Tall and slender, 17-year-old Hodan Abdulkadir sits head and shoulders higher than her classmates, and has to be seated to the side of the classroom so the other children can see the teacher at the front of the room. As the teacher writes on the chalkboard, Hodan carefully copies the characters in her notebook. She looks down at what she has written, checks that it matches the teacher's writing, and then softly reads her characters aloud. A wide smile breaks over her face as she hears her own voice transform those hesitantly drawn characters into words and sentences.
Six months ago, Hodan was illiterate and could barely speak in full sentences. Born with multiple disabilities, including hearing, physical, and intellectual impairments that have never been fully diagnosed, Hodan was kept inside her family's small house in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and did not ventured outside. Her parents, who struggle to make a living and send their other three children to school, saw no hope for their disabled daughter.
“I stayed in bed all day and did nothing,” says Hodan. “I didn't have friends, I didn't go to school—I knew nothing about the world.”
In Ethiopia, where there may be up to 4.8 million children living with disabilities, only 3% of children with disabilities go to school. “Some parents believe that children with disabilities are curses or the result of the sins of their mother, and so hide their disabled child at home,” says Abraham Seleshi, program officer for Handicap International's Inclusive Education project in Ethiopia. “Even when parents want to educate their child, they may find that schools are unable to accommodate students with physical challenges or those with special learning needs.”
In 2010, Ethiopia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which includes a provision that says that children with disabilities should not be excluded from school. To help Ethiopia fulfill this promise, Handicap International launched a pilot program at six primary schools in eastern Ethiopia with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The aim is simple: to make the schools accessible to children with disabilities. The charity has constructed wheelchair ramps and other accessibility features; created disability resource centers with learning materials such as Braille books; and led dozens of trainings with teachers and administrators about how to addresses the needs of children with different types of disabilities. Staff members and community outreach volunteers have also sought out parents of children with disabilities to encourage them to send their kids to school.
“A few month ago, I led a training with the parent-teacher association at the Afetisa school, emphasizing the importance of educating children with disabilities,” Seleshi recalls. “At the meeting, the head of the parent-teacher association told me he had a daughter with disabilities at home, and that he had never sent her to school—Hodan. After multiple trainings and personal meetings with me, he finally realized then that he must educate his daughter so she could have a better future.”
Hodan has been transformed. “Now that I am in school I am so happy, I am learning how to read and write,” she says. “I have a hard time getting around on my own, but I have friends at school who help support me when I need to walk.”
“I have seen a great change in my daughter,” says Hibo Adan, Hodan's mother. “She now talks all the time and smiles. Because she is up and walking now, she is also getting physically stronger. I can imagine a future for her now.”