By Dagnachew B. Wakene @DagWakene
Addis Abeba, January 29/2021 – A number of Ethiopian news outlets have covered the outrageous incident which occurred last month within the premises of the Addis Abeba University (AAU) involving a graduating class law student with visual impairment, Abraham Duressa, who died by suicide. The purpose of this piece is not to provide thorough details of what transpired on that fateful day of 24th December 2020. Eyewitness accounts and the relevant authorities have already established some essential facts of the tragic incident. The news also caught the attention of the nation’s House of People’s Representatives (HoPR) that ordered all implicated parties, notably the Ethiopian National Educational Assessment and Examination Agency (NEAEA) and, to an extent, the AAU itself, to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The question as to who is/are directly, indirectly, jointly or severally responsible for the appalling, unlawful denial of the deceased student’s right to reasonable accommodation (a fundamental legal notion recognized in Ethiopian law through, inter alia, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD which the country is a State party to) still remains under scrutiny.
“As a disability rights lawyer myself and an alumnus of the AAU, I found my alma mater’s aforementioned threat an utter crucifixion of honesty, to say the least.”
What compelled me to write this piece nonetheless is the news dispatched a little over a fortnight ago that the AAU – the oldest and largest tertiary education institution of the country – is now openly threatening to sue one of the national associations of persons with disabilities in Ethiopia for “tarnishing its reputation” over Abraham Duressa’s case.
As a disability rights lawyer myself and an alumnus of the AAU, I found my alma mater’s aforementioned threat an utter crucifixion of honesty, to say the least. I ask therefore, with due respect, which reputation is the AAU leadership referring to, anyway? The reputation that the University, regardless of whether it happens to be a culprit in Abraham’s case or not, is as a matter of fact an inaccessible, disability-unfriendly academic institution, in the first place? The reputation that a striking majority of AAU students with disabilities – past or present – find the facilities, institutional mindsets and overall ambiance of the University non-conducive to the disabled? The reputation that ableism, together with systemic disability-based discrimination and favoritism, continue to be among the typical characteristic features of AAU?
Let me unpack these points a bit further, not based on hearsay or unfounded assumptions, but my own evident lived encounters at this very University as one of its former students with disabilities (a polio survivor). I would mention just three irrefutable testaments to the fact that what had happened to Abraham Duressa is not an isolated incident and could well have happened to any AAU student with disability, myself included.
Testament One: The AAU, School of Law and Governance
The AAU Faculty of Law – where I was a student back in the 2000s – was and still is housed in an antique, two-story edifice constructed a zillion years ago by Emperor Haile Selassie I. A treasure as this structure indeed is to the university and the nation, it nonetheless is not an ideal spot to accommodate students with physical disabilities and mobility limitations. You would have to climb two long, timber-made staircases in order to get to the classrooms located upstairs. It never occurred to the Faculty authorities that the building needed retrofitting to make it accessible and inclusive for all students (and staff) regardless of disabilities. Adding an insult to injury, the wooden staircases would be mopped every Monday with some sort of oil, obviously to keep them shiny and durable but no one would realize the potential fatal ramifications this would have on students who rely on crutches and walking appliances to navigate through the already cumbersome, slippery, stairs.
Over a decade after I graduated from the Faculty, I still remember – as do my classmates – the countless times I tripped trying to go up and down that building each day of the week for five solid years. Such are the typical instances of routine institutionalized disability-based discrimination that may well push a student with disability into despair and dejection – at times leading her/him to suicidal ideation. For any non-disabled person to understand this, it simply requires empathy as opposed to an instinct to be judgmental.
Testament Two: The John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
The year I joined the AAU in 2001, the University’s biggest library, The John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Library got its wheelchair ramp removed for ‘reasons of renovation’. It took four years to put that ramp back in place, not because it was either expensive or arduous to reinstate a rudimentary cement ramp, which could have been done in a matter of a few days and enabled students with physical disabilities such as myself to access the major library on campus. But it was rather because this was deemed neither urgent nor vital in the minds of the University authorities, despite our repeated plea at the time to redress such an affront to our fundamental rights of accessibility and reasonable accommodation – two mutually inclusive and yet distinct concepts of law. In the interpretation of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a monitoring organ of the CRPD – reasonable accommodation is an ex nunc obligation, meaning that it arises reactively on a case-by-case, as needed, basis; whereas accessibility is an ex ante duty in that it is expected to be done proactively, from the very outset as part of systemic changes and not upon a requirement of the particular needs of an individual or group of individuals with disabilities (see CRPD Committee General Comment 2, paragraphs, 25-26). What made the Kennedy Library disability-unfriendly were, above and beyond anything, the inaccessible mindsets of the authorities whose unlawful actions and inaction no one held to account. I would leave it to readers of this piece to try and imagine what it means for any university student – disabled or not – to be denied her/his unconditional access to a library.
“…what I ended up dealing with the day I went for the conference was a sheer nightmare that brought back all the dreadful memories I had as an AAU student.”
Testament Three: The More It Changes, the More It Stays the Same
Fast forward to 2019, I was invited to present a paper representing the institution I am currently studying at – the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Law – for a conference of doctoral researchers on human rights, annually hosted by various universities in Africa and elsewhere. In October 2019, the host of this event happened to be the School of Law and Governance, Addis Abeba University. I had hoped that fifteen years after I left this School, there would now certainly be somewhat of a silver lining in the way disability rights are viewed and embraced by the Faculty’s current staff and management. I had informed coordinators of the aforementioned conference, weeks beforehand, that due to my mobility limitations, they ought to make sure that the conference venue would be disability-friendly. They told me, in no ambiguous terms, not to worry about that. And yet, what I ended up dealing with the day I went for the conference was a sheer nightmare that brought back all the dreadful memories I had as an AAU student. The conference was organized at an entirely inaccessible venue, disregarding the heads-up I gave the organizers several days earlier. Mind you, this was a gathering of human rights scholars hosted by the AAU, Faculty of Law, but then the irony was that even apologies for the unacceptable inconvenience I had to endure was extended to me by representatives of another university from overseas who were invited just as I was and felt ashamed of the apathy they observed. Such is the reputation of AAU to this day when it comes to persons with disabilities. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. A 2014 study assessing the situation of students with disabilities in Ethiopian universities, where the AAU is among the main cases in point, reads that its findings:
“show terribly poor and limited quality of services in [Ethiopian] universities. Higher education accessibility barriers including physical, architectural, service deliveries, provisions of learning materials and equipment, attitudinal and cultural influences are widely prevalent in the universities… to the extent students get in to psychological problems hating their classes, education and, in cases, life in general.” (Tirussew at al., 2014)
Wrapping up, the audacity that AAU showcased in recent weeks to threaten one of the associations of persons with disabilities in Ethiopia for damaging its reputation is not just the mockery of mockeries, but a blatant travesty of justice too. The University can go ahead and materialize its threats. It should however also brace itself for a mountainous pile of moral damage claims and relentless public interest litigation that would knock its gates on behalf of the multitudes of students and alums with disabilities whose rights were bulldozed by this same institution for decades.
The path of wisdom is that instead of attempting to defend the indefensible and portray a rosy image it did not earn, AAU needs take an introspective look at itself, admit the not-so-pleasant facts and ensure that none of its students with disabilities will ever again be compelled into contemplating despair, let alone suicide, due to prejudice, ableism, inaccessibility and discrimination within its premises. After all, no one knows who might experience disability at some point. It is in the interest of all, not some, to ensure that we build a system of inclusion and detest exclusion in every shape or form. Inclusion is not a project or a program, it rather is a mindset first and foremost. On this note, I rest my case with a reminder of Article 41 of the Ethiopian Higher Institutions Proclamation No. 1152/2019 that stipulates:
“1. Institutions shall make, to the extent possible, their facilities and programs amicable to use with relative ease to students with physical disabilities. 2. Institutions shall, to the extent that situations and resources permit, relocate classes, develop alternative testing procedures, and provide different educational auxiliary aids in the interest of students with disabilities.” AS
Editor’s Note: Dagnachew B. Wakene is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for International and Comparative Law (ICLA), Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, with a research focus on violence against persons with disabilities in Africa. He holds an LLB degree from the Addis Abeba University, Ethiopia, and Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) in Rehabilitation and Development Studies from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.