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Blog: Barriers to education for disabled youth

Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mar 2019

Despite legislation and commitments to ensure equitable access to education, evidence from Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia shows that school attendance of disabled youth is very poor. In Ethiopia, stories bring to life the barriers preventing young disabled people from reaching their full potential.

In rural Ethiopia, where agriculture is the main source of income for many families, young people with disabilities find themselves marginalised and excluded from society. Opportunities for youth with disabilities to find agricultural work are limited, so education is usually the best chance to bring about positive and sustainable change in their lives. However, the scarcity of assistive devices, poor public understanding of disability, a lack of inclusive services and accessible environments prevent young people with disabilities from finishing school and they often end up in informal and insecure work.

The Challenge

Over half of nearly 5,000 households and families in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia put the high cost of education as the main reason that young people with disabilities were not in school. This prohibitive cost is coupled with the fact that physical and educational needs for disabled students are rarely considered. 

Even for young people without disabilities employment opportunities in Ethiopia are lacking. This is particularly true in rural areas, so it is important for young people to leave school with skills and education to match the needs of the available jobs. Yet, for disabled people there are many barriers that prevent them from attending or completing their schooling.  

In many cases, young people in Ethiopia live more than two hours’ walk away from their nearest secondary schools in rural settings. For disabled young people, simply the distance of schools from their home can pose an insurmountable obstacle to education. Moreover, as disabled young people are more vulnerable to violence these long journeys can be particularly risky. This is reflected more widely than Ethiopia with many young people citing concerns over safety, frequently given as a reason why a young person with a disability was out of school. 

Yeneneh's Journey

Yeneneh* is a 28-year-old man who was born and grew up in rural Kebele of Fogera Woreda. He was born with no legs or hands and is currently running a small shop in a room provided by the local government. 

Yeneneh did not have an easy childhood, relying on his mother’s support to move around. He was sent to formal school at the age of seven with his mother carrying him wherever he needed to go. Yeneneh felt marginalised at school; while some of Yeneneh’s classmates were sympathetic to him, others laughed at him.This made him feel alienated because his classmates did not perceive him as ‘normal’. 

At the age of 8, Yeneneh dropped out of school, feeling guilty that his mother had to carry him, and affected by the bullying. His teachers visited him at home, encouraging him to come back and be a role model for other students, so he returned after a year away. Yeneneh continued until he was 11 but then dropped out again, with no intention of going back this time. 

Today, Yeneneh receives some support from the community around him who buy goods from his shop. But he feels that young people with disabilities don’t help each other. Other disabled young people find out about opportunities for training and support because they can get around more easily, but they don’t share that information with Yeneneh. 

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are mostly in towns and cities, so not necessarily accessible to Yeneneh and his peers who cannot move around easily. The only support Yeneneh has received from NGOs is a wheelchair. While there are public meetings, Yeneneh and others with disabilities are not notified or invited to these to share their experiences or concerns. Yeneneh thinks the government should intervene to make sure that the NGOs and local officials work in a more transparent way. 

Yeneneh’s shop is located near the bus station, but as local officials are thinking of redeveloping the area, he is concerned that his shop will be moved without the consideration of what it brings to his life. Yeneneh’s life and livelihood is dependent on this shop, and the support it brings from the community. He is not sure what will happen to him if he is forced to move from the area.


  • Schools need to design and implement programmes that improve students’ understanding of disabilities, to encourage an inclusive environment and prevent marginalisation
  • Schools also need to be physically accessible, nearby and should enable youth with disabilities to learn with assistive devices
  • Local authorities need to reach out and welcome the participation of young people with disabilities in public meetings, and should keep them informed of opportunities, jobs and services
  • When policies to include disabled people are put into place, implementation plans - with clear targets and indicators - are necessary to show progress and change
  • Specific budgetary allocation for disability issues is needed to finance education for disabled children throughout different ministries, and in harmony with each other
  • Organisations working with disabled persons should ensure they engage with youth in harder to reach contexts


The research team is funded by ESRC-DFID’s Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and includes University of Brighton, Goldsmiths University, CHADET, School of Social Work Addis Ababa University, ChildHope UK, ActionAid Nepal and Research Centre for Education and Innovation Development (CERID), Tribhuvan University.

This impact story was written collaboratively by partners from CHADET, Leonard Cheshire, Goldsmiths University, and the Institute of Development Studies. 


* Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality



The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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