Disability in higher education – From policy to practice

Equity considerations in higher education assume a variety of dimensions including that of gender, socio-economic background and disability. While the extensive expansion of higher education across the globe has been seen as a means to address these issues, the reality has not been as straightforward.

So far, the major and relatively successful efforts have been directed at addressing gender imbalance in the form of improving female representation in higher education institutions. In many higher education contexts disability issues continue to be overlooked or sidelined, both in terms of practical considerations and scholarly attention.

Facts and figures

According to the World Health Organization (2011) there are over one billion people with disabilities in the world, about 15% of the world’s population. In Africa, the proportion of disabled people is estimated at approximately 40%, including 10-15% who are school-age children. This roughly translates into 300 million people with disabilities in Africa.

In Ethiopia, as elsewhere, there is an evident lack of organised and up-to-date data on disability. Available figures diverge widely, depending on who is issuing the numbers.

The last national census in 2007 reported only 805,492 persons with disabilities – 1.09% of the total population of 86 million. Many regard this as mere underreporting caused by the design of the census. WHO’s report, on the other hand, puts the figure at 15 million persons, representing 17.6% of the total population at the time. A more realistic estimate of 10% continues to be widely used in the country, although the Ministry of Education claims to be using the WHO figure for its planning purposes.

The number of disabled students attending, mainly public, Ethiopian higher education institutions has risen from 398 in 2009-10 to more than 1,000 in 2015. While the number of disabled students attending higher education is still low, what is even more worrying are the challenges that still exist for those pursuing their studies in unaccommodating environments.

Policy and practice trajectories

The issue of disability in Ethiopia is widely reflected in a variety of policy documents, plans and commitments.

The government is a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2010), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) – all of which recognise the rights of disabled people to equal treatment.

While Ethiopia’s Constitution gives due recognition to the issue, other specific policies and plans embody provisions on rights and opportunities that should be made available to the disabled. For instance, the Growth and Transformation Plan II (2015/16 – 2019/20) establishes the need to ensure the participation of disabled people in political, economic and social activities including the creation of wider educational opportunities.

Specific guidelines have also been issued to higher education institutions about how to address issues of disability.

The Ethiopian higher education proclamation (2009) stipulates that institutions should ensure their facilities and programmes are accessible and ‘friendly’ to physically challenged students. Building designs, campus physical landscape, computers and other infrastructures of institutions should take into account the interests of these students.

In addition to relocating classes, developing alternative testing procedures, and providing different educational auxiliary aids, institutions are required to ensure that disabled students receive the necessary academic assistance, including tutorial sessions, extra examination time and deadline extensions.

As indicated in sectoral plans (2015/16 – 2019/20), universities are expected to implement the national policy on facilities and infrastructure by adapting their campuses to provide full access to all students. Three universities are also set to receive additional support to establish facilities to provide higher education services to students with the most severe needs. This experience will guide later improvements across the higher education subsector in terms of facilities as well as teaching skills and adaptations required to support all students with special educational needs effectively.

Despite these commitments, much remains to be done in terms of implementation.

Barriers to participation

Local studies indicate that there are a range of barriers that hamper disabled students from meaningful participation in higher education.

The built environment in most Ethiopian universities continues to pose serious hurdles, forcing disabled students to seek support from others.

Lack of adequate educational materials, assistive devices and computers, absence of curricular or material adaptations, rigid assessment techniques and examination procedures are critical barriers that continue to affect the success of disabled students.

Most institutions are ill-prepared to provide the necessary support to disabled students. Policy statements on disability, support units with fully-fledged staffing, and viable structures are a rarity. Even where such amenities are said to exist, they appear to be meagre, fragmented and still at a nascent stage.

Limited assistance is available from faculty members and administrative staff, most of whom have little awareness and preparation in terms of accommodating the needs of disabled students.

In addition to restricting their choice of where and what to study, these challenges frequently result in an understandable aversion to study and greater social isolation of the disabled. This in turn has the effect of hampering the development of their capacities and the realisation of their educational and professional goals.

Beyond policy

Despite signs of progress in terms of policy considerations, the participation of disabled students in Ethiopian higher education is still marked by many difficulties.

In the globalised HE context which includes the developing world, addressing issues of social justice in earnest remains a major challenge. Ethiopia’s quest for more equitable higher educational opportunities cannot succeed without responding to the many challenges faced by disabled students.

To begin with, the country requires more research on the subject to gain insights that will not only increase public understanding of the problems, but also inform policy directions and ways of overcoming the existing barriers at national and institutional levels.

The government in particular should play a role in addressing current challenges and lending its weight to the involvement of a broad range of pertinent stakeholders to ensure the improved participation and success of disabled students in higher education, so that they are not deprived of the most powerful instrument they have at their disposal to extricate themselves from poverty and social inequity.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His email addresses are: or