Full-lung singing and the wild clapping of a hundred small hands are heard well before stepping through the tall metal gates of Jerusalem Inclusive School. In a small compound, on a cobbled back road in one of those outer suburbs of Addis that wind coolly into the Entoto foothills, students shake off the early chill with song and dance. What’s unusual, is that the children are also singing with their hands: Just over half of those making all the noise are deaf or disabled – and sign language is part of the curriculum for all.

 

In Ethiopia, over 1.7 million people have a hearing impairment and 15 million live with some other form of disability. Jerusalem is one of just a few primary schools in the country catering to deaf and special needs children – and it’s the only school in Addis providing a space for disabled and able-bodied children to learn side-by-side.

 

Of its 70 students this year, 43 have some kind of disability – be it cerebral palsy, autism, an intellectual disability or hearing impairment.  All are from low-income families. Founder and Director Yihayis Channie says there’s a huge lack of opportunity for these children.  At his school – which teaches KG to Grade 4 – students learn sign language alongside regular subjects like maths, Amharic and English. Specialist care and occupational therapy is provided for those who need it  – and for many, tuition is free.

 

“Our motto is: ‘Students who learn together, learn to live together,’” says Channie. “Here, they grow and compete with each other as equals, they develop respect and a soft heart for each other – and they share the same hopes for their futures.” When he was just 24, Channie lost his own hearing in a car accident and was forced to build a new life. He put himself through night school; studying sign language and graduating as a teacher – before taking up a role with Cheshire Home, a British NGO running community programs for disabled children.  His main job was to find those children and encourage their families to send them to school.  “Not only were they just sitting at home, but often, they’d be locked in separate quarters of their compounds, hidden,” he says. “There is shame – and in some cultures, disability is still seen as a curse.”

 

In 2005, when he heard that the Cheshire programs would be shut down, Channie established Jerusalem Inclusive. The school has since had 4,000 students pass through its gates. One of them is 8-year-old Tsion Degsew. Born with a hearing impairment, Tsion was unable to communicate with even her closest family until she was enrolled at Jerusalem at age four and taught sign language with her mother. She quickly became an outstanding student and this year, is fast making new friends at a regular government school. She has also, to everyone’s delight, topped her class.

Sadly, most disabled children in Tsion’s neighbourhood won’t have her opportunity. Due to ever-rising rent and running costs, Channie is looking at having to close Jerusalem’s gates before the end of the school year.

 

There is really nowhere else for the kids to go, he says: “They’ll be isolated at home and they’ll feel worthless.”

 

Channie dreams of being able to build a school of his own one day – and of opening a training institute to share expertise developed over 13 years teaching inclusive classrooms.  But for now, he’s fighting for an affordable space on the outskirts of town – and a just little more time. “These kids deserve a place in our society. They deserve an education and the right to dream big – and actually, we all lose out if we don’t let them.”

 

Jerusalem Inclusive School is registered as a private kindergarten and primary school in Kolfe Keranyo, Addis Ababa. For more information about the school and how you can help, please send a text message to Yihayis Channie on +251 0911 108 781, email Jerusalem_inedu@yahoo.com or bezabezina@gmail.com.