"How I managed to turn disability into opportunity"

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Personas con discapacidad luchan por inclusión social

In 1980, as a pilot with the Ecuadorean Air Force, I suffered a serious accident while flying to remote Amazonian communities. A spinal cord injury had me on the verge of death.

The doctors who treated me in Quito told my family that, given the seriousness of my injury, I had little chance for survival. The accident paralyzed me from head to toe – quadriplegia, in medical terms. Unfortunately, 30 years ago my country did not have the medical facilities to treat these cases. I received intensive care at a U.S. hospital.


My process of integral rehabilitation, as I call it, lasted some five months. Although the rehabilitation required no sophisticated or expensive equipment, it was very effective and enabled me to resume my life, with the small modifications necessary to ensure my increased independence, which I believe is essential for people with disabilities.

I mention this because I want to stress that rehabilitation is key in the case of accidents – as it was in my case – as well as for individuals with congenital disabilities.

The support and involvement of family members is crucial for disabled individuals’ subsequent development. It is also essential to carefully choose one’s profession. In my case, I studied computer science, a profession appropriate for my condition.

I worked for nearly five years at the headquarters of the Ecuadorean Air Force as a systems analyst and computer advisor. I eventually left the military to join the private sector, where I worked for a short time as a systems manager for a flower company. I was then hired by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where I continue to work.

I share this information to emphasize the huge difference it makes to have the opportunity to develop in an environment where there are fewer barriers. But the lesson I would like to share with the world is that access to health and education can change the lives of people with disabilities.

The World Health Survey estimates that 110 million people in the world have “very significant difficulties in functioning.” These individuals’ lives could be much improved with access to these basic services. According to the World Health Organization, just over half of the countries of the region have standards and laws that address the issue of disability.

For the many years I have lived as a disabled person in Ecuador, I have witnessed much change, but also challenges we must still overcome. In recent years, important strides have been made with respect to the rights of disabled Ecuadoreans and the government has invested considerable resources in aid that has improved our quality of life.

For example, Ecuadorean law requires that four percent of public and private workers must be people with disabilities, and that minors with disabilities must have access to the regular school system to encourage their integration.

The technical and financial support of the government to the disabled population – such as the housing subsidy – is also a key incentive for this community’s development. Nevertheless, much remains to be done to achieve an equitable community.

Despite the favorable legal framework, we still face major barriers that threaten full inclusion. These are simple things, such as having appropriate ramps on the streets of all our cities, without obstacles that may cause accidents among individuals with visual disabilities; or having adequate signs for deaf people and appropriate public transport systems.

With minor modifications, and in keeping with universal design principles for new buildings in public and private locations, we can improve access to health, education, work, culture, sports and recreation.

It is also essential to raise awareness, especially by training all future professionals on the issue of disability. Directly or indirectly, this is the responsibility of all of us.

In recent years, organizations for the disabled have experienced significant development, particularly at the level of federations. From this sector, I believe we should create a mechanism for oversight and protection of the rights of disabled Ecuadoreans, in an effort to make Ecuador a more inclusive, supportive country.


Julio Mantilla

Coordinador de Desarrollo Inclusivo de USAID

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