In my region, people with disabilities do not get equal opportunities like non-disabled people, especially in access to education. In the rural areas of northern Ethiopia (Tigray regional state of Ethiopia) most Deaf children do not receive an education. There are only two Deaf schools in the region that serve approximately 150 Deaf students. The rest of the Deaf community (nearly 7,000 people) do not get educational opportunities or sign language training.
I was motivated to take action after meeting with so many Deaf children, young adults, and adults in different districts in my region. I found that the problems they faced were very complex. They never learned sign language so they could not express their needs to others, like telling a doctor about their illness.
My first step was to teach sign language to non-educated Deaf children. That led to my creating a local Deaf center in Makelle city where Deaf children can learn from each other and share their experiences. The center offered sign language training and was a gathering place for the Deaf community. It also paved the way for further advancements.
After the success of the center, we approached the government and were successful in requesting the establishment of a Deaf school. The school opened in 2006 and provides education from grade 1 to 11. Although the Deaf school has replaced the Deaf center, the school still serves as a meeting place for our community. This is changing the lives of Deaf people from dark to light. The students are now finding themselves aware of their country and the world around them. Some of them are starting to participate in entrepreneurship activities.
It all started when I attended the Ethiopian National Association of the Deaf (ENAD) sign language training in my city, Mekelle, in February 2004. Many Deaf children and adults attended this training for first time. After the instructors returned to the capitol city, Addis Ababa, my colleagues and I volunteered to continue the sign language training two days per week. This is when I established the Deaf center to hold the training sessions and provide a meeting place. We held our meetings at a professional training center for people with disabilities at no charge.
Deaf people were very happy to meet each other and share a common language in the training sessions. We asked the Bureau of Social Affairs to help us locate more Deaf people so we could promote the center more widely. They helped us partially by inviting government representatives to a meeting so we could brief them about the complex situation of Deaf people, especially on the issue of educational marginalization. The Social Affairs office of Mekelle city helped us greatly. We made announcements at many different places like cinemas, churches, municipalities, local businesses, and so on. After some time the number of Deaf participants increased and the students began to teach each other and connect with other Deaf people within their communities.
Since the demand for the training was so high, we asked the government to allow us to have a Deaf school. We explained that the accessibility of education in our country was not equal and that our constitution and educational policies say that every citizen has the full right to access education. Also, we pointed out that the Millennium Development Goals say that every child must learn. Both the Bureau of Social Affairs and the Bureau of Education agreed and opened a Deaf elementary school in Mekelle city in September 2006. The school is financed and managed by the government and has a total of 18 teachers, of whom six are Deaf. The teachers who are hearing will soon receive training to advance their sign language skills. We made a lot of progress in those two years.
Today there are many sign language trainees here in Mekelle city. I give sign language training to the non-educated Deaf children and their parents, government officers, high school teachers, nurses, and lawyers. I also conducted a sign language training to approximately 350 students at Mekelle University while earning my Bachelor of Arts degree. The university award me many certificates for this achievement.
I experienced many challenges, especially a shortage of money, and negative attitudes from parents of Deaf children and some governmental officers. The parents were unwilling to send their kids to the Deaf center and school, especially around the rural areas. In an attempt to solve the problem, I began collaborating with my colleagues, the office of Social Affairs, and local media. Ultimately, the collaboration led to an awareness training for stakeholders that was provided by the office of Social Affairs. But it did not mean that the problem was totally solved: many Deaf children continued to stay at home, not attending school nor visiting the Deaf center.
Then came a golden opportunity. The government decreed that people with disabilities must have the opportunity to participate in sport activities. This was part of the government’s initiative to have a presence in international sport competitions like the Paralympics and Deaflympics. We used this opportunity to share Deaf culture and promote sign language. During this time, many Deaf athletes meet each other at regional and national competitions in athletics, tennis, and handball.
I have a dream that we’ll be able to add Deaf centers in other cities such as Shire city and Axum city, which is the most ancient civilized town of Ethiopia.
Mr. Leul Tesfameskel
I am a Deaf teacher at the Alene Secondary School in Mekelle Tigray, Ethiopia. I attended a Deaf school during grades 1 – 8 and I learned alongside hearing students without sign language interpretation for grades 9 - 12. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Cultural Studies from Mekelle University (the famous university in Ethiopia) and am now earning a post-graduate Diploma in Teaching. I have five years of experience teaching Deaf students at the high school level. Also, I have served at several civil society organization as a volunteer, including:
- Vice Chairman of Adigrat Deaf Association Branch (2 years)
- Chairman of the Naturally Persons with Disabilities Association of Semien Sub-city of Mekelle
- President of the Deaf Sport Federation (Deaflympic) of Tigray regional state of Ethiopia (current)