Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Disabled People in Guatemala: building independence from high tech to basketball

By Amy Kunz

Agencies, NGOs and organizations committed to strengthening civil society and helping the displaced and disadvantaged abound in Guatemala. Their numbers increased dramatically with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. Many change their logos and the alphabet soup of their acronyms as well as their addresses with each new political administration or board of directors and donors. But one with a simple and telling name has been working steadily for four years-one person at time-in Antigua.

Transitions, a Guatemalan Disabilities Association, is unlike any other agency in Guatemala. "We treat the whole person," says Alex Galvez, 23,the president and co-founder of Transitions who himself has been a paraplegic since he was 16 as a result of a gunshot wound. Galvez' luck changed for the better when he met John Bell, a U.S. citizen volunteering in the hospital where he was in critical condition. Bell arranged for him to go to the States, receive the necessary surgeries and even train as an artist in Washington D.C.

Independent Living Center
"We work to get disabled people, first, the basic health care they need to get well and later, as a resident or outpatient of its Independent Living Center, a disabled person gains access to the necessary services to become or return to being an independent, productive member of society," says Galvez. Most of the leadership of Transitions consists of disabled people; they spend just as much time helping themselves as doing community outreach to other similar organizations in order to help others.

The wheelchair-friendly house in Colonia Candelaria has a revolving door, in theory, as the all-male residents (for now, at least) come and go as they undergo rehabilitation of body and mind. Polio, spina bifida, and other childhood and congenital diseases as well as traffic accidents and gunshot wounds are among the causes of the residents' disabilities. In the mornings, many study with a tutor to complete their primary and secondary education that they had to abandon for lack of funds or lack of accessibility of schools. The afternoons are reserved for a number of skill-building and money-making ventures.

Entrepreneurship thrives on Transitions' grounds. Each year, and with the support of an impressive network of individual and group sponsors and volunteers, Transitions is able to offer its residents and outside "clients" new ways to find a profession for themselves whether it be as a wheelchair mechanic, a graphic designer, and, lately, as a Web site developer. The ever-evolving agency is the pilot project for NetCorps Americas' Employment for People with Disabilities program, funded by The Trust for the Americas which helps to fulfill objectives laid out by the Organization of America States (OAS). In 2000, high-tech volunteers were sent to visit Transitions, and the long list of agencies it trades services and resources with, to teach disabled people a variety of computer programs including several to design Web pages for themselves and even for hotels and restaurants. Antigua is fertile ground for such a venture with its hodgepodge of inns and eateries.

Artistic ability is one of the positive outcomes of their misfortunes for some of these young people. Drawing and design often become tools for restoring self-confidence as well as being enjoyable activities. Gustavo Vasquez used the "tools" in his immediate environment when he first felt the urge to create. He started drawing with his fingers in the dirt at age 7 near his home in Zone 2 of the capital city. A spinal column irregularity prevented him from being active and at age 14, he began to use a wheelchair, having completely lost the use of his legs. This stoic 34-year-old is a frequent participant in the national art exhibition sponsored by Very Special Arts, submitting entries in his preferred style: pointillism. Indigenous Guatemalans working, weaving and especially, traje-clad mothers with children are his favorite subjects. "The simple images that reflect best the distinct culture of Guatemala are the ones I like to re-create most," Vasquez quietly and confidently states. Last year he not only sold every piece he brought, he also won a free trip to Los Angeles with 7 other artists to compete in another competition and, of course, the chance to sell his work and become self-sufficient.

Athletic ability is something many had thought they had lost or would never have as a result of their situations. Any doubts they, or anyone, had about disabled peoples' abilities were squelched last year, when the Transitions' wheelchair basketball team qualified to be Guatemala's national representative at the Central American Games. They earned first place in the tournament defeating the top wheelchair teams in the country.

Transitions will enthusiastically accept monetary donations at any time. Specialized, committed volunteers are always welcome too. Persons with experience in special education, prosthetics and orththetics, graphic design, small business management, marketing, fundraising and/or technology and with at least adequate Spanish speaking ability should contact Alex Galvez, David Lara or John Bell at tel/fax: 832-4261. Fridays are a good time to come visit the Independent Living Center and Print Shop at No. 80 Colonia Candelaria just off 1era. Avenida Norte. Several times a week in the late afternoons the Transitions' championship basketball team practices on the Candelaria court directly in front of the ruins of the same name.

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