Yetnebersh Nigussie, Co-Founder, Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), Founder Yetnebersh Modern Academy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Words of Wisdom: “Be LOUD, PROUD and PASSIONATE!” – Yetnebersh Nigussie

Interview with Yetnebersh Nigussie, Co-Founder, Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), Founder Yetnebersh Modern Academy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Yetnebersh Nigussie, Co-Founder, Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), Founder Yetnebersh Modern Academy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Yetnebersh Nigussie served in more than 10 organizations voluntarily out of which the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind Women’s Wing became a reality – which she chaired for 4 years (2003-07).

Out of that exposure, she decided to found a local organization called Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD) along with other prominent Ethiopians to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in different development programs including economic empowerment.

As a strategy, ECDD is working with Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) in Ethiopia to include persons with disabilities as their favourite clients. Previous experiences demonstrate that Micro finance institutions used to consider persons with disabilities as risky groups and tend to exclude them implicitly. Yet, at present, most of the MFIs are in the process of removing this prejudices and are starting to open their doors for disabled persons.

Yetnebersh and her organization ECDD has enabled more than 25 groups of disabled persons having more than 15 members each on average engage in different business activities and shift from being objects of charity to subjects of productivity.

Now focusing on children with disabilities , Yetnebersh started- Yetnebersh Modern Academy with 23 students in 2008 and currently has more than 190 students up to Grade 4. The academy has 24 employees.

Beyond these accomplishments, she has also received several awards for her achievements, and been acknowledged for her scholastic education. To further appreciate these accomplishments it cannot be ignored that Yetnebersh is blind and Only 29!!!!

Yetnebersh is also received a TIAW World of Difference Award in October 2011.


Yetnebersh Nigussie ~ YouTube promo video (approx. 3 min.)

Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD)

Yetnebersh Nigussie, Co-Founder, Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), Founder Yetnebersh Modern Academy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: You always get involved…what motivated you so young?

[ Yetnebersh Nigussie ]: Getting involved is a way of proving who you are. If people thinking of your age, your colour or your physicality, they may limit you. I want to prove that I am a person who can do everything.

  • Being very involved in school, clubs, and councils helped to prove myself. I assumed higher leadership positions, president and vice president, and founder in some cases.
  • I want to prove who I am. By getting involved I also have the opportunity to learn.

[ Suzanne ]: When you say you want to prove yourself, whom are you trying to prove yourself to?

[ Yetnebersh ]:

  1. To the community
  2. To my family
    • As a baby when you are born within a family you need to be taken care of. You need to be provided with things.
    • I needed to show my family and community that I am a person that can also contribute not only consume contributions from other people.
  3. World

Is it because you’re blind that you feel that you need to prove yourself, or is it because as a person you feel that obligation?

  • Both
  • It is not only because I am blind, I am also a female living in a developing country.
  • If I had been a person with sight I would never been this way. If I had not been blind I would have been married at an early age – nine, ten or eleven years old. I would have four or five kids and I would never be who I am.
  • What I am proving for other is that I can do things by myself. I can do things, not as a blind person, not as a young person, but just as a person!

What do you think you would have given up if you were married younger?

  • I would have not had this level of consciousness, so I don’t think I can answer that.
  • I am made up of nature and nurture. I am made up of opportunities and circumstances.

Do you have advice for young women who get married?

  • I don’t think it is their chose in many cases. It is mostly the community influence.
  • I would suggest to women to take time to chose as the more time you have to chose the better chance it will be the right chose.

What advice could you give to mothers who want their children to get married young?

  • Mothers can be very anxious and in a hurry for their child to be a responsible person in a home.
  • Marriage today does not ensure security in the home.
  • If they want to have a bright future, let their children choose when they want to choose to get married. Life is beyond today.

What keeps you motivated to be a trailblazer?

  1. Recognition. I am being recognized for every single thing I am doing. The more I am recognized the more I feel I need to do better in order to be recognized for something even more impactful.
  2. Challenge. I have no time for sleep or frustration. It motivates me. No matter what the challenge –  financial, other people, you need decide is this challenge stopping me, or am stopping this challenge?

What are some of the biggest challenges in starting your own school?

  1. It is not easy for women in African countries, but blind women are assumed to be less caring for their children. People believe that it is very difficult for a blind woman to take care of their own children, mind other people’s children.
  •  It was very difficult for many families to bring their kids to our school, especially since they were paying. They did not want me to take care of their kids.
  •  I only had 23 students at first, and the only reason I had them is because of my fame in the media. People knew me from the media, and they felt that I would shape their kids the way I grew up, so they brought them to the school.
  • With only 23 students it helped me to focus on the quality rather than the quantity. If there had been more students at the beginning the quality could have been less.

2. Physical premise. Because I am renting, the more business I am getting the more hassle they want to give me. They constantly raise prices.

In your bio you say, “You have 1% disability and 99% of abilities to invest in. People tend to forget the 99 abilities a person has and focus on the one disability, which ultimately leads to charity.  What impact do you think charity has on society and individuals?

  • Charity is always based on the goodwill of the giver. The receiver has no say. All he or she has to do is receive what is been given.
  • There is an issue of pride and sustainability.
  • I feel proud when I am given something from what I have worked on. I feel that I deserve that.
  • I can never deserve charity. It is on the good will of the giver.
  • I am not against of being generous, but giving something is impoverishing someone. Making them even poorer.  I only give opportunities. That is how I think people can be generous to others. For charity you are giving something that you don’t want sometimes, or what you think that other’s want. You believe you are in a better position to give. We are all in a position to give and complement each other. Charity makes people superior and inferior, and brings on the class division, which I don’t like.

What advice can you give someone on how to extract him or her from dependency?

  • It is like the story of the fish. If someone gives you a fish, you eat it then you are hungry; but if you learn how to fish you will be able to feed yourself forever.
  • If every challenge there is a way out. With a physical disability I look at what I can do not what I can’t do. You have to be creative and innovative. What makes us disable is the environment, so clear away the environment so you are able to do things. There is at least one thing you can accomplish in life, so I have to make money out of it.

Is your school focus on disabled children?

  • No, it is a mainstream school that takes in disabled and non-disabled kids. There was a challenge with the lot of the private schools in taken disabled kids.
  • Our private school is the first to enroll both disabled and non-disabled kids. Many private school owners believe that if they take disabled kids that the parents of non-disabled children will not be happy with mixing them.
  • That is not the case with my school, because they know the owner is disabled and we have no discrimination policy – disabled, AIDS, gender or socio-economic background.
  • This allows for kids that do not have any limitations to contribute to the other kids.

How do you motivate staff and encourage engagement with the diversity students?

My staff is unique.

  1. They get capacity building training every month.
  2. We provide rewards – movies, massage, theatre tickets– it is all based on performance.

What systems do you have in place to ensure education standards are met?

  • We have supervisory board and they make surprised visits to the school. The supervisory board is from different professions.
  • Of course the government has it’s own quality control, which we implement.

Is there anything you do to keep your students engaged in the learning process?

  • Of course we use what the government requires.
  • We get the children involved. We will talk about the polluted water, not only do the kids have to write an essay about it, but they also will visit polluted water that is in the community. They then can bring the issue up to government officials. We choose different issues every month.  We choose what the issues will be together. This approach gets the kids highly involved in the community. You don’t expect a young child to get involved and challenge the issues, so as adult we feel embarrassed by it, so they listen.
  • We read about it, write about it, experience it, and then do something about it.
  • It is good to make children think about their future, and participate in their community. Once they learn about their community, they feel a sense of belonging and therefore are less likely to want to go to leave it.

What do you think is the most significant impact you have made in your career to date?

Changing people’s thinking about:

  1. Disability
  2. A young person taking responsibility
  3. About a woman being able to pioneer new things in this country. Women are always taught to follow what a man has done.

If you could attribute your success to one thing, what would it be?

All my disabilities. People tell me I can’t do it because I am disabled. People don’t think I would do something because I am disabled. And that is my secret to my success, because I want to prove I can do it because I am disabled.

What would be the most rewarding aspect of your career?

Seeing people changing economically and ideologically. For example the kids in the school don’t think the same way. Also at ECDD, I am working at changing people’s perception of people with disability. I am focusing on how to include people with disability. I am very honoured when I see disabled people being included in agricultural and educational programs.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?

Trying to change people’s minds. People want to stay comfortable with something they are familiar with. Even when something is better they don’t want to change it. We have a saying in Amharic (Ethiopian native language) “It is better to have a devil that you are familiar with, instead of having angel that you are not familiar with.”

What has been the most significant decision you have made in your career?

To study law. Law was my first degree. I wanted to know what privileges and obligations I have. I focus more on my obligations. Many people think that is done for me. I always think about what is my obligation? What did I not fulfill out of my duty? That makes me always awake. People often think from the perspective of “what did my country do to me? What did my community do to me? What did my company do to me? What did my boss do to me?

My question is “How did I do my duty? How did I do my obligation?”

Is there any initiative that you have done that didn’t work, and how did you deal with it?

I am working toward having young people involved in the disability movement. It is still not happening. It is still not working because in Ethiopia there is a deep routed old age mentality that young people should not be involved in big decision making.

Many people who are good leaders don’t think that someone can do things better than they do. They don’t leave their positions. It is not only in the disability movement, it is leadership in the world. I don’t think I have been successful in bringing new blood to leadership. People in power don’t have the confidence for others to lead.

One of the characters of a good leader is someone who has people who follow that can sustain things while he or she is not in place.

What do you think needs to happen for those leaders to be developed?

I think they need to gain confidence in other people’s abilities.

I think legal instruments need to be implemented. Create restricted time limits to be in leadership positions. The problem is leaders can rewrite the constitution while they are in power and change his term.

What can leaders do to encourage young people to get involved?

  1. Schools should be involved in this, similar to the practical method our school uses we get kids involved at the very beginning by participating.
  2. Families should also have early retirement so they can deliver opportunities to their kids.

Are you conducting your purpose? What 99 abilities do you have that made you the trailblazer you are?

Yes I am conducting my purpose.

Mostly trial is my ability. I try everything. I try to take every opportunity, even ones that are not presented to me. As I mentioned, I think about – did I fulfill my obligations? Some people are happy with what they achieved in the past. For me, my achievement is building on something. My yesterday’s achievement is only a story, unless it continues for today and tomorrow it will never be an achievement, just a story.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

I don’t like to be labeled. People think I am “special,” but I am not special, other people can do it. For example if I succeed on something and they think my achievements are special and therefore they wont try it. I think I am part of the ordinary system. This is an excuse for people not to do what I do. I am not special.

I let people call me “special” or “disabled” by I am not comfortable with either of those terms.

I feel uncomfortable every day. As long as you have movement in life, there is the opportunity for discomfort.

When people come to talk to me in my Director position, they see that I am young, a woman, disabled – all of sudden the conversation becomes shortened.  I give them time to adapt. I welcome them so they feel comfortable.

How do you welcome them?

I don’t tell people about myself. I let them learn about me through the process. This is when you get credibility. If you talk about yourself people may think I don’t know anything about anything else, so I just don’t talk about myself.

What has been the biggest obstacle to get to this point in your life?

Attitude of others about you – family, community, friends and the world. People have determined the way I am. I am not comfortable with that.

I deal with it by just doing things. I prove that their thinking is inaccurate. I don’t convince them with words, it is a waste of time and waste of words.

What does success mean to you?

Success is getting results.  Being true to yourself.

How would you define leadership?

Creating a system that a number of others can follow and sustain.

Leadership Lessons Learned – Yetnebersh Nigussie

  1. Don’t tell others how to do things. Do it and let them learn from that.
  2. You need to be a risk taker. Make sure you are taking maximum risk so others can learn from you.
  3. Make sure you have other successors that can maintain the change you have acquired to maintain the processes that you have developed.

If there were one thing you would do differently in pursuit of your success, what would it be?

I wish I impacted on a broader scale. I have focused on target groups, children and disability. If I persuade an occupation in media I could have appealed internationally.  It is going to take time to impact the world.

What is next for you?

Duplicate my success in other areas. I have started a school and I want private schools to include disability kids.

Given the chance what would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

  • Too much I haven’t done.
  • I want to be a mother.
  • I want to promote to be international leader. Most efforts have been in Ethiopia. I want to spread my word to the international community as I have done in Ethiopia.

Reflective Realizations from Yetnebersh Nigussie

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

To be loud, proud and passionate. I want my child to be as loud as possible so people can hear what she has to say. Proud, express herself as someone who is very capable and unique. I want her to demonstrate she is someone who has a number of things to contribute to this world. Passionate, someone always moving forward.

Q What do you wish you were told at 11yrs?

I wish I heard those words.

Is there anything you would have changed?

I would have loved to attend a mainstream school rather than a school for the blind.   I would have stayed with my family and community and I would have learned more from them.

I would never say that I would not want to be blind, as my grandparents would never allowed me to come to the urban areas. I would not have been educated and I would not have been the person I am today.  I would never say I would not want to be blind as it is the secret to my success. The challenge is my opportunity.

Words of Wisdom by Yetnebersh Nigussie

Same as I would advise to my 10 year old child.

We need to be LOUD, PROUD and PASSIONATE.

African women are my sisters, mothers, and some of them my daughters. We have already very impressive things we have done. We are quite indispensable in human life in Africa. A number of our success in African history are achieved because of our presence. We must be loved.

Because we are not loud, others have already taken our credit.

Because we are not proud, others have already taken our credit.

Because we are not passionate, others who are passionate have already taken our passion out of our hearts.



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