Disabled people in Ethiopia: Making public services work for poor people

Most of Addis Ababa's estimated 3 million population lives in slums and informal settlements. In June 2005 the President of Ethiopia officially opened the first of 30 modern public shower and toilet facilities run by a cooperative of disabled persons in Addis Ababa with the support of the ILO. This innovative proposal by the Ethiopian Federation of Persons with Disabilities (EFPD) to renovate existing sanitary facilities and unlock the economic potential of unemployed people with disabilities won a World Bank Development Marketplace Competition prize in 2003.

ADDIS ABABA - Abaynesh Gebeyehu Damtew, a 20-year-old disabled woman from the north of Ethiopia, left her home town of Alamata eight years ago to get medical treatment in the capital. She has not seen her family since.

"My family did not need me because of my disability. In the place where I was born there was no disabled people's organization. There was no awareness about disability. You cannot find support and services," she explains.

Having completed her medical treatment, Abaynesh became a member of the National Association of the Physically Handicapped. She wears a short brace, below her right knee, due to her disability caused by polio. Despite her mobility difficulties Abaynesh attends late evening classes at Basilios Primary and Junior High School.

"I must learn today in order to change my life tomorrow," she says. "Rather than sitting idle, working also gives a meaning to my life." Before the classes, she attends a skills training course to become a tailor four days a week from 8 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and works as a cleaner at one of the 30 public sanitary service blocs managed by the Yenegew Sew Sanitary Service Cooperative from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The Cooperative was formed after the proposal by the Ethiopian Federation of Persons with Disabilities (EFPD) to renovate existing sanitary facilities and create jobs for unemployed people with disabilities had won a World Bank Development Marketplace Competition prize in 2003. The proposal was one of 186 chosen from over 2,700 proposals submitted.

When the project was designed, the Addis Ababa City Administration Sanitation, Beautification and Parks Development Agency was planning to build more than 200 new public toilets and to outsource the management of the existing facilities to private and community organizations interested in running them at affordable prices. The City Administration and the ILO were both partners in the EFPD's submission to renovate and manage 30 facilities.

The objective of the World Bank's Development Marketplace (DM) Global Competition is to identify and fund the most innovative ideas in development from around the world. The theme for the 2003 DM Competition was "Making Public Services Work for Poor People". In a city where 24 per cent of housing units have no bathrooms at all and 45 per cent share pit latrines, the EFPD initiative has made an important contribution to public health and hygiene.

Enabling disabled workers through cooperatives

In January 2004, EFPD officially started to implement the DM project, known as "Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities".

"Existing public toilets were inadequate, unevenly distributed and had design problems. Public toilet misuse and vandalism were common. Before the project started, only 28 of the 72 public toilets were operational," explains Fisiha Belay, the General Manager of EFPD.

EFPD not only constructed two new blocs, installing 72 showers and a pilot laundry as well as renovating 30 existing toilets, but also established the Yenegew Sew Sanitary Service Cooperative. The Cooperative provides jobs to 250 unemployed persons with visual, hearing and mobility impairments as well as ex-leprosy patients and mothers of children with mental retardation. The modern public shower and toilet facilities run by the Cooperative serve the main market area of Addis Ababa and fill a vacuum in public sanitation facilities in other areas of the city as well.

Yenegew Sew charges Birr 0.25 (US$ 0.03) per visit per user for toilet service and Birr 1.00 (US$0.12) for shower service. "In Addis Ababa city, paying for public toilet services is relatively new, but the responsiveness of the inhabitants is encouraging and expected to increase," says Belay.

"We are only worried about the relatively long lead time required to get a vacuum truck from the city administration to empty the septic tanks, and the interruption of services whenever the tanks are full . . . together with EFPD, the disabled persons' Cooperative has prepared a proposal for the purchase of a vacuum truck," he continues.

Cooperative leaders received management training and went on a study tour to Tanzania where they learned how to run sanitary facilities as a public utility service from an ILO-supported urban sanitation project in Dar es Salaam. Cooperative members were trained in customer handling and marketing, maintenance and plumbing. The ILO and Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI), the official international aid programme of the Irish Government, provided training through an existing ILO-DCI project, "Developing Entrepreneurship among Women with Disabilities" in Addis Ababa and in the Amhara and Tigray regions of Ethiopia.

ILO promotes equal employment opportunities

The ILO promotes equal employment opportunities for persons with disabilities through its research, advocacy and service activities. Key ILO instruments include the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Convention, 1983 (No. 159), and the ILO Code of Practice on Managing Disability in the Workplace adopted in 2001.

Support is provided to policy-makers, social partners and disabled persons' organizations in the design and implementation of vocational training and rehabilitation programmes, as well as the formulation and implementation of policy and legislation to ensure equality of opportunity and treatment of persons with disabilities in training and employment. Technical cooperation projects are an important means of demonstrating how these principles can be implemented in practice.

"People with disabilities are frequently trapped in a vicious circle of marginalization, poverty and social exclusion, and positive action is needed to assist them in breaking out of it," says Barbara Murray, ILO Senior Specialist on Disability. "The public shower and toilet project in Addis Ababa not only helps to overcome barriers which disabled people face in getting jobs and taking their place in society, it also makes public services work for the rest of the poor."

The importance of vocational training for disabled workers:

"Disabled people want what we all want: the chance to get educated, find rewarding work, lead worthwhile lives and be valued members of their community and in the world at large."
James Wolfensohn and Amartya Sen, 2004

Of the 610 million people with disabilities on the planet, more than half are of working age and want to work. But discrimination still abounds, even for those with qualifications and skills. And the standards and relevance of vocational training for those with disabilities are still a challenge in many countries.

For the 400 million disabled people in developing countries, these problems are compounded by the fact that the majority live in rural areas, often quite remote from the residential training programmes held in the cities and towns. This factor alone acts to exclude many disabled people, who rely on family support and do not wish to leave their homes.

ILO Convention 159 on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) (1983) calls on member States to develop a national disability policy based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, non-discrimination and mainstreaming of training and employment opportunities. In promoting vocational training and employment opportunities for disabled persons, the ILO works with governments and employers' and workers' organizations, civil society organizations and the private sector.

For many disabled persons in developing countries, self-employment in some form is the most likely option when they complete training. The ILO project in Ethiopia featured in this article is an example of how the ILO works in partnership with disabled persons organizations (DPOs) to promote opportunities in a sustainable way, developing the capacity of these DPOs to continue playing this role once the project is completed.

Recommended reading:

Managing disability in the workplace. ILO code of practice. ISBN 92-2-111639-5.

Placement of job-seekers with disabilities: Elements of an effective service. ISBN 92-2-115114-X

Assisting disabled persons in finding employment: A practical guide. ISBN 92-2-115116-6

Job and work analysis: Guidelines on identifying jobs for persons with disabilities. ISBN 92-2-117864-1

Trade unions and workers with disabilities: Promoting decent work, combating discrimination. Labour Education, vol. 2004/4, Number 137, ISSN 0378-5467

For more information, please visit www.ilo.org/publns or e-mail pubvente@ilo.org.