Syracuse University Magazine


Law professor Michael Schwartz G'06 (right) meets with a group of Ethiopians, including faculty and students, at the Menelik II School, an inclusive school in Addis Ababa.

Advancing Disability Rights in Ethiopia

With 91 million people, Ethiopia is the most populated landlocked country in the world. Daily life can be enough of a challenge there, let alone for a person with a disability. College of Law professor Michael Schwartz G’06 found this out firsthand during a nine-day visit as part of Mobility International USA’s Professional Fellows EMPOWER program, a unique initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. “I was struck by the enormity of the country’s problems that got in the way of advancing disability rights,” Schwartz says, “but I was also struck by the spirit of the Ethiopian people—courageous, generous, and determined to overcome adversity.”

The Disability Rights Clinic at Syracuse University, where Schwartz serves as director, was the only law clinic in the country selected to take part in the initiative, which aims to expand the capacity of organizations in the United States and abroad to promote inclusive communities and advance the rights of persons with disabilities around the world. Schwartz, who is deaf, is working with two Ethiopia-based organizations, the Human Rights Commission and the National Ethiopian Women’s Rights Organization, to implement a long-term project that will establish a legal aid clinic for women and children. As part of the two-way international exchange program, the College of Law and Mobility International hosted one representative from each Ethiopian organization in October to work alongside American counterparts and gain experience in how issues in their field are addressed in the United States.

In Ethiopia, Schwartz spoke with parents who described to him “the inability of the educational system to meet the needs of their children.” He visited a bakery owned by the Ethiopian Women with Disabilities National Association that was staffed by people with disabilities. He attended meetings hosted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and fielded numerous questions, including how members of the deaf community could change laws that prohibit deaf Ethiopians from driving. The exchange group also met with U.S. Embassy officials. According to Schwartz, they discussed plans to support the enrollment of an Ethiopian lawyer in the College of Law’s Master of Laws program for international students; enhance the accessibility of the legal aid center in Addis Ababa; and strengthen the link between SU and Addis Ababa University. “We also talked about the possibility of engaging the top levels of the Ethiopian government as a way to highlight the issue of access for people with disabilities as a human right,” he says.

For all the challenges facing the people of Ethiopia, especially those with disabilities, Schwartz found some signs of hope. On a visit to the Menelik II School in Addis Ababa, the exchange group learned about the school’s inclusive education program and discovered the Amharic Sign Language is heavily influenced by American Sign Language. “A real standout was Teowordos, a deaf student who had a 1,000-megawatt smile and a wonderful spirit of warmth and friendliness,” Schwartz says. “A real character! He was proud of his deafness and signed beautifully.”

While Schwartz returned home with memories that will last a lifetime, he knows that advancing disability rights in Ethiopia will require an ongoing commitment to advocacy, education, and support. “I hammered home the need to change the attitude of society toward disability,” he says, “and to stress the importance of conceptualizing disability as a human right, not just about people with disabilities.”     —Keith Kobland


After leaving the Menelik II School, law professor Michael Schwartz G'06 and his group head down an alley to the main road. It was the rainy season there.

Schwartz Blog

Law professor Michael Schwartz filed daily blog posts during his visit to Ethiopia at