(Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) Ife, 13, is teaching a class on water safety to her peers. Her hands weave signs and letters in the air using Ethiopian Sign Language, and when she asks the class a question, upraised hands gesture back. But despite her fluent use of sign language, Ife is not deaf. Instead, she’s an advocate for the inclusion of deaf people and people with disabilities in Ethiopian society, one who lives her principles.

Ife is a Right To Play Junior Leader at a unique school in Addis Ababa that teaches children with autism, deaf children and other children together. The language of instruction is Ethiopian Sign Language, and teachers use Right To Play’s play-based approach to help children of different levels of abilities share classes. Schools like this are crucial as a place for children to learn and play together in a safe and inclusive environment.

Teachers use Right To Play’s play-based approach to help deaf children, children with autism and other children learn in the same classes.

As a Junior Leader at the school, Ife volunteers as a peer leader and translator. She helps new students who are still learning Ethiopian Sign Language, and leads classes about topics like water safety and the rights of children (especially related to disability, deafness and autism). The Right To Play Junior Leadership club at the school is full of students like Ife who are working together to actively include students of all different levels of ability, pushing back against the prejudices against disability, deafness and autism.

Watch Ife teach a class in Ethiopian Sign Language!

Part of what inspired her to make the decision to attend this school was to spend time with her younger cousin, Samuel. Samuel became deaf at an early age. He’s one of over a million deaf people across Ethiopia, many of whom are socially isolated due to prejudice against them. But Ife and Samuel refuse to be limited by that prejudice, and are working together to rise above it.

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Ife and her younger cousin Samuel. Samuel is deaf.

The stigmas surrounding disability and deafness are challenging in Ethiopia, as they are in many parts of the world. Even in the capital of Addis Ababa, few children with special learning needs are in formal education. Most are kept home and out of sight of the community by their families out of embarrassment or shame about a child who cannot hear, or who has learning and cognitive challenges.

Samuel was luckier than many, and it was thanks to Ife. When she was only nine years old, Ife began teaching herself Ethiopian Sign Language to communicate with Samuel. The cousins share a close bond. Because she and Samuel can talk to one another using sign language, they can work together to advocate for his needs, including his right to a quality education. Ife’s acceptance of him showed their family that there was no need to be ashamed of Samuel’s deafness.

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Ife believes that children with disabilities deserve to be included and educated alongside other children. She is determined to prove the value of that personally, by attending this school and through her participation in the Right To Play Junior Leadership club. Ife sees the club as one way she can help change attitudes and beliefs about disability in Ethiopian society.

Children like Ife are breaking down the barriers of prejudice. Rather than accepting the limitations others would place on deaf children and children with disabilities, she is advocating for a more inclusive world, one in which every child has the power to rise.

Check out Elea’s story! She goes to the same school as Ife.