When Shega met Bethlehem Gobena, the 19-year-old was taking a stroll inside the compound of the Ethiopian National Blind Association at 6 Kilo. Holding hands with her friend, Bethlehem’s laughter and activities make her appear as if she can see things from kilometers away, yet she has limited sight due to an illness she faced when she was ten years old, resulting in the loss of most of her vision.
With both her parents deceased, Bethlehem’s life is challenging to imagine. She was compelled to halt her education in 2014 due to her sight condition. “I didn’t know how to write or read using braille at the time,” says Bethlehem. Suffering significantly from psychological problems, Bethlehem underwent psychological treatment at the Mekedonia Center. During her stay there, she made contact with the Yemisrach center and learned braille at the end of 2022, along with other skills.
Now Bethlehem is back to school and is a fifth-grade student at Atse Naod School. To assist her learning, Bethlehem uses JAWS, a computer screen reader program for electronic devices that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen with text-to-speech.
JAWS is fundamental to Bethlehem’s learning as it helps her conduct her studies. Installed on her phone, JAWS reads pdfs, word documents, and other digital format materials she can get a hold of. But JAWS remains the only digital tool Bethlehem uses.
In the school, students and teachers have developed a tradition of reading what is on the board for students with similar conditions as Bethlehem, enabling them to write using braille.
Bethlehem is one of the estimated 7.8 million people in Ethiopia, constituting approximately 9.3 percent of the total population, who live with some form of disability, according to UNICEF’s 2018 survey. Disability is a broad term that encompasses impairments, limitations, or restrictions on an individual’s ability to perform everyday activities and can be physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or psychiatric in nature.
According to WHO, globally, an estimated 1.3 billion people—about 16% of the global population—currently experience significant disability.
Innovation has led to the development of various solutions aimed at removing accessibility barriers for people with disabilities. Dubbed assistive technology, these include screen readers, braille displays, voice recognition software, and communication devices like Smart Home Technology.
Meanwhile, disability advocates emphasize that simple tasks such as making websites and apps accessible and providing closed captioning and subtitles are crucial to enhancing accessibility.
However, in Ethiopia, this is still a road yet to be traveled. It was only in 2021 that the Bank of Abyssinia launched the first voice-guided ATMs in Ethiopia that provide audible instructions for the visually impaired.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, 95% of persons with disabilities in the country live in poverty—the vast majority in rural areas, where basic services are limited and the chances of accessing rehabilitative or support services are remote.
Many public spaces, transportation systems, and buildings lack proper infrastructure and accessibility features, making it difficult for people with disabilities to move around independently. People with disabilities also suffer social stigma and discrimination against them, which can lead to exclusion, isolation, and barriers.
The problems people with disabilities face also extend to educational barriers. Access to education for people with disabilities is limited due to a lack of inclusive facilities, trained teachers, and appropriate learning materials.
A survey data from 2016 indicates that 43 percent of school-age children with disabilities had never attended school, compared with an overall average of 22 percent.
Ethiopia follows the principles of inclusive education—an education system open to all learners, regardless of poverty, gender, ethnic background, language, disabilities, and impairments. The Ethiopian Government has also displayed its commitment to the education of persons with disabilities by ratifying various international conventions, declarations, and statements, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted in 2006.
“Serious efforts are required from all stakeholders in the sector, as these matters cannot solely be entrusted to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education,” said Seid Anbesu, a visually impaired social worker in a government bureau, during his appearance on the April episode of EdTech Mondays Radio Show, produced by the Mastercard Foundation and Shega Media & Technology. The show, which aired in April 2023, explored the crucial role of technology in promoting equity and inclusion in education.
“There is currently no disability policy in place for higher education institutions, and one can only imagine the challenges present in the lower education cycles,” stated Seid.
Nahom Tsehay, PhD, an expert in the field, emphasized the significance of assisting students with technology to prepare them for a world where access to education is paramount.
“Technology-supported classes enable disabled students to connect through various platforms, fostering a positive self-image,” stated Nahom.
Nahom underscored the need to establish basic infrastructure, such as electricity, telecom services, and devices, especially in rural areas where many children lack access. He pointed out that, due to a lack of awareness, parents of disabled children often do not provide educational opportunities.
Despite enormous challenges, some institutions are utilizing assistive technology in Ethiopia, as highlighted during the show, with one of them being the Deborah Foundation.
Established in 2019, the Deborah Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for children with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.
According to Bitaniya Petros, PhD, an official for the foundation, over 150 children enrolled at Deborah Academy require special attention and approach. The foundation uses smart boards—an interactive whiteboard that utilizes a computer or laptop, sometimes with a projector—and computer screens to teach children how to write and create mental images. A team comprising a primary teacher, two assistant teachers, and a nanny guides students through technology-supported classes.
Rahel Kebede, a learning support head at MALD Kindergarten and another guest on the show, shared insights on how technology is benefiting students in various ways, including speaking and other activities. However, Rahel expressed concerns about the screen time students spend, fearing that they might become less inclined to engage in social interactions once accustomed to technology.
Various organizations are actively working on disability-related issues in Ethiopia. Tigist, spokesperson for the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (ECCD), stressed the need for more companies to engage in the field, as it requires significant attention that has not been adequately given. ECCD focuses on helping disabled individuals find job opportunities, develop their skills, and compete globally.
The 19-year-old Bethlehem states that she is not aware of the potential for assistive technology in her education. Betelehem mentions that she and others like her at the school lack awareness of technologies that support students with their conditions. Despite being familiar with a few instruments, she has never used any of them. Additionally, Betelehem highlights that even if these instruments are available in the country, their cost could make them unattainable for students with her financial status.
Ecosystem players seem to be seeing these gaps. Addis PowerHouse, a young women-led feminist knowledge production platform, in collaboration with iceaddis recently delivered a digital accessibility training for 50 visually impaired women in Addis Ababa.
“The training provided lessons on computer usage, the types of software available, typing skills, and internet access,” said Hana Lema, founder and executive director of Addis PowerHouse, in a statement to Shega. She added, “While access still remains a big issue, we are working on providing more digital accessibility training to more visually impaired women.”
Featured Photo- Visually impaired women receiving a digital accessibility training. Credit- Addis Powerhouse