Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 28 January 2007

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Book Review:  Disability in Ethiopia

By M. Miles  (m99miles@hotmail.com)

Tirussew Teferra (2005) Disability in Ethiopia: issues, insights and implications. [No stated publisher]. Printed at Addis Ababa University Printing Press. xii + 267 pp.

A recent bibliographical search on social and scientific responses to disability and related topics in modern Ethiopia produced 140 items, of which 10% were the work of Tirussew Teferra, professor of special needs education at Addis Ababa University, through 25 years. [1]  This book conveniently packages many of those papers, with much other work in which Tirussew collaborated. They concern "Contextualizing disability, Early intervention, Inclusive education, Gender & disability, Resilience & success" (which are printed across cover and title page, in the modern fashion that leaves unclear whether this is a supplementary subtitle, contents preview, or general blurb).

Chapter 1, "contextualizing disability", with citations up to 2004, has a typically ‘Western-focused’ stance, denouncing the backwardness of ‘traditional’ Ethiopian attitudes and absorbing uncritically the new, ‘correct’ beliefs propagated by the all-knowing foreigners. The portrayal demonstrates "how psychologically damaging and challenging it is to cope with all forms of misconceptions and negative attitudes held by the society." (Tirussew refers to disabled people within Ethiopian society;  much the same applies to Ethiopia within the world). Yet the second chapter (pp. 21-72) starts with a different tone, noting that  "Ethiopia is a country with diverse socio-cultural dimensions and diverse languages, there are many proverbs or sayings used by the people that reflect their understanding and thought about issues related to the importance of early childhood intervention and experiences",  with a few positive examples (pp. 21-23). Further, some sources of religious and secular traditional healing and therapeutic practice are noted (pp. 24-25). Herbal medicine, indigenous psychotherapy and physical therapies are described, the latter by "highly skilled" Wegehsa providing  "effective physiotherapeutic services ... across all age groups",  that are attractive, easily accessible and affordable (pp. 25-27). These seven pages do contain information on positive resources for disability in Ethiopian cultures that is not readily accessible elsewhere, though specific research studies on each type of resource are not listed. [2]

A still longer chapter follows on "Inclusion of Children with Disabilities" (pp. 83-145). Much of this replays the slogans and historical distortions of well-meaning western discussants over the past 30 years, but Tirussew does insert a few notes rooted in local experience, recognising (p. 92) that there has been more than one view about disability in Ethiopian history, and that considerable numbers of children with disabilities have in fact been casually integrated in ordinary schools, with or without some specific attention or support (pp. 84-91).  Tirussew actually presents those facts; he notes the adverse educational effects of unnoticed hearing impairment in 7% of children (p. 114-15); he uses data from another of his studies where 16.5% of children who were performing poorly in an ordinary primary school  "had different types of sensory, socio-emotional and emotional problems as well as health problems" (p. 89) (which could have been extended with other kinds of impairment in ordinary schoolchildren, as many careful school health studies have shown in developing countries, as per Medline); and he offers data from his baseline sample survey of disabled people in Ethiopia (1995): "66.1% were illiterate, 17.5% had primary education and 16.4% had secondary education" (p. 212).

Yet Tirussew does not consider that these figures could mean up to one third of disabled people actually attending school for some period, and half of them persevering into secondary education. (Some allowance must also be made for people going through school and later becoming disabled). He does not point out that 66% illiteracy was about average for all people in Ethiopia in the mid-1990s, which might suggest that disabled people were doing as well or badly as anyone else. Instead, he figures out that there are around 690,000 school-age children with disabilities in Ethiopia, and only 0.33% of them are in special schools and classes, and therefore "education of children with disabilities in Ethiopia has failed to reach and serve over 99% of school-age children" (p. 114). That curious conclusion, in the face of contrary evidence from his own studies, pulls Tirussew into line with a host of numeracy-challenged international speakers over three decades who have confidently proclaimed that ‘less than 2% of children with disabilities in developing countries are getting any education’, according to a ‘UN study’ of which they are somehow unable to cite the title and date. [3]

It is all the more curious, because a further chapter of Tirussew’s specifically studied 77 Ethiopians with hearing, visual or motor disabilities, who were considered to be leading successful, independent lives (pp. 210-256), and might be role models of perseverance and ‘triumph over adversity’. They had gone to special (40.2%) or regular (57%) schools, where they had got on with their education with a mixture of benefits and problems (as no doubt most children would later report). Diploma, Bachelor or Master’s level degrees were achieved by 61% (47 out of 77), while 35% had at least secondary education. They were thus doing appreciably better than the average for able-bodied children; but that was not necessarily very unusual. One specialist in disability and education in Finland and Ethiopia remarks that "the University of Addis Abeba and some teacher training colleges have dozens of blind students included in their programmes", which he considers "not a common feature in any European University." [4]  Certainly, where primary school enrolment is around 65%, yet 80% of able-bodied Ethiopian children never reach secondary school [5], one can have no high expectation of the educational achievement of the average child having appreciable impairments and ill-health. But that is a different matter from rhetoric claiming that almost all these children are cruelly excluded from education.

Much that Tirussew Teferra observes and reports is of interest, though the lengthy process of accumulation has not lent itself to a coherent presentation and message. Reflection on the raw material, and on the interplay of cultural forces within his country, and between Ethiopians and Europeans, might have produced a rather sharper critique of many aspects; however, that is partly a matter of personal style and character. The book benefits from an index (pp. 257-267). To have collated the references at the end would have been useful. The potential reader’s perseverance might have been enhanced if an editorial hand had removed the 11 typos in 17 lines of ‘Note On The Author’ (p. vii). [6]  The rest of the book has an error on most pages, but not an obtrusive cluster of them.


[1]  The Ethiopia materials appear among 500 items in "Disability & Deafness in North East Africa: Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia. A bibliography of social & scientific responses, knowledge & history, with some historical annotations", at:  http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/bibliography/neafrica/index.html

[2]  Some further Ethiopian cultural resources appear at different points in the book, e.g. the traditional community self-help organisations listed on pp. 178-179, in a chapter on gender and disability (pp. 147-208).

[3]  A classic early example of this fixed belief, wiping out experimental data, occurred in UNICEF-sponsored studies reported in "Prevention of Childhood Disability and Community-Based Rehabilitation of Disabled Children, Anuradhapura District", 1987, Colombo. On p. 24 a detailed table of "Statistics of Disabled School Children" appeared (with some slippage in the tabulation of the percentages), and was summarised: "20.50% of school children, out of a total number of 10,105 in 34 schools are disabled" (p. 25).  Reported data among 1735 disabled people, of school-age or above, showed that 23% never entered school, 29% had some primary school only, 21% went on to secondary school only, 26% were still in schooling (p. 35). Yet before any of these data, an overview had already stated the ‘facts’ of the ‘politically correct world’: "Disabled children regardless of potential, are kept out of school and are deprived of a normal developmental process, being either over-protected or neglected" (p. 20) -- a remarkable triumph of dogma over data.  In the past 20 years, accumulating data suggest that between 20% and 50% of children with significant impairments (depending on the criteria used) got some formal education through casual integration in developing countries. The quality and duration of that experience probably left much to be desired, but it is a different picture from the ‘2%’ claim.

[4]  Savolainen H (1997) Between discrimination and inclusion: persons with disabilities and services for them in Ethiopia today. In: H Kokkala (ed.) Providing Special Education For Those Who Need It In Developing Countries, 64-78, Helsinki: Min. Foreign Affairs, on p. 74. (The custom has continued through three millennia in North East Africa, of employing blind young men as musicians, cantors and religious functionaries, in ancient Egypt, the Coptic Church and the Muslim community).

[5]  Data from 1997-2003, in UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2005, (p. 122).  www.unicef.org/publications/index.html

[6]  This mess has the hallmarks of the last-minute insertion, constructed in haste, over the phone, in a foreign language, while the presses are rolling. It is not peculiar to Ethiopia. A vast disability encyclopaedia, recently published in the US, contrived to change one of the most distinctive names in the disability field, in large font, upfront in the senior editors list, in four out of five volumes. Groan-up pubishers, who have givne up all beleif in faries, still terermble at the acvitites of pirnters devls.

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