Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Racing toward a New Disability Strategy

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Racing toward a New Disability Strategy

Article excerpt

A factory in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that produces artificial limbs has become a model for development in the hemisphere. In a region where most technical aids for the disabled are imported from North America or Europe and are either prohibitively expensive or inappropriate for local use, the Sao Paulo factory is a notable exception. The factory supplies reasonably priced orthoses and prostheses and trains technicians for most of Latin America. Those concerned with disability in the region have long welcomed and encouraged such transfers of the disability industry to developing nations, and with the success of these and other projects, international and regional organizations are redoubling efforts to support the disabled.

Leaders of OAS member states have awakened to the realization that more than 10 percent of their population is disabled. This fact would usually evoke more sympathy and despair than it would action except for studies that have come at the conclusion of the United Nations Decade of the Disabled, which emphasize the untapped potential of disability programs. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) officials, for example, suggest that more than half of this population is disabled due to the lack of basic preventive measures and that 60 to 80 percent could be self-sufficient if they had access to rehabilitative services and equal opportunities. A majority of problems that come with disability in the Americas can, in fact, be mitigated or even eliminated.

Such encouragement is making prevention of disability and the rehabilitation and integration of the disabled less of a luxury and more of a necessary investment in the well-being of the state. Leaders from American democracies are beginning to recognize the mounting cost of supporting an increasingly large and nonproductive segment of the population.

At the OAS, where there is a long history of disability programs, officials are beginning to view the problems associated with disability in a new light. Traditionally, members of the OAS have been concerned about the disabled for reasons of health, education, and human rights. Interestingly, OAS specialists are now beginning to recognize disability as a principal threat to participatory government. They argue that, in addition to free elections and peaceful transfers of power, democracies require the participation of, and a contribution from, alienated and excluded members of society. Because disabled persons constitute a significant percentage of non-participants in American democracies, it is imperative--if only in the interests of democracy--to strive for their participation.

Disability is very much an international problem and with the wide range of groups, both public and private, working in the field, there is a great need for coordination. Through recent activities, the OAS has begun to move into this role in Latin America.

The move is natural for the Organization, which has managed disability programs in the Americas for over twenty years. Through projects in twenty-seven different countries and various technical meetings throughout the 1980s, the OAS has taken the lead in developing a network of professionals dedicated to the rehabilitation and integration of the disabled. In countries where little attention was given to disability, the OAS was a pioneer in training teachers in everything from early detection and special instruction in primary schools to vocational and independent living skills for adults.

An OAS project in Barbados, for example, worked to expand and improve special education for mentally retarded and deaf children. The program developed special education units in three rural schools, which provided daily speech-teaching for ninety hearing impaired or mentally retarded children. Project coordinators equipped the sites with appropriate audiology equipment, developed a special curriculum, and trained teachers in speech education. The OAS staged similar projects for the hearing impaired throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. …

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