SEATTLE — People with disabilities make up more than 15 percent of the world’s population, but their human rights are often overlooked. As a result of these inequalities and injustices, there are many people who dedicate their time and their voices to the cause. These four disability rights activists work toward equality for people with disabilities around the world.
At the age of five, Yetnebersh Nigussie went blind. Born into a low-income family in a rural part of Ethiopia, Yetnebersh’s family thought it best if she enrolled in a boarding school for girls with disabilities.
Yetnebersh later studied law at Addis Ababa University with only two other women in her class. With a law degree under her belt, Yetnebersh set out to advocate for other people with disabilities by working for almost 20 activist organizations.
In 2005, she founded the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD). The organization fights for equal rights and equal access to opportunity for Ethiopians with disabilities. ECDD aims to improve the livelihoods of Ethiopian people with disabilities by providing vocational skills and job search training, and by issuing grants to working disabled individuals. The organization also fights to make healthcare and education more accessible to people, mainly women and children, with disabilities.
Yetnebersh’s hard work has not gone unrecognized. In 2017, Yetnebersh won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel prize”, for her “inspiring work promoting the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities.”
Javed Abidi was born to a financially secure family in the agricultural trade city of Aligarh, India. At birth, Javed had sclerosis of the spine that was misdiagnosed and mistreated, causing him to be confined to a wheelchair for life.
Javed left for the United States for treatment and to study journalism and communications at Wright State University. Although he was a competitive applicant, Javed struggled to find employment in India, citing his disability as the biggest hindrance to being hired.
His activism helped pass the Persons with Disabilities Act in 1995 and he became the director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in 1997. Currently, Javed also serves as vice chair of the International Disability Alliance, which fights for the rights of disabled people on a global scale.
In this role, Javed seeks to remind the public that more disability rights activists and movements need to focus on the global south: “15 percent of the world’s population live with a disability,” said Javed in an interview with Live Mint. “Of this, as many as 80 percent live in countries of the global south. Yet the leadership and the mechanisms that shape policies […] are controlled by people from the developed world, who have absolutely no idea what it means to be a person with disability.”
Tiffany was diagnosed with a retinal disease after birth and lost her sight. After studying at many specialized schools in India, Tiffany went on to earn a degree in English literature from the Government Women’s College. Tiffany’s work with the visually impaired began immediately after graduation when she worked for Braille Without Borders.
Through this work, Tiffany discovered that few other visually impaired people living in India shared her fate. Most of the visually impaired individuals she encountered rarely left home, were undereducated or lacked the skills and training needed for employment. As a result, Tiffany founded the Jyothirgamaya Foundation, a school for the blind where students are taught computer skills, English and other academic subjects.
Tiffany states that her experience with visual impairment inspired her to focus on life skills at the foundation as well: “The only word blind people are taught is…you can’t…you can’t…you can’t. Even my father was very overprotective but I had it in me that I must walk alone, travel alone…live by myself …and now I want to empower others.” The students at the Jyothirgamaya Foundation are taught mobility and orientation so they can travel and live freely early in life, an experience that Tiffany was not able to have herself.
Disability rights activist Peter Ogik was born in Jinja, Uganda to two parents who had never seen someone with albinism before. As a result, Peter’s albino appearance at birth was a shock. While Peter’s family accepted and loved him fully, the rest of the neighborhood and his parents’ friends assumed Peter was cursed and distanced themselves from him.
Peter excelled in school despite the constant bullying and limited funds available for food and supplies. However, even after high school and university, Peter struggled to find work: “I remember applying for a job, and the owner of the business responded: ‘I can’t give you a job, you’d scare my customers.’”
In 2013, Peter, along with a few others from his university, formed the Source Nile Union of Persons with Albinism. The organization seeks to raise awareness about albinism in Nigeria and Uganda as well as providing materials for skin protection and skin cancer treatment.
Peter presents his disability activism in different forms such as film, music and entertainment and aims to demonstrate that the possibilities for people with disabilities are endless: “After all, it’s just a skin that is missing the color,” Peter says “but we have the potential to do everything.”
People with disabilities are more likely to have less education, fewer opportunities for employment, poor health outcomes and higher poverty rates compared to people without disabilities. Thanks to people like these disability rights activists, this group of disadvantaged people will have their voices heard and needs met.
– Danielle Poindexter