Blind Ethiopian Activist Battles for the Disabled
Yetnebersh Nigussie’s first battle for disability rights was in law school, when she successfully pushed university administrators to provide Braille textbooks for blind students such as herself.
Not long after, Yetnebersh, 35, left the legal profession to pursue a different type of advocacy as a full-time fighter for the rights and opportunities of Ethiopia’s millions of disabled people.
In 2017, her life’s work was recognized with a
Right Livelihood Award, often called the “Alternative Nobel Prize.”
But her work is not yet complete.
“There are still … millions of persons with disabilities who are living in a very destitute manner in a very undignified way,” Yetnebersh said. “We really need to show people that people with disabilities have one disability, but have 99 abilities.”
A 2011 joint report by the World Bank and World Health Organization estimated that there are 15 million disabled Ethiopians, almost one in five people. Most face grim prospects in a country that is among Africa’s poorest and where many see being disabled as a curse.
“No one recognizes that abled bodies could be disabled tomorrow because of an accident or so on. People do not understand that,” said Nemera Woyessa, country representative of Light for the World, a disability rights group that Yetnebersh works with.
In cities like the capital, Addis Ababa, disabled people wait at intersections and along sidewalks seeking handouts, a practice so commonplace that it raises few eyebrows.
“Begging takes away your dignity,” Yetnebersh said. “It leaves your life in the hands of others.”
In 2005, she started the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development to tackle issues affecting the disabled in her own way. Since then, she has worked to get the government to adopt a building code that requires new buildings to accommodate the disabled with things such as wider doorways and Braille instruction panels. She also has published a guide that lists accessibility features of hotels, restaurants and government offices in the capital.