etenesh’s classmates, limps when he walks and stutters when he talks. “My son is very intelligent but is often misunderstood because he stutters, making it difficult for him to get his thoughts across,” says his father, Elias Wade. “This frustrates people around him. The teachers here take the time to understand him and, as a result, acknowledge his potential.” In such a supportive environment, Asmamaw is dreaming big. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” he says with a shy smile.

Selamawit, who is 10, broke her leg falling into a shallow hole when she was only five. For half her life she didn’t walk and her father, who was ashamed of his daughter, hid her from the community. During one of PIN’s home visits, community workers spotted Selamawit in one of the rooms – despite her father’s insistence that he didn’t have children.

The community workers explained to Selamawit’s father that his daughter could attend school regardless of her disability. They even encouraged her to try walking. “When the community workers came to my home that day, I couldn’t walk,” she says. “They not only encouraged me to attend school but also gave attention to my disability and pushed me to try walking using a cane. Now, I walk all the way to school and back and I no longer have to be carried around. I am very happy that they pushed me to try, I would have never attempted it on my own.”

I couldn’t even buy them a pair of shoes

Unlike Selamawit’s father, Bekele Beyene never got the opportunity to send his two teenage sons to school. “I couldn’t afford education for my children, I couldn’t even buy them a pair of shoes,” he says. “When the community workers came to my house and explained that PIN was supporting children from all backgrounds, I didn’t hesitate before deciding to register them both. It has been four months since they started school and they have never missed a day. We are also happy to be receiving monthly financial support from PIN. I have bought my children clothes, shoes and a chicken to raise with this money,” he adds. But it is education for his children, he said, that is the greatest commodity. “There’s nothing as valuable as education, I wish I can go back in time to learn, too!”

As part of the inclusive education project, PIN organized a large public awareness campaign to reach parents who still believe their children are unworthy of attending school. Once potential schools were identified, 825 teachers and community workers were trained to support these children, and as a result, the project engaged more than 1,250 direct beneficiaries and 17,000 indirect beneficiaries.

These children were specifically targeted by PIN because they came from families with misconceptions about what types of education was available for special-needs kids. Denying education to children with disabilities or those who come from marginalized groups has a lifelong impact on their learning, achievement and employment opportunities. This is turn hinders the economic and social development of entire communities, which is why PIN continues to support initiatives designed to educate every child.

Author: Melikte Tadesse, PIN Ethiopia Communication Officer