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A collage of three images showing diverse groups of University of Gondar students in Ethopia chatting and interacting together in large groups

Listening to student voices to improve access to higher education

Queen's Nursing and Health Quality researchers, in collaboration with the University of Gondar and funded by the MasterCard Foundation, are partnering with Ethiopian students with disabilities to support their post-secondary studies.

According to the World Bank, an estimated 110-190 million people from low and middle-income countries have sensory, communication, motor, or learning disabilities. In Ethiopia, around 15 million people (17.6% of the total population) live with disabilities but only 1% obtain an education, making up just 0.02% of higher education’s total enrolment. While the Ethiopian constitution mandates political, legal and rehabilitation support to meet the needs of the people with physical and mental disabilities, this stark statistical disparity highlights the persistent systemic barriers still preventing a significant number of students with disabilities from sustaining their education and transitioning to post-secondary studies. Addressing this issue in any long-term and meaningful way can only be achieved in collaboration with those excluded.  

"Only students with the lived experience of disability can speak with authority about school system supports and restraints on their educational aspirations," says Dr. Rylan Egan, Queen’s School of Nursing faculty member and co-lead of Listening to the voices of students with disabilities to maximize alignment between stated needs and external innovations, a Participatory Action Research project funded through a Mastercard Foundation research grant. 

Alongside fellow co-lead Dr. Molalign Belay Adugna from the University of Gondar, Dr. Egan wants this project to bring the voices of the students with disabilities to the forefront by actively involving them as research collaborators. The team has already completed the initial phases of the project, working with student researchers to conduct interviews exploring the barriers and enablers to education among a cohort of learners at the University of Gondar. The next phase will involve inviting a cohort of students with disabilities from Bahirdar University to partake in a similar exercise of describing the barriers and enablers they feel they experience when accessing education.  


"My hope is to see a community where everyone can share his or her creativity in inclusive classrooms, inclusive laboratories, inclusive households, and inclusive workplaces."


"In some ways similar and in some ways different from the University of Gondar’s context, the information from both cohorts of students will help the team assess how transferable the findings are to other universities and situations," says Dr. Adugna.  

The data collected from the students will be instrumental in shaping the project's direction, as it will assist the team in formulating questions for subsequent interviews with administrators from key institutions such as the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the University of Gondar, Bahirdar University, and the Mastercard Foundation. Ultimately, all information gathered will assist these institutions in developing and allocating resources to effectively address the unique needs of students with disabilities, enhancing the delivery of educational services and ensuring a more inclusive and supportive learning environment. 

Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalation of conflict in the Gondar region in 2022, the team has made significant progress; they have already finished developing learning modules for students with disabilities, ensuring learners can fully participate in the research project. They have also recruited six student researchers with disabilities, who have run focus groups and completed interviews with 20 of their peers so far.

"My hope is to see a community where everyone can share his or her creativity in inclusive classrooms, inclusive laboratories, inclusive households, and inclusive workplaces,” explains Dr. Adugna. “With everyone’s cooperation and contribution, we can achieve great things. And that involves people with disabilities included everywhere and working at their maximum capacity—that is my vision."