Partnership offers a lifeline to students with disabilities

In Ethiopia it is difficult for young people living with disabilities to succeed at university. Even if they gain access to institutions they face enormous challenges once there. A new inclusive higher education initiative is aiming to change that.

In January Ethiopia’s University of Gondar and Canada’s Queen’s University announced a 10-year, USD$24.2 million partnership which forms part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program to advance inclusive higher education for young people with disabilities in Ethiopia and Africa.

The announcement followed a proposal by the University of Gondar, one of Ethiopia’s oldest universities with an enrolment of 25,000 students, to expand its network of African university health sciences partners while catering for young people living with disabilities.

In terms of the new initiative, 450 next-generation African leaders will receive university education at the University of Gondar while 60 faculty members will study at Queen’s University, where they will enhance their skills in innovative pedagogy and in leading collaborative research between African and North American universities.

Forty-four University of Gondar faculty members will receive PhD training from Queen’s to develop skills and capabilities needed to supervise research.

The two universities will also collaborate to develop Ethiopia’s first occupational therapy programme.


The University of Gondar and Queen’s University partnership represents a major mutual effort and commitment to “drilling down” deeper and making university education accessible for young people with disabilities on the African continent, according to Anna Miller, programme manager of education and learning at The MasterCard Foundation.

“We realised that we had to be far more intentional about accessibility when ‘access’ to higher education, regardless of one’s starting point in life, is one of the hallmarks of our existing Scholars Program,” Miller told University World News.

For instance, there are many young people with disabilities who gain admittance to university in Ethiopia, but who are never able to take up their spot, due to transportation challenges, lack of suitable learning materials or housing. They may also be discouraged from pursuing certain degrees as a result of inaccurate and sometimes discriminatory assumptions about their abilities and capabilities, she said.

'The right thing to do’

“We believe that accessibility benefits all students and all universities, so investing in such an effort by two leading institutions was simply the right thing to do,” Miller said.

Ethiopia has about 15 million people living with disabilities – 17.6% of the total population, according to the World Health Organization’s 2011 report. As in most other African countries, Ethiopia’s top three disabilities are mobility, visual and hearing impairment.

According to University of Gondar associate professor of environmental and occupational health and safety and director of the community-based rehabilitation programme, Ansha Nega, the challenges for people with disabilities start from pre-primary enrolment and continue through to primary and high school levels.

High dropout rates

According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education 2014-15 report, 1,739,000 students with disabilities planned to enrol in primary education over that period, but only 72,110 actually did. Many of them do not progress through the education system and drop out and repetition rates are high.

“This is evidenced by the fact that only 7,464 students with disabilities enrolled in high schools, and even fewer of them (1,482 students) enrolled in higher education institutions,” said Nega.

Young people with disabilities who score the minimum university entrance have extra natural talent or support from their family or guardians, otherwise they couldn’t reach this level of education, she said.

“Scoring the university minimum entrance does not end the challenge; rather it presents new challenges to them,” Nega told University World News.

They are required to leave their homes, families and community. Beyond likely financial and psycho-social challenges, they face institutional challenges such as inaccessible infrastructure and facilities in the library, classrooms, laboratories, dormitories and cafeteria, she said.

According to Nega, institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia have limited management experience and capacity to address the needs of young people with disabilities.

The partnership will capitalise on existing expertise in both institutions. The University of Gondar has experience in supporting people with disabilities, among other things, having provided community-based rehabilitation services since 2005.

Queen’s University has a history of teaching, research and service in the area of rehabilitation sciences. It is anticipated that this will help to improve the educational experience for students with disabilities in Ethiopia, said Nega.


More specifically, staff capacity building in postgraduate study programmes at Queen’s University will help to ensure the inclusivity of the university’s instructional methods.

According to Nega, the University of Gondar will provide 290 undergraduate and 160 masters level degrees in multidisciplinary fields encompassing health sciences, law, education, nursing and rehabilitation sciences, “taking special care to recruit young people with disabilities, as well as young people from conflict-affected countries”.

Nega said criteria such as gender, disability, economic status and geographical location (rural versus urban areas) would be used to select students.

“Hopefully, the practices and lessons from this partnership will be a motivator for positive social change and integration of the needs of young people with disabilities in other sectors and services,” Nega said.

Dr Heather Aldersey, assistant professor in the school of rehabilitation at Queen’s University, said a new community-based rehabilitation, or CBR, curriculum would be devised based on Gondar’s existing CBR curriculum and integrating content developed by Queen’s CBR centre.

It will be adapted to meet the needs of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars studying at the University of Gondar, she said.

Although some of the students might not end up working in CBR after graduation, they would gain a useful perspective on disability and the importance of inclusion. “They can carry [this] with them into future jobs and into the communities in which we anticipate they will be leaders of positive change,” Aldersey told University World News.

Community-based rehabilitation

The first step is identifying children in communities and getting them into primary and high schools, said Aldersey.

With the majority of children with disabilities never having the opportunity to access education in many developing countries for a variety of reasons including stigma, inaccessible environments and limited resources, the pool for qualified individuals with disabilities to enter higher education in many of these countries is relatively small.

Community-based rehabilitation is an effective way to identify children in the community and work with the family and local schools to provide them with quality education and prepare them for tertiary education, said Aldersey.

“In spite of the relatively limited population of students with disabilities ready for higher education in developing countries, there are still many students who have graduated high school and have the same right to continue their education just as everyone else,” said Aldersey.