Opinion: Education was a turning point that changed my blindness into an opportunity

Students using Braille machines at the Kisiwandui primary school in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo by: Chantal Rigaud / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

I was five when I went blind. It was a big shock for my family. But even more so for members of my local community, in rural Ethiopia, many of whom believed that a curse had caused my loss of sight.

In the community’s eyes, not only was I now somehow linked to a sin, but I had also lost my value. The destiny of a girl was to marry and bring in a dowry; and surely no man would want to marry me now.

This seeming misfortune, however, granted me a huge opportunity in life: My mother and grandmother ensured I received an education at my young age, rather than a husband. They sent me to school in the capital, Addis Ababa, and from there I excelled.

I scored the top marks in class. I made friends. I went on to university to become one of the first blind, female lawyers in Ethiopia. I now engage in international advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities with the NGO Light for the World; and was thrilled to be recognised this week by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, as one of their 2017 Laureates.

But although my personal story is uplifting; I want people to know how extremely unusual, or lucky, it is. For most children with disabilities who live in poorer countries, the chance of a quality education — and all the subsequent opportunities school brings — is very slim.

Numbers are hard to come by because data on disability is scarce, but it is estimated that at least 32 million children with disabilities in developing countries are currently out of school. That’s more than three times the entire population of Sweden.

For girls with disabilities living in rural areas, life is especially tough. The barriers they face because of their “disabled status” are multiplied by the hurdles they must overcome because of their gender.

They really are at the back of the back of the queue in life and I know their stories all too well. The girls who are expected to stay at home and care for their siblings. The girls whose parents are turned away by teachers who say they do not “accept” deaf or blind students — or they do not have the equipment to teach them properly. The girls who are unable to navigate the long and dusty roads to school in their wheelchairs or on their crutches. And of course, the girls whose parents never even let them out of the house, for the shame, or for the threat of rape and violence.

The scale — and the severity — of the exclusion of children with disabilities in developing countries is shocking. It also poses a major threat to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet the issue rarely gets the attention it deserves.

The neglect of children with disabilities must end now. Every child deserves an equal education. And when given the opportunity to succeed, people with disabilities can achieve brilliant things.

Lessons from Burkina Faso's inclusive education system

Burkina Faso is aiming to more fully integrate disabled persons into society, starting with education. Devex visits a school that teaches disabled and non-disabled students in the same classroom, a first step in empowering them for a life of greater opportunity.

To be clear, despite my own experience, I am not suggesting that special schools are the answer — they are usually unable to accommodate children from rural areas and are often not the best value for money. A study in Pakistan by UNESCO found that special schools were 15 times more expensive per pupil than mainstream schools which included children with disabilities.

Instead, inclusive education must be our end goal, where all children — girls and boys, both with and without disabilities — are enabled to learn in the same classroom.

This is the best way to ensure we fight segregation of people with disabilities and succeed in drastically reducing out-of-school populations.

Mordaunt announces Global Disability Summit in first DFID speech

In her first speech as U.K. secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt will announce Thursday that the country is to host a major summit on disability-inclusive development in 2018, building on her background as minister for disabled people.

On the positive side: Penny Mordaunt, the United Kingdom’s new international secretary for development, is making all the right noises. She has just announced that the U.K. is to host its first-ever Global Disability Summit in London in July 2018, bringing together governments, technology companies, and civil society to promote disability-inclusive development.

What we need to see now is a very concrete commitment to inclusive education, within this great area of work. We must also see other countries follow suit; as, beyond the U.K., the picture is much less rosy. There is a severe lack of funding for inclusive education among both national governments and global donors — as detailed in the recent Costing Equity research report.

Millions of young people with disabilities are willing to learn and earn but are currently stopped from doing so, at a cost of billions to low-income countries. Evidence from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, and the Philippines suggests the returns on investing in education for people with disabilities could be two to three times higher than for those without disabilities.

So if major international donors committed to making disability inclusion a necessary condition for their funding and programs the impact would be incredible.

Mainstream NGOs can hugely contribute by making sure all their efforts are disability inclusive. When trying to achieve the SDG of ensuring equitable and quality education for all, this really means for everyone — not just “some.” I’ve listed three practical steps for global development professionals on how to ensure disability inclusiveness in education.

1. NGOs should sign up to the joint call to action on inclusive education: More than 120 NGOs have already signed up, and we want and need others on board. Importantly, the call to action asks governments, foundations, and donors to practice disability inclusiveness and make disability inclusion a necessary criterion for accessing funding for all education programs and projects.

2. The #CostingEquity research has shown that the tangible commitments are still low even among governments that are leading the way with policies on disability-inclusive education.  The Global Partnership for Education Replenishment Conference in Senegal in February and the Global Disability Summit in London in July are two key moments for 2017 where governments can concretely demonstrate their commitment by earmarking funds toward disability-inclusive education. Mainstream and disability NGOs should come together around this moment to hold decision makers accountable!

3. Governments in low- and middle-income countries should step up their spending on education, particularly in disability-inclusive early childhood development and allocate sufficient resources to develop inclusive and accessible schools, and invest more heavily in training teachers and address individual support needs, through assistive technology or sign language for example.

The need is urgent and the pay-off would be enormous.

I describe myself as privileged for having made it to school, but I hope future generations of girls and women with disabilities feel differently. It is their right to be at school, and it always has been.

Read more Devex coverage on inclusive education.

About the author

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    Yetnebersh Nigussie

    Yetnebersh Nigussie is a senior inclusion advisor at Light for the World and a 2017 Right Livelihood Award Laureate.