Insights on Physical Disability in Ethiopia

CURE Hospital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Traditionally, Ethiopian society’s perceptions of disability have stemmed from the religious and social backgrounds of the community. In most regions of the country, families with disabled children are considered to be punished as a consequence of the anger of the village witch doctor or an ancestral spirit. The community, without considering the impact on its members, displays humiliating and disabling attitudes toward people who have a disability.

Mesfin and Shibere

Pictured here is Mesfin Taye with Shibere, an 18-year-old girl who came to the CURE Ethiopia hospital to find help for her leg. Her story is familiar to many Mesfin and the counseling team encounter. Because of her disability, her family thought she had been inflicted by an “evil spirit.” She endured relentless taunts from schoolmates, who called her “Ms. Cripple.” She became so despondent that she even contemplated thoughts of suicide. Those thoughts are gone now that she has received physical and emotional healing at the CURE hospital. “I will tell what God has done for me to all my schoolmates and villagers,” she shared with Mesfin before she returned home.

The disabled person shares the community’s perspective of cultural values and practices. Children with some form of disability become convinced that the wrong views of the society are true about them. Most of them turn out to be beggars and become lifetime dependents of the society.

These types of attitudes are deeply ingrained in Ethiopian culture. For example, in the art of the society, a musician typically portrays beauty in terms of physical appearance, based on what he views as most desirable. As a result, the beauty and fullness of the body are attributed to the graciousness of God toward that person. If a person is born disabled, however, it is considered God’s wrath on him or her and his or her family. These types of cultural expressions portray a disabled person as less than equal and as hopeless if others do not give him or her help.

Generally, people with a disability are considered ugly, and they are not welcome in society. People say they have the works of the spirit in them, meaning they are “agents of the spirits.” Because of society’s influence, a family with a child who has a disability considers this child as a burden. In most places, a family hides their child for fear of being outcasts in the village. They would not consider them as useful to the community. Some think they are intellectually impaired too.

In most cases, disabled children grow up learning from their parents that they are not worthy of mixing with other kids their age. The children accept the norm and believe they are cursed and under the punishment of God.

CURE International, through its established specialty hospital in Addis Ababa, has been involved in reaching disabled children and their families to change their miserable situation. Our intervention is both physical and emotional because we understand the disabled child is afflicted in both ways.

So far, CURE Ethiopia has done more than 1,500 cleft lip/palate and orthopedic surgeries.  The children experience love and care in the hospital, which is completely different from what they had been experiencing in the community.

The CURE family in Ethiopia offers them a safe ground that completely transforms their outlook for the first time. Those who have never been touched by someone other than their immediate family are hugged and even cherished by the loving hospital staff.  Most of the time they call the CURE hospital “heaven on earth.”

The most important fact is the continuing effect that CURE has in the lives of the families of disabled children. Through CURE’s intervention, many children can now fully succeed in their community in many ways. For instance, children who were not going to school are now going to school after their surgery.

Through the CURE hospital, communities also learn about disability and its effects. Families who get counseling and teaching in the hospital go back and share what they have learned with their community. As they go back to their village, they teach their neighbors that all people are equal and that all can live together with society. Neighbors who saw a child who was once disabled now walking and talking normally are amazed and change their attitudes toward the family.