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YALI Voices Podcast: Rigbe Gebrehawariat on Empowering People with Disabilities
February 12, 2018

Woman at desk (Courtesy of Rigbe Gebrehawariat)
Rigbe Gebrehawariat at her office (Courtesy of Rigbe Gebrehawariat)

Growing up with a physical disability, Rigbe Gebrehawariat had a supportive family who told her she could accomplish anything. But outside her home, strangers perceived her differently. “They have this attitude that I’m supposed to be at home, not out and about doing things, going to school, going out with friends,” Gebrehawariat says.

Gebrehawariat, who is trained as a lawyer and social worker, has dedicated her career to advocating for people with disabilities, especially women. She works to spread awareness about people with disabilities and what they can accomplish. This includes working directly with people with disabilities to improve their self-esteem.

“It’s just a state of mind, thinking if I have a disability, I cannot do what people normally do,” Gebrehawariat says. “Once you are out of that thinking, you would see that the sky’s the limit, that you are surrounded by opportunities and there’s a lot you can do.”

Gebrehawariat proved this point recently when she helped organize a fashion show that featured models with and without disabilities. She also works with a group that advocates for women with disabilities living with HIV, who are not typically included in discussions on sexuality and reproductive health. “It’s very important to show that people with disabilities, as any other person, have needs and abilities to do different things,” Gebrehawariat says.

To learn more about Gebrehawariat’s work as an advocate for people with disabilities, listen to the YALI Voices Podcast or read the transcript below.

YALI Voices Podcast: Rigbe Gebrehawariat

RIGBE GEBREHAWARIAT: By profession I’m a lawyer and a social worker. First degree in law and then master’s degree in social work. I’m an advocate of disability inclusion.

♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.

Today we’re featuring the voice of Rigbe Gebrehawariat, a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow and YALI Network member from Ethiopia. Rigbe has degrees in law and social work and currently is involved in social consultancy for vulnerable groups.

Rigbe has devoted several years to promoting the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities, especially women. As a board member and volunteer for an association for women with disabilities living with HIV, she works to raise awareness about the particular vulnerabilities that disabled women face with regard to gender-based violence and HIV infection.

Her passion and caring for others comes from her own experience of living with a disability and what she calls the great support she received from her family. That is where we begin our conversation.


RIGBE: I was born in a small town named Idaga Hamus. It’s Tikray region in Ethiopia. But I grew up in Addis, and we moved with my family there about when I was 4 years old. So I grew up there, and I had my primary and secondary school and university education there. It was okay. I have a physical disability, so there were some challenges, but my disability is not severe — like I’m not obliged to sit in a wheelchair, I can move around at ease except for some difficulties. The major challenge was attitude-wise, like how people see people with disabilities, how they perceive it and how they think that these are just people who need help.

That was a major challenge I had, but I had a great family support from my parents and my brothers and sisters. So I would say that it was good growing up in Addis.

In my family everyone was supportive. They believed in what I do, and they encouraged me all the way through, so it was good. But outside the house and outside the home environment, it was very difficult because the way people look at me and the way people perceive what I do — they have this attitude that I was supposed to be at home, not out and about doing things, going to school, going out with friends, doing what other people do. So that was a challenge. But the people who are closer to me, like my friends and my teachers, they were so supportive, and I think that’s what kept me going.

Another challenge is the physical inaccessibility of the school environment and transportation in general. But, as I said, my disability is not that severe to somehow restrict me from doing these things. So, yeah, those were the challenges I had to face.

I became a lawyer because I was interested in the social sciences and I wanted to see if, as a lawyer, I can be able to push for better policies. It could be with regard to people with disabilities or with people who have faced access to public services, for people who don’t have the luxury of education, health and all those basic services that a human being would ask for. That was, I think, one of the reasons why I wanted to be a lawyer.

VOICEOVER: Here, Rigbe talks about her work with the association Equal Opportunity for Women with Disabilities Living with HIV and the lack of access to services that women with disabilities face. And Rigbe wants those with living with disabilities to know and believe that they matter. Helping increase individuals’ self-esteem is where she puts her focus.

RIGBE: So, this organization helps in access for people with disabilities who are living with HIV because the HIV services kind of discriminate people with disabilities. People are not aware that people with disabilities have, as other people do — they are sexually active and they could be vulnerable for this kind of disease. But, in fact, in reality, they are more vulnerable because they’re vulnerable to sexual abuse. They don’t have the sexual education other people get because of the barriers.

So, in reality, they’re more vulnerable to be infected by HIV virus. But the services provided to other people are not accessible to them, and people literally think that people with disabilities are free of HIV zone, like they cannot be infected because they’re not sexually active and they’re not active in this area. So there is a huge gap of awareness. People are less aware about this issue.

What this organization does is educate health officers on this issue and makes some services accessible, like building ramps and providing some facilities for the health centers and for health officers to have the awareness and to know and to try to help people with disabilities to give those services.
They also help in giving the basic needs like food and other things to people with disabilities affected with HIV.


RIGBE: I raise awareness among people with disabilities. It’s actually not awareness, but I help them develop their self-esteem because they’re a reflection of the society. So when the society says you can’t do this, you can’t do that, they also reflect that and they would feel that I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I help them develop their self-esteem, being a model, and I do that among people with disabilities whenever I get the chance, especially in schools and universities with students with disabilities.

But among the general public, I had recently an event which was aimed at raising awareness of the public about inclusion. It was an event of inclusive fashion show where we had people with and without disabilities model and hit the catwalk to showcase inclusion and also empower women with disabilities who are at home who think that they can’t do anything. They see them, and they feel empowered. This is possible. It was covered by local and international media; that was very powerful, and I was able to make it happen using a grant from the U.S. Embassy public affairs section and also in partnership with the Ethiopian Fashion Designers Association.

We had about 28 models with disabilities, with seven different types of disabilities, showcasing their work. And we also had designers, 15 designers, emerging and established designers making outfits especially for them, taking into consideration their special needs. They were also given a workshop where they should consider the special needs of people in general when designing and producing the outfits or whatever brand they have.

So that was very powerful in raising awareness among the public. Fashion is an art and entertainment, and it’s a better way of reaching out to people and raising awareness.

It’s very important to show that people with disabilities — as any other person — have the needs and they have the abilities to do different things, because it’s a state of mind. People have their own abilities and disabilities in general. So the thing is giving them or creating the environment in which they can function. Showing that people with disabilities can function normally would empower others, inspire others and show that anything is possible and we all are created with abilities no matter what. We need that state of mind of “I have a lot to contribute and I can do anything really.” It’s just the guts to do it.

It’s just a state of mind, thinking that if I have a disability I cannot do what people normally do. You have your own way of doing things, but that’s what people tell you, so that’s what you think. But once you are out of that thinking, you would see that the sky is the limit, that you are surrounded by opportunities and there’s a lot you can do. So it’s a state of mind in a way.


RIGBE: In general, the challenge in relation to physical accessibility emanates from people’s attitudes. Whenever people believe in the fact that people with disabilities deserve the service they provide, the next thing to do would be making modifications which are really simple and not that costly. But I think the main thing to do is creating that state of mind and a positive attitude towards people with disabilities. So the government or nongovernmental organizations involved in this area could raise awareness, make people know that whenever we create an environment for all people, usable by all people, it benefits us.

As a businessperson, I consider myself, for example — personally, I’m a buyer, so if I want to buy something or if I want to use some service, I would prefer an accessible building or an accessible service. The businessperson running that business is losing me as a client, or it could be an elderly person, or it could be a pregnant woman. When you make your services open for everyone, you get as much. So, we need that state of mind, and I think all of us are responsible for making that change in raising awareness in general about people with disabilities.

And one other thing governments can do is that enforce the laws in conventions. For example, we have the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ethiopia is a party to it. We also have, for example, in Ethiopia, we have laws obliging buildings and other public services to be inclusive of persons with disabilities. But those laws are not practical; they’re not observed. So enforcement is very important from the side of the government, enforcing those laws, making sanctions and coming up with a way that people can understand. For example, there are buildings with ramps which are very impractical, very steep; you don’t even know why they’re there. It’s all about how much people are aware about this issue.

One thing I’d like the YALI Network to do is telling stories of young African leaders or leaders with disabilities because it’s really inspiring and it makes people think how they can accommodate it — they can be accommodative and how they can give opportunities, equal opportunities. So it’s really important, storytelling, and maybe campaigns on raising awareness about disability. I’m sure there are YALI and Network members with disabilities working on disability issues. I think there are campaigns on environments and other issues, so I’m aware of that, so if disability inclusion can be some kind of campaign and maybe raise awareness around that area, that would be beneficial.

VOICEOVER: That brings an end to another edition of the YALI Voices Podcast. Our thanks to Rigbe and to all of you for listening with us.

How are you working to uphold the rights of those living with disabilities or health challenges? Be sure to share your thoughts on the YALI Network Facebook page at facebook.com/yalinetwork.

Come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.
Join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be a part of something bigger!

Our theme music is “E – Go Happen” by Grace Jerry and produced by The Presidential Precinct.

The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is a part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.