Chalachew’s challenging journey for education
August 06, 2019 by Nooruddin Shah, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat, and Carolina Valenzuela, Global Partnership for Education |
5 minutes read

When Chalachew was born, he couldn’t have imagined the hardships that awaited him, nor could he have envisioned his power to defy odds and prove how far his desire to learn could take him.

When Chalachew was born in Ethiopia, he immediately faced traumatic challenges. His mother died when he was still an infant, and he only had his father, Tesfane, to provide the care he needed. As Chalachew grew older, his father began to notice that his son was different from other children and that he would need special care and treatment.

Tesfane visited several health clinics seeking medical treatment, but despite being prescribed medication, Chalachew never received an accurate diagnosis. In addition to consulting health professionals, Tesfane sought for help in churches, believing his son could be cured with holy water.

While searching for an answer to his son’s health problem, Tesfane enrolled Chalachew in a rural school close to home. Chalachew’s father believed that providing his son with quality education was the key to a brighter future. Tesfane was adamant that Chalachew would never follow in his footsteps - not being able to go to school and having to work since he was six years old to survive.

I don’t want my child to be like me. I want him to get an education, so he can have a chance for a better life.

Chalachew studying with his classmates. Felege Abbay Elementary School, Bahar Dar, Ethiopia.
Chalachew studying with his classmates. Felege Abbay Elementary School, Bahar Dar, Ethiopia.
GPE/Kelley lynch

Attending school but not learning

At school, Chalachew appeared to have learning needs that the local teacher did not have the skills to meet. He had difficulty following the lessons and easily forgot the little he learned, putting him at a major disadvantage. Essentially, Chalachew was going to school but he wasn’t learning.

Because of a lack of understanding about his condition, Chalachew was bullied by many people in his life - his own uncle, classmates, and even his teacher. Instead of providing him with a supportive environment where he could learn, his teacher insulted him and questioned his capacity to learn.

This situation drove Tesfane to go above and beyond to seek help for Chalachew. His economic situation was dire, and he had to work several odd jobs to cover their most basic needs. However, their father-son bond was powerful, so Tesfane devoted himself to fulfill Chalachew’s two most pressing needs: providing appropriate medicines for Chalachew’s health problems and ensuring he received a quality education.

A father’s determination to defy the odds

Tesfane decided to follow advice from a health professional and moved from his native village to the city of Bahar Dar where he was told about Felege Abay, a school that welcomed children with disabilities like his own son.  

Chalachew attended the school’s special needs class for one year and, during that short period, his progress was exceptional. Almost immediately after diagnosing him with an intellectual disability, the teachers noticed how eager Chalachew was to learn. Seeing his desire, teachers started him on a variety of subjects including math, Arabic, Amharic and English.

Chalachew’s academic progress was possible thanks to teachers who were trained in meeting diverse needs and had appropriate learning materials at their disposal, all of which provided the supportive and stimulating environment he had been lacking until then.

Because of his significant improvement, the teachers recommended that Chalachew, by now 18 years old, transfer from the special needs class to the regular grade 1 class.

Early challenges turn into learning

Chalachew’s transition to grade 1 didn’t come without challenges. At first, his teacher was convinced Chalachew was incapable of learning at the same pace as the other students.

To solve this challenge, Chalachew’s former special needs teacher, Tithna, joined him for part of the lesson and gave him one-on-one training to integrate him in the class.

Tithna feels proud of Chalachew’s improvement:

He has a special gift. If he is helped by his teacher, he will be able to achieve any goal he sets.

Special needs teacher Tithna works with 18-year-old Chalachew  who, after a year in special needs education has moved to the first grade.Tithna sits with Chalachew as needed in the classroom to ensure he has all the support he needs to do well.
Special needs teacher Tithna works with 18-year-old Chalachew who, after a year in special needs education has moved to the first grade.Tithna sits with Chalachew as needed in the classroom to ensure he has all the support he needs to do well.
PME/Kelley Lynch

Slowly, Chalachew started to catch up and against all odds, has now become one of the best students in his class. Tesfane encouraged by his son’s progress, decided that it was time to attend school himself. Now father and son are both in grade 1, helping each other with homework and studying together.


Chalachew and his father are both in grade 1 and usually help each other with homework.
Chalachew and his father are both in grade 1 and usually help each other with homework.
PME/Kelley Lynch

No longer defined by his condition, Chalachew now enjoys learning and dreams of becoming a school principal or a doctor in the future.

GPE supports children with disabilities

The Felege Abay Elementary School can now better support children with disabilities thanks to a grant provided by the General Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP), a pooled fund supported by GPE and partners that aims to improve the quality of general education in Ethiopia.

Approximately 50% of GEQIP’s budget is allocated to the provision of school grants, which improve learning conditions by providing per capita grants.

In 2017/18, 99% of schools in Ethiopia received school grants.

The school grants are allocated directly to schools and they can decide to spend resources on their most pressing needs or priorities identified in their school improvement plans – including upgrading school infrastructure; procuring laboratory equipment; and providing additional teaching and learning materials.

In an effort to promote education for children with disabilities, supplementary school grants for children with special needs have been allocated to schools. In 2017/18, schools received an additional 4% in grants for children with special educational needs. These additional grants incentivized schools to promote access for children with disabilities.

Last year, the Felege Abay Elementary School a portion of the grant on improving learning conditions for children with disabilities. The school bought a new carpet for the classroom, new teaching and learning materials, and light refreshments for children to ensure they had the needed nutrition.

These improvements have brought several benefits to the school community, including an increase in enrollments. This year, five new children have enrolled in the school.

Of equal importance is how these improvements have changed parents’ perception about sending their children to school. Parents are now are eager to enroll children with disabilities in school instead of keeping them at home; and more teachers have expressed a desire to teach special needs education.

Ultimately, children with disabilities should learn alongside their peers in regular classrooms, free from stigma or discrimination and with teachers trained to meet their needs. GPE is committed to supporting countries in making their education systems more inclusive for children with disabilities. 

Post a comment or
Sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia

Latest blogs


Nice blog about your challenging journey.

But how inclusive and appropriate is it to enroll and 18-year old (and his father for that matter) in a class with 6-year olds. Inclusive education should also be age-appropriate education. The curriculum is likely to be focused on 6-year old children and the content and teaching approach/pedagogy not relevant for more mature students. Should GPE not initiate accelerated learning programmes in these situations? Would that not be more inclusive?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • Global and entity tokens are replaced with their values. Browse available tokens.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.