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News > Latin America

Disability Rights Take Center Stage in Ecuador with New President Lenin Moreno

Published 24 May 2017
Opinion

Silvana Moreno teaches at a school for deaf students and has witnessed gains for people with disabilities under the Citizen's Revolution.

Classes begin but there’s no signature bell announcing that students should enter their classrooms in the La Florida neighborhood school, in northern Quito.

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Hundreds of children run up the stairs, but there’s no noise for the kids to hear amidst a stampede of leather shoes, laughs and shouts — typical background noise for students at school.

Silvana Moreno, who wears long boots, leggings and a thick dress, enters her class and tells her six students to sit down so that she can begin her lesson.

On Thursday, they studied geography and political figures in Latin America. She points to a map of the region and then to a list of presidents: Rafael Correa, Nicolas Maduro, Evo Morales, Michelle Bachelet, Tabare Vazquez and more.

She then points to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, and takes off the pink scarf that’s keeping her neck warm and places it across her right shoulder to her left hip. She walks through the room elegantly and with great poise, waving to the children.

As she walks toward a small girl, she passes the makeshift presidential sash to her, and she looks at the teacher with her striking blue eyes.

The teacher then moves her arms, symbolizing the movement of a person in a wheelchair. She’s referencing the President-elect of Ecuador Lenin Moreno, with whom she doesn’t just share her last name, despite not being related, but also one main trait: they both live with a disability.

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Moreno, who served as vice president for Correa’s first term, was shot during an attempted robbery in 1998 and lost mobility of his legs. He has since become a symbol and a champion of the tireless battle against the discrimination of those who live with disabilities.

Silvana Moreno is deaf. She teaches at the National Institute of Hearing and Language, a school for children who are deaf, the same school from which she graduated.

The teacher has also witnessed first hand how the country of 16.3 million people has undergone a transformation improving how people with disabilities are treated in the society since President Rafael Correa took office in 2007.

Now, as the country prepares for a historic event — the inauguration, on Wednesday, of the first Ecuadorean president with a disability, and of the only head of state in the world who uses a wheelchair — she feels confident that their needs will be met, and that he will work to reduce barriers and poverty in the country.

“A person with a disability feels the same and identifies with other people with disabilities," said Silvina, whose husband and son are also both deaf.

"I trust and feel proud of a representative with disabilities in Latin America, because that means social inclusion as well."

Silvana and the president-elect are both among the 1.6 million people in the country who live with a disability, according to the National Council of Disabilities, known by its acronym Conadis. Of these, only 418,000 have been registered in the national registry — which includes 196,758, or 48 percent, of persons with a physical disability and 53,565 people, or 13 percent, in the deaf community.

“For us it’s not a disability, we are just deaf,” Silvana said in sign language. Her interpreter Lena Diaz translated as fast as she could, sometimes loosing her breath trying to keep pace with Silvana’s rapid gestures.

“Since I was a little girl, I’ve felt proud of my identity as a deaf person,” she continued. Her speech interrupted slightly, by two of her students, who ran up and touched her shoulder to grab her attention, “Our community is like a family, and we communicate through sign language, although my family can hear and the world can hear.”

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Silvana recalled that when she was young she was told she had to vocalize — she had to try to speak — and she endured long hours of tiring speech therapy, which she hated.

“At school I communicated in sign language, I arrived at home and had to go to speech therapy. I did not want to, I wanted to play as any girl,” she said.

Silvana said she now compares her childhood experience with that of her son, who plays with other children and communicates with gestures.

"My son is happy, he thinks that everyone knows sign language,” Moreno said. “This has allowed him to develop his imagination and creativity through games.”

She says her parents, who can hear and are also teachers, always supported her but did not know how to handle the situation correctly.

“They thought that their daughter is deaf and has to be included in the world of listeners, she needs to speak and write, and try to listen.”

As a young girl she started to participate in activities in the deaf community and blended her life with her family and with other deaf people, who shared her same hopes and dreams of being respected and appreciated in society.

"I live in two worlds, the listening world and the world of deaf culture. It has always been like that, I am in sync with the two worlds," Moreno said.

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After saying several times that she was never ashamed of using sign language in front of hearing people, she lets her guard down and acknowledges that sometimes she did feel ashamed and had to hide her hands to avoid being pointed out.

“That is not the reality now, the listener world now respects the deaf community, a linguistic minority that has a wealth of language, culture and identity. Same as the Quechua and Indigenous communities. It is respected, you can not destroy the identity and language,” she said.

Silvana studied fashion design and computer science, but was always inclined to study education since she was a little girl, when she used to dress as a teacher and try to explain books to her hearing cousins. But when she tried to study to be a teacher at university, she was told that she could not, and that she should study something else, like art.

"Society tells us that we are deaf and that we can not learn or study," she said. “They thought that the deaf can not make abstractions.”

She dropped out of college, but her parents pressured her to continue until she was allowed to have an interpreter, which she paid for herself, by her side. That was the only way she could continue studying.

“I had a lot of barriers. I was not able to receive all the information, that generated frustration and suffering," she said.

When the National Assembly approved the Organic Law of Disabilities in 2012 and the Law of Communication the year after, access to information in sign language — newly categorized as one of the main languages in Ecuador — became a guaranteed right for all.

The program, Joaquin Gallegos Lara, also created under Correa’s administration, was a pioneer in collecting data regarding disabilities in Ecuador. It also provides support for people living with disabilities and those who take care of relatives with disabilities through an economic benefit program.

For Mario Puruncajas, the president of the National Federation of Blind People of Ecuador, the work required to obtain equality doesn't only come from the government, but social organizations that are in touch with the population on a daily basis.

He was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare and genetic degenerative disease that causes severe loss of vision with the passage of time.

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“To be a person with a disability in our country meant that you were looked upon with pity, that had to be helped, assisted, with a negative language, the poor guy,” said Puruncajas, while he left his walking cane by the door, making his way to the chair, unassisted, and sitting down comfortably.

Puruncajas runs an organization that looks out for the rights of the 49,344 officially registered blind people in Ecuador.

He says that employers who hire blind people are satisfied with their work, adding that he could testify to that as he has overseen work placement for hundreds of people who are blind. According to official figures, 88,000 people with various disabilities have been placed in jobs in the country.

“Now we have rights and we demand them,” Puruncajas said. “We know that authorities have to fulfill their responsibilities in education, labor and recreation.”

He slides his hands over a book about language and literature written in Braille developed specifically with the aim of incorporating children and adults to universities and jobs.

In 2008, Ecuador ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and included in the constitution the obligation to protect and give equal opportunities to people with disabilities.

“With the Organic Law of Disabilities we have rescued the condition to be, first of all, a person, and then someone with a disability,” Puruncajas said, looking straight into the camera, through dark sunglasses created especially for the blind.

“We believe our country has been the example of implementing public policies in favor of people with a disability,” Puruncajas said.

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