Since I arrived in El Salvador I’ve developed a sixth sense, a wider scope of awareness if you will. I noticed this new sensory phenomenon the first day I walked to work. Walking to work can sometimes be like running an obstacle course blindfolded. That first day I got lost and spent nearly two hours searching for the small office building that’s actually located just 10 minutes away from my house. Somewhat aimlessly and sweating profusely from the humidity I walked up and down back and forth in circles around the residential neighborhood where the office is located. As I meandered around the city streets, I would stop passers-by and ask directions. Since street signs appear to be a rarity in this city, most people were unsure how to direct me to Calle Colima without some other landmark as a reference.
Determined, I continued on. I walked down the crumbling sidewalks that in places appear to have violently imploded and cracked open to expose their true state of dilapidation. At times I would be forced to cautiously jet out into the street and back, using skilled Frogger-like moves to maneuver around cars that were parked on the sidewalk, trying my hardest not to be flattened by the oncoming traffic. Other times I would turn sideways and slide, to the left, to the left, to squeeze between several cars that were crowded onto the narrow pedestrian path. I tripped at one point on a tree root that was stubbornly growing through the battered sidewalk and nearly did a face plant as I stepped off an absurdly high curb before I finally reached the office.
My new sense, or maybe it’s a newly developed skill, is more like a hyper-awareness: an awareness to all the accessibility challenges that people with disabilities have to face. On my walk to work, and everywhere that I have been since I started working with the Survivor Network, I begin to ask myself: How easily could someone in a wheelchair move around the parked cars on the sidewalk? How challenging would it be for someone with crutches to squeeze through the parked cars? How would a person with a visual impairment know when to cross the four lanes of chaotic traffic? How would my life be if I put myself in someone else’s shoes?
All these institutional and social barriers that I once overlooked in my own country seem to now be amplified in El Salvador. The crumbling sidewalks represent only a small fraction of societal challenges for persons with disabilities. The public transportation system, medical facilities, public schools, local businesses, even many government facilities are not accessible to people with disabilities.
The Survivor Network is trying to change the societal barriers in El Salvador. Through their Social Empowerment Program and the assistance of their experienced outreach workers, they are organizing associations of persons with disabilities at the municipal level and educating survivors to advocate for their rights. The Survivor Network was instrumental in the 2007 ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but there is still the question of implementation. The next step is enforcing laws and changing policies to ensure that persons with disabilities not only have equal rights and opportunities, but equal access to the same services as people without disabilities.
What does accessibility mean for persons with disabilities in El Salvador? This is a question I will continue to ask myself, my coworkers, and their clients throughout the duration of my fellowship.
Posted By Carolyn Ramsdell
Posted Jun 29th, 2009