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FEATURE STORYNovember 17, 2023

A New Lease on Life: Ensuring Education for Children with Disabilities in Ethiopia

Students in class in Ethiopia

Students and teachers at the Bole Arabsa kindegarten and primary school in Addis. Photo: World Bank


  • Ethiopia has been implementing reforms in educating marginalized children, including those with disabilities over the last decade.
  • The government took a comprehensive approach, working with local communities and using a variety of strategies to overcome challenges.
  • The General Education Quality Improvement Program for Equity (GEQIP-E) has contributed to scaling these up since 2018. GEQIP-E interventions have resulted in the enrollment of 91,000 children with disabilities in inclusive education resource centers.

12-year-old Mariamawit’s* life was changed forever by a hearing assessment conducted at a government-established inclusive education resource center (IERC) that supports learners with disabilities in Addis Ababa.

Since grade 3, Mariamawit, who has hearing loss, was misdiagnosed as having an intellectual disability. She was placed in a classroom with similar peers where she remained mostly non-verbal because she was simply not able to hear. A visiting special education expert sensed something was awry and sent Mariamawit for a reassessment, where her hearing loss was correctly diagnosed. That was the beginning of her new life. With the help of hearing aids, Mariamawit swiftly moved up grades and is now thriving as a high school student in Addis Ababa. 
Mariamawit’s life transformation attests to the success of inclusive education reforms of the Government of Ethiopia, also part of the multi-donor-funded General Education Quality Improvement Program for Equity Program (GEQIP-E), which expands and strengthens inclusive education for children with disabilities across Ethiopia. As the world grapples with the worst education crisis in history, Ethiopia’s reforms in educating children with disabilities stand out as a beacon of hope for inclusive education across the country.

The student enrollment numbers confirm the success of the government’s ongoing efforts:  more than 91,000 children with disabilities have joined 753 IERCs supported by the program as of June 2022. An additional 264 IERCs were established so far in 2023, bringing the total number of such centers across Ethiopia to 1,017, as compared to 113 in 2017. This is in line with the Comprehensive Education Sector Development  Program (ESDP VI) that the government has laid out for 2020/21 - 2024/25.

Yohannes Wogaso, Lead Executive Officer for educational programs and quality improvement at the Ministry of Education in Ethiopia explains the government’s vision with GEQIP-E. “The Government of Ethiopia considers education not only as a weapon to escape poverty, but also to fight poverty. In the last three decades, the government has ramped up its efforts to improve education and, has allocated 23% of the country’s public expenditure to education, with the last four years spent on addressing the gap in quality and equity.”

As Ethiopia embraced the challenge of expanding its education system to include the previously marginalized, it had to take a multi-pronged approach to designing, creating, and implementing inclusive education. It was no small endeavor that required getting buy-in from communities, changing social norms, setting up dedicated and adequately equipped resource centers, and training teachers in the principles of inclusive education. Here is how it all happened.

Inclusive Education Resource Centers (IERC) became the epicenter of assessment and learning

The IERC model was critical to realizing the vision of educating children with special needs across Ethiopia. Consider the IERCs main cluster schools that other neighborhood or satellite schools seek out for help—from tapping into the expertise of teachers who are specially trained to work with children with special needs (called itinerant teachers), to hosting community discussions and serving as the central repository for educational materials and assistive devices. IERCs are also responsible for early identification and assessment of children so that years are not shaved off a child’s education and the right interventions are provided for optimal learning and development.

As itinerant teachers from the state of Oromia put it, “The realization that education of children with disabilities is a human right came along with the opening of the IERCs.” Mariamawit’s case above speaks volumes for the necessity of IERCs.

Askale Wolde-Giorgis, an itinerant teacher at the Bole Arabsa kindergarten and primary school in Addis Ababa, says, “The IERC has brought positive change for our school. It has helped students understand how to use the materials, and the best thing is that the students have been able to get out of their houses and be able to use it.”

Itinerant teacher, Askale Wolde-Giorgis, talks about how Inclusive Education Resource Centers are transforming learning for children with disabilities. Itinerant teachers are those specially trained to work with children who have special needs.

Building awareness and buy-in at the community level was key

“My belief is that we must go to the level of the community and work with families, to first change attitudes so those community members can then become advocates for their children,” explains Tibebu Bogale Derseh, Chief Technical Advisor for Inclusive Education for GEQIP-E. Teachers and directors of IERCs held extensive discussions with communities and parents of children with disabilities before establishing the centers to sensitize families to the nature and types of disabilities and raise awareness about inclusive education.

As a result, the attitudes of parents towards inclusive education were positive and they became champions of the cause. Itinerant teachers from IERCs visit families on a regular basis, at least once a month, to support parents on their child’s education at home. For example, they may train parents on the use of sign language to better communicate with their child with a hearing impairment. This support and information exchange system between parents and educators was vital to the success of the IERCs and the educational attainment of children with disabilities.

Pia Korpinen, Counselor for Education, Embassy of Finland in Ethiopia shares the key drivers of success and how the Government’s inclusive education agenda supported by GEQIP-E program ensures that no child is left behind. 

Training teachers and education leaders in modern pedagogical approaches was a must

As Yohannis explains, “Teachers are the first instrument to enable the enhancement of the quality of education in a country.” Key to the success of the IERCs under the GEQIP-E program, was training and sensitization of more than 9,000 center directors, itinerant teachers, and education experts so that the skills of all were greatly enhanced. They were trained in the principles of inclusive education, empowering them to teach confidently in an inclusive classroom for the first time.

Teachers and administrators had to acquire new pedagogical skills in sign language, Braille, and inclusive education approaches to foster rigorous and self-motivated progress in students. In addition, educators were trained on how to make schools accessible−constructing water points, modifying toilets, leveling sidewalks−and on the investments needed to enable these enhancements. Training was essential in building confidence, skills, and awareness so that the itinerant teachers could then train regular teachers at satellite schools, as well as encourage parents and communities.

Being agile and innovative in a fast-evolving situation helped move the education agenda forward

Over the past couple of years, Ethiopia was affected by multiple crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and internal conflict, which negatively affected the education of all children, and those with disabilities. Quick thinking and creativity were required to ensure the continued relevance and success of the GEQIP-E initiatives. To mitigate the impact of trauma and other negative consequences associated with conflict, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and the regional education bureaus with support from GEQIP-E, worked with a University in Afar region and the regional health bureaus to train teachers to provide psychosocial support to children and families in the regions where the effects of war and displacement were occurring.

Similarly, when data from schools showed that behavioral problems were a major cause of school dropouts—children were simply being expelled from school if they were inattentive, aggressive, or absent from class—technical experts and regional education bureaus organized training for teachers on strategies to support children with special needs such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With positive feedback from teachers, such trainings are expected to grow.

Metasebia Mengesha, principal at Arabsa kindergarten explains how GEQIP-E has been a game changer for students with disabilities. “Parents now have much better awareness—in the past, they even used to hide their children; now they ask us for advice,” explains Metasebia. “No one at school isolates them; they happily accept them.”

The best news for inclusive education in Ethiopia? This is just the beginning. With more children with disabilities continuing to be enrolled in schools and increased capacity and awareness, Ethiopia is in the process of changing the trajectories and fortunes of an entire generation while establishing a novel standard of support and acceptance of people with disabilities.  

*Mariamawit’s real name is withheld for privacy.


GEQIP-E is co-financed by the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNICEF, and the governments of Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark. The inclusive education agenda is also supported by funding from the Government of Finland and analytical and advisory work financed by the Inclusive Education Initiative, a trust fund managed by the World Bank, with support from Norway and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).


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