Yetnebersh Nigussie, a blind Lawyer has been awarded the prestigious Spirit of Helen Keller Award, joining the ranks of Bill and Melinda Gates and Ban Ki-moon.
Raised in rural Ethiopia, Yetnebersh Nigussie believes that when she lost her sight at five years old she escaped the foreboding life which awaited her.
But does she genuinely see her blindness as her liberator?
Definitely. Her mum got married when she was 11 and gave birth to her three years later. Her mum was victim of an early marriage and when a girl is born in that family, the expectation is the amount of dowry and the quality of a son-in-law she will bring into the family.
“So when I lost my eyesight at the age of five, people said this is the end to her life and so many people told my mum, it was better if she died.
My mum said, 'it’s okay I can take care of her until I’m alive and then God will take care of her.'
Three years after she lost her eyesight, Yetnebersh was taken to the capital to a hospital, but doctors could not restore her sight, but they could refer her to a special school.
“I became the first girl in the community where I was able to get the chance to be educated because all the other girls in the community were candidates for early marriage, so that’s why I said this transformed my life and I sometimes say that blindness is the lottery I won in life to be who I am today.”
Her sight loss affected her relationship with her family, back then. “When I was three years old I already started looking after the sheep and the cattle in the family, so when I turned blind I was left at home.”
She had no role to play like the girls her age who helped clean the house, collect firewood or fetch water. As she explains “I was considered useless.”
“Later on when I went to the special school, that bond also became very, very loose because I had to go 900 km away from my community, so I only visited my family two months in the year, so I grew up a child of the missionaries.”
Being miles away from home was at first tough, but she played with other children who were also blind from all across the world. “I enjoyed playing and we had no stereotyping, no stigma and no discrimination, so it gradually became like we established our own small family where you have different diversities.”
This changed when she went to a mainstream school. “We had 76 students in the classroom but I had no friends because none of them had seen a blind girl in the classroom. That’s the isolation I felt and that’s where I felt the impact of exclusion, growing alone and being isolated from mainstream society.”
But it was this feeling of exclusion that has helped shaped her today.
“I was always told that I’m the person to make it happen. I was always told that I’m an achiever.”
"I can do it. I was challenged, when I joined the mainstream, where I was told everything was difficult and everything was impossible for me. I had to use a lot of leverage and courage from the early days to get myself back into the mood that I can say I can do it.”
Yetnebersh excelled at school and was top of the class. She became president of the student council, made more friends and became active in the school. She learnt braille and also relied on friends reading out books to her.
She always knew she wanted to challenge the myths that people had about her.
Even from her high school days and beyond, Yetnebersh felt that people have to be accountable for the discrimination and stigma they put on people with disabilities.
The only way you can hold them accountable is through the court system, so I always felt that I had to be a Judge and make sure that these people who discriminate people with disabilities including blind people need to be penalised."
“For example, blind people were not allowed to sign in banks or become Judges. I decided I have to become a Judge and make sure the court penalised these people.”
She went to law school and embraced human rights advocacy which reinforced her view point as well as introducing her to the teaching and awareness-raising strands of advocacy.
Is her goal to change the way people think about disability and discrimination?
“I feel that is a process which involves not only me, as an individual, but the whole society. It requires a lot of partnerships and alliances. If you have to change people’s minds it’s not as easy as fixing a door of a house.”
Ultimately, we all have a voice and we all have to use it, don’t we?
“Absolutely, it’s no longer the time that we have other people to speak for us because we really need to work, because rights do not come as Christmas gifts. We really need to demand them otherwise people will say that’s fine, they’re okay with what they have.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Connect Magazine.
Photo credit: Gregor Kuntscher