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Shedding Light on The Lives of Blind Immigrants

Editor's Note: Abebe Abay Teklu, the subject of this article, was recipient of the 2005 T-Base Communications funded Business, Education and Technology Scholarship, administered by AEBC.

On June 6, Abebe Abay Teklu, a student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, became the first blind person to graduate from a British Columbia university with a PhD.

Teklu's doctoral research was inspired by his own experience as an educated immigrant, who has faced many barriers to employment in Canada because he is blind. His dissertation, "The Voices of Ethiopian Blind Immigrants and Their Families: Facing the Challenges of Life in Canada," asserts that albeism keeps disabled people unemployed and impoverished in this country.

"Canada has one of the worst records in how it treats disabled people," he says. Teklu says that disabled people are inadmissible to Canada unless they score high on a point system that rates factors such as education and work experience.

As part of his research, Teklu interviewed immigrants to Canada who had attained high scores but were still unable to find work. Teklu says the reality is that 98 percent of disabled immigrants are not employed in this country, despite their levels of education. He thinks if disabled immigrants knew the reality of life in Canada, many of them would not have come here.

"We're wasting human capital. These people have a lot to offer. Employers are unaware of what these people can do," he says. "This lack of awareness extends to government, where it translates into poor policy."

Teklu's journey to the University of Victoria began in a small village in Ethiopia where he worked as a teacher, musician, poet, playwright and social activist. In the mid 1980s his opposition to Ethiopia's Provisional Military Government (Derg) led to his imprisonment. With the help of Amnesty International, he was released from prison after a year. He and 1,000 other Ethiopians then fled the country, trekking 2,000 miles on foot into Sudan. At one point, the Derg sent a gunned helicopter after the group, opening fire and killing 600 people. Once in Sudan, Teklu helped found a school for the blind.

Teklu eventually came to British Columbia, where he earned a bachelor's degree in social work. However, when he applied for work with the Ministry of Children and Families, he was denied a position because he could not drive. Teklu continued his education, earning a master's in social work from UVic in only two years. Again, frustrated that he could not find work, Teklu returned to UVic to pursue his PhD, which he completed in two and a half years.

With a young family to support, Teklu admits he's concerned about being able to provide for his children in a society that doesn't value its disabled citizens. But he maintains a positive outlook, declaring that "if there's willingness and persistence, disability shouldn't be a deterrent from achieving your goals."

Reprinted from the Ring, June 2007: {}

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