Disability and Employment–in Guatemala and the United States

This week marks the  23rd Annual National APSE Conference. APSE is the only national organization that has an exclusive focus on integrated employment and career advancement for individuals with disabilities. This is my first APSE conference, and I feel so energized to meet professionals from all over the country, and participate in workshops where I can learn all about their innovative approaches to creating equitable employment opportunities. I am also  happy to see and spend time with my mentor-friend, who was presenting at the Conference.   My mentor-friend has been guiding me into the field of disability rights and integrated employment with enthusiastic kindness, and I feel so appreciative of her encouragement.

Attending the APSE Conference also gave me an interesting mental space to reflect on how having a disability affects a person’s access to employment opportunities in the United States compared to Guatemala. Talking with my mentor-friend yesterday about the treatment of people with disabilities in countries outside the United States, she pointed out, “that when you work in the disability rights field, you think about how people with disabilities are living everywhere…” She was right. When I first saw the image of German Choc, sitting in his wheelchair, squinting against the sun, a question burst in my mind. I wonder what it’s like to be a person with a disability in Guatemala?   

I wanted to understand what living with a disability in Guatemala was like so that I could identify the best micro-lending organizations and grant opportunities that would support German’s economic self-sufficiency and medical needs. To sum up my research in a saddening statistic: the National Disability Council (CONADI) estimates that around 12-14% of the total population in Guatemala has some kind of disability, and the percentage of  people with disabilities who currently have jobs is possibly as low as 2%.

I read the article Guatemala: The situation facing the disabled, particularly persons with speech and hearing losswhich is 12 years old, but despite its adolescent age, cited many reputable sources.  The author Inforpress Centroamericana describes a very restricted world for Guatemalans with disabilities. In a nutshell, Guatemalans with disabilities do not receive any public assistance benefits from the Guatemalan government, and many people must rely on their families for financial support. Sidewalks, buildings, and public spaces are generally not accessible to people with disabilities, and Guatemalans with disabilities have very limited access to professional and educational opportunities.

The article states: “As a result of this situation, it is common to witness persons with hearing and speech loss, paraplegics, blind persons, or other disabled Guatemalans begging for money on the streets, in the buses and in restaurants, often placing themselves in degrading situations or at risk of physical harm in traffic while soliciting for subsistence income.”

The article indicated that thee are few Non-governmental organizations that serve Guatemalans with disabilities, and my research uncovered two organizations that provided support to people with disabilities–a Center for Independent Living or Colectivo Vida Independiente de Guatemala, and Transition Foundation in Antigua, which was co-founded in 1998 by a North American and a Guatemalan man named Alex Gálvez, who like German, was paralyzed due to a gunshot wound.

Alex’s motivation to establish Transitions Foundation arose from his own experiences and ambition to create a space where Guatemalans with disabilities could “reclaim their lives.” Transitions has a Wheelchair Workshop and Prosthetic & Orthotic Clinic, and also provides vocational and educational support in its Print Shop, Special Education Classroom, and Sports and Recreation Program. I had tried contacting Transitions Foundation back in May, and have not heard back. Their Facebook Page indicates that they have an active presence, and plan to contact the Foundation again once I touch base with Rights Action.

I had planed to wrap up this post with information learned from the APSE conference about disability and employment in the United States, but I have decided to save my thoughts and partake in what Macbeth would call the sleep that “knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” One tidbit into what I’ll be discussing next–Guatemala ratified the UN Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities in 2009, and the Convention is currently awaiting approval for ratification in the United States Senate.

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