Feature Issue on Transition in a Global Context for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Promoting Skills Training and Productivity


Yirgashewa Bekele is associate professor of special needs and education director of the Special Needs Support Center at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. She may be reached at yirgashewab@gmail.com.

A green passport stamp from the country of Ethiopia features two airplanes and two stars, with the words Fall 2022.

In 1986, Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) founded the Center for Mentally Challenged Children (CMCC) in Addis Ababa and has been providing support and administration services to CMCC ever since. Throughout the years, CMCC has opened 14 branches and expanded to different parts of the country. The main purpose for CMCC’s establishment was to contribute to improving the quality of life for children with intellectual disability (ID).

Although national data indicates a significant number of children with disabilities live in Addis Ababa, CMCC initially had a difficult time accessing and registering the target children due to lack of awareness about ID in the area. Disability was considered a curse by some members of the community or a disease that had to be cured medically. Parents were hiding their children at home. To break the silence and discrimination, CMCC initially carried out various awareness-raising activities in Addis Ababa. Gradually, the number of children with intellectual disability registering at CMCC began to increase and it is currently serving 378 children at the center located in Addis Ababa.

The center serves children with intellectual disability and their families, from early intervention through pre-vocational and vocational training.

The pre-vocational training includes skills on how to use public transportation, shopping, and awareness about money at age 15 and above. Training in music, art, daily living skills, painting, and sport are also provided in the pre-vocational program. After completing pre-vocational training successfully, depending on interest and ability, the children transfer to the final stage of vocational training programs. For three months, they are exposed to all available types of vocational training in the center, which helps them identify their interests and skills, as well as the types of employment opportunities that might fit with those skills. The vocational areas include gardening, cooking, cleaning, animal rearing, and knitting and embroidery. Other areas include business skills, art, sport, and printing. Based on their interest and ability, children are assigned to specific vocational training for three years. There is graduation each year, although the number of graduates varies from year to year. More than 452 youths with intellectual disability have graduated from the program. During this phase, parents also receive training and resources in business skills and income generation.

This orange brochure from the Center for Mentally Challenged Children, Ethiopia, has pictures of young adults the center serves, along with workers from the center.

CMCC serves nearly 400 students in Addis Ababa, from early intervention through vocational training. Courtesy of the Center for Mentally Challenged Children, Ethiopia.

Success stories

Among the successes of CMCC graduates are mastery of a specific skill of interest, involvement in an income-generating business, and contributing to the community and their own lives. The lives of many youth with intellectual disability and their families have changed due to increased income and lifestyle. Currently, 11 youth with intellectual disability are working and earning a salary at CMCC. Regardless of the challenges individuals experience, the center supports participants to discover what they can contribute to the community and expand their personal capacities. Individuals earn a monthly salary for their work, on a scale above the minimum wage. CMCC pays 2000 Birr per month, compared with the minimum wage of 1,663 Birr, and provides breakfast and lunch.

One person with significant intellectual disability, for example, is employed as a cleaner of the center compound. He is serious about his job, cleaning the area with responsibility and without being distracted. He speaks only a few words, but greets everyone at the center with a smile, even those he doesn’t know. He works 40 hours per week without reminders from others. As a result, he is employed and gets a monthly salary, which is not common in most African countries for persons with significant intellectual disability. This shows the quality of the training the center provides.

A second young man, and also a woman with ID, both in their early 20s, who trained at the center for years are now are employed there. They are earning more than 2,000 Birr each month at CMCC. They get training to cook hibist, or steam-baked bread, the symbolic bread that is taken during religious ceremonies. They sell the hibist to churches through CMCC and directly as a home-based business. I visited the kitchen where they were baking the hibist and injera, a soft Ethiopian flatbread. They were working independently, neatly, and the room was well organized.

The mothers of children with intellectual disability also get training and employment. Because most are single moms, they were living in severe poverty before joining CMCC. The mothers spend their day taking care of their children with intellectual disability at home and are not able to work. After their children start getting service at CMCC, the moms also get opportunities for training, employment, and involvement in income-generating activities. Some of the mothers of children with intellectual disability become employed at the CMCC.

CMCC continues to change the lives of many children with intellectual disability and their families. The organization provides well-organized and goal-oriented skill training that leads to higher income and productivity, along with increased self-confidence and feelings of being valued and a part of the community. In turn, there is a changing attitude in the wider community about the capabilities and contributions that people with disabilities can make.