Yetnebersh Nigussie: The blind Ethiopian lawyer fighting for disability rights globally
3 May 2020
BY MOHAMMED AWAL
Yetnebersh Nigussie is an Ethiopian lawyer fighting for about one billion of the world’s population with some form of disability. As one of the world’s most influential disability rights activists, Nigussie lost her ability to see since the age of five.
Currently, a Senior Inclusion Advisor with the international disability and development NGO – Light for the World – Nigussie said she experienced a litany of discrimination growing up in Ethiopia due to her condition.
“Many people in Ethiopia think that someone’s disability is due to a curse because of a fault that their family has committed,” she told DW. However, she believes her “blindness was an opportunity because not many people in my village had the chance to get an education.”
Because Nigussie was blind, she was not considered suitable for an early marriage, which is a common practice in her village. All of her friends got married when they were between 10 and 12. “I was the only exception. Education liberated me, and allowed me to become who I am today,” she told the German broadcaster.
Eulogized by many as an outstandingly fearless advocate for the rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Nigussie was born 24 January, 1982 in the Amhara region of Northern Ethiopia. She got blind after a meningitis infection.
Nigussie would then attend the Shashemane Catholic School for the blind, where the nuns running the school helped her to focus on her capabilities. According to a report, Nigussie became the leader of the student council during her time at the Menelik II senior secondary school. She would then graduate from Addis Ababa University as one of the first three female blind law students in Ethiopia overcoming social, religious, and institutional blockades. Nigussie has in addition to her law degree, a Master’s degree in social work, as well as, a Master’s degree in Peace and Security Studies from Addis Ababa University.
She co-founded the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (ECDD) in 2015 to address the weak cooperation between disability organizations, specialized service providers, and mainstream development programs. She was then a university student studying her first degree of law at Addis Ababa University and beginning to penetrate the labor market.
“That was also my initial days of disability activism,” she told African Politics and Policy. ECDD now has more than 40 employees out of which nearly half have different types of disabilities. Nigussie has been fighting for the global disable community for more than 15 years.
“My greatest lessons learned from my fifteen years of activism on tackling inequality are the need to work together and providing clear leadership. I have realized through the process that deconstructing what the society has established as a norm would require a longer time, stronger allies, and committed leadership. For instance, disability-based discrimination has been deep-rooted in the society and we cannot tackle it overnight,” African Politics and Policy quoted her.
She further told DW that: “It’s important to recognize that there has been significant progress both internationally and regionally on the rights of persons with disabilities. Africa as a continent has now developed its own protocol on the rights of persons with disabilities, which is nearly ready for adoption and implementation by the African Union heads of state. And I’m proud to say that I was part of the development of this protocol.”
Nigussie was 2017’s joint winner of the Right Livelihood Award, an award also known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize. She said she wants to create a world of equality – real equality driven by her personal experience.
“I believe that I am here for a purpose. And I believe the next generation deserves a better world,” she told The Financial Times. “When they undermine my 99 abilities and focus on my one disability. They think I cannot do anything because I cannot see. When I was 20, I thought it would be easy to change the world. But it has taken me long years to achieve even what I have achieved today,” she added.