According to the 1994 Housing and Population Census of Ethiopia, there were 190,220 deaf and hard of hearing people in the country of whom most are young and living in urban areas. It is learned that the majority of deaf and hard of hearing people population reside in rural areas where there are no schools for the deaf. Because of this, the great majorities are illiterate and cannot make adequate social interaction with their peers as there is no sign language developed as such. One key factor for the improvement of the life of deaf people is, therefore, the development and spread of sign language in the whole of Ethiopia.
One of the basic problems of the education of Ethiopian Deaf population is then the lack of development of sign language. It is believed that the Ethiopian Sign Language (ETHSL) has its origin in the American Sign Language (ASL) with some influence from the Nordic countries. This is because the first missionaries that opened schools in Addis Ababa were from the US, and as most foreigners that open new schools do, they brought with them the language which was in use in their own country. There was another school in the then northern province of Eritrea in Karen, which was opened by Missionaries from the Nordic countries. The influence of the graduates of these schools was clearly seen in the development of the Ethiopian Sign Language.
The second basic problem is the lack of (or nearly the total absence) of proficient Sign language teachers at schools for the deaf. In Ethiopia, there are virtually no deaf people trained in higher learning institutions as teachers of the Ethiopian Sign Language. There are only few deaf people employed at the deaf schools in Addis Ababa without any training in the teaching profession. Only hearing people were trained as teachers of the Deaf. These hearing teachers lack proficiency in Sign Language and tend to promote Oralism or their spoken languages. Due to these facts, the Ethiopian Deaf students are denied strong role models in their education. The Deaf students were, therefore, subjected to the wishes of their hearing teachers and professionals.
There has also been problem of getting qualified Sign Language Interpreters who are familiar with the ethics and conduct of behavior in Sign language interpreting. The number of volunteer and employed interpreters is so few in number that various deaf schools lack interpreters and as a result the teaching learning process is handicapped.
Developing the ETHSL and providing education in ETHSL shall help develop linguistic self-confidence and security in the knowledge of one's own culture. It forms the basis for developing self-identity, respect for the culture of others, active social participation and lifelong learning. For deaf and severely hard-of-hearing students, communication using sign language is the key to active participation in linguistic interaction in large and small groups.
On the other hand, the available schools for the deaf opened in Ethiopia, which are mainly of elementary, junior and units in some ordinary high schools, have been concentrated in Addis Ababa for many years and the Deaf in the regions were virtually forgotten and no one cared or knew whether they could be educated at all. It is a recent development that the government and some religious organizations have opened schools for the Deaf and units in regular classes in the regions. This has given rise to the appearance of new Deaf Communities in the regions.
The schools available for the Deaf are limited to only grade eight till the present day. There is a high demand for secondary school teachers and there is no systematic training being given to teachers of the deaf at this level. Taking into account these factors the Department of Linguistics has designed the first BA program in Ethiopia in this field of study as part of the DIF supported project. The program is a full-time undergraduate program which aims to train students in the area of deafness, sign language, Deaf community and culture and service provision to Deaf people. The program emphasizes on the acquisition of fluency in Ethiopian Sign Language and an understanding of issues relating to sign language and the Deaf community.