When words become reality

If you have been active in a student union or perhaps in a subject organisation, you have likely studied a plan of some sort at one point or another. Action plans and project plans usually present both good goals and the methods to reach them. But as long as plans remain mere words on paper, they tend to stay distant. You first become attached to a plan
once you see it become reality in practice. To me, the monitoring trips of our development cooperation are the kinds of occasions when words come to life and beneficiaries turn into real people.

It is a pity that not everyone can participate in monitoring trips, because they are unique opportunities to get to see social changes, big or small. However, what has been even more important to me on these trips is being able to see the impact the project has on a single person’s life. Our project, supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, is aimed at
helping the chances of disabled people to study in three Ethiopian universities. The project has only just begun.

When we took our development cooperation work in the specific direction of higher education, there were some who voiced concern that our work would get the wrong focus and only support the elite. When I look at the disabled students benefitting from our project, I don’t see elite. I see students who queue for soap and sanitary protection because they can’t afford these products. I see a student whose parents refuse to attend their child’s graduation ceremony because they don’t believe in the child’s abilities despite an excellent performance. I see students who have been forced to stay with their relatives to be able to complete their upper secondary education. I see students who have persevered and managed to complete their studies despite all the barriers around them.

Disabled students in Ethiopia face unbelievable challenges: the campus dormitory rooms may house up to 8 or even 10 people, and the rooms have common accessibility issues, as do toilets. Lecture halls also have problems with accessibility. Not all teachers allow for instance blind students to use Braille because they think the noise disturbs their lecture. The lecturers are not even always aware that a disabled student is attending their classes, and they do not regularly use visual materials, such as PowerPoint presentations, to make the lectures easier to follow. Our project still has a lot of ground to cover, and three recently graduated disabled students expressed the wish that the next generation of students would have a more equal starting point for their studies.

Salla Mäkelä
SYL Development Policy Adviser