Racing toward a new disability strategy.
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.
In Honduras, an OAS project established learning resource centers for disabled students in three regions of the country. Resource centers, which endeavor to counter the repetition and neglect of a disabled child's principal school, serve as an alternative or supplement to regular schooling. The centers succeeded in diminishing the dropout rate--which was exceedingly high--among disabled Honduran schoolchildren.
During the 1980s, a notable trend in OAS projects for disabled youth was an increased emphasis on vocational rehabilitation in the schools. Job skills training was a particularly weak area in many of the member states, and educators and disability specialists recognized this deficiency. Many argued that work with the disabled would be squandered unless it resulted in employment or otherwise allowed a person to contribute to society. Consequently, the focus of OAS programs shifted to fill this void.
By the end of the decade, virtually every OAS project included a component of vocational training. In the Dominican Republic, for example, project leaders incorporated vocational workshops into the program of five special education schools around the country. Specialists trained a corps of vocational teachers in the special needs of disabled students. Approximately 350 students a year benefited from these workshops, and job placement for participants improved dramatically.
Perhaps most importantly, however, OAS programs sought to create the infrastructure through which the member states could advance effective disability programs. On the juridical level, officials encouraged the development of national organizations and national policies for the disabled. In education, the OAS collaborated with the ministries of education to establish special education offices that were responsible for the particular needs of disabled students. In the vocational field, specialists developed a network of subregional vocational assessment centers, which held technical meetings to evaluate the occupational needs within the region and plan strategy. In addition to individual projects, then, OAS officials endeavored to shape a regional strategy.
The scope of the OAS has shifted in the 1990s to reflect the Organization's natural strength in regional coordination. As an international organization, the OAS is uniquely suited to the development of regional strategies and standards for disability. As a result, the Organization is now less concerned with managing specific education projects than it is with coordinating activities and projects of regional private and public sector groups.
In this spirit, the OAS convened over sixty NGOs as well as specialists from Latin America and the Caribbean in March 1991 to discuss potential cooperation on disability programs in the region. The meeting provided a rare opportunity for representatives from donor institutions, policymakers from the member states, and specialists in the field to outline meaningful and economically feasible disability strategies. The group compiled a list of thirty-seven concrete projects based upon the needs of the member states and the technical and financial resources of the non-OAS organizations. For example, specialists from Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., collaborated with officials from Venezuela who sought a program to standardize and promote Latin American sign language. They formulated a plan to produce a "Comparative Dictionary of Basic Sign Language" and a program to develop sign language resource materials and interpretation aids.
In March 1993, increased OAS involvement with the private sector in disability matters evolved into a conference that helped to organize forces on the political level. First ladies from seventeen OAS member states along with technical delegations from thirty-three states gathered in Washington at the Western Hemisphere Conference on Persons with Disabilities in order to establish the formal groundwork for a disabilities strategy in the Americas. The conference produced subregional plans of action and the comprehensive "Agenda for the Future," a veritable manifesto for the disabled in the Americas. The document outlines the priorities in the hemisphere and presents guiding strategies. Its stated intention is "to adopt a global perspective but also encourage concrete actions at the local level." Among other points, the agenda calls for the development of a national plan in each of the countries, the establishment of a regional data base, assistance in creating and standardizing national legislation, the maintenance and training of education and rehabilitation personnel, and further research into the causes of disability in the region. The document concludes with a petition to the OAS "to accept these recommendations and adopt and carry out coordinated plans with each member state."
The petition was answered. Three months later, in June 1993, at the XXIII Session of the OAS General Assembly in Managua, the member states responded to the declarations of the "Agenda for the Future" and voted, in Resolution 1249, to study the possibility of creating a commission devoted exclusively to disability matters. The General Assembly also requested that member states inform the OAS Permanent Council of "any measures they may have taken to improve the situation of the disabled." Twenty-three countries subsequently sent reports to the OAS General Secretariat describing current disability efforts in their respective countries.
In an extensive report, which details past and present OAS disability activities and recommendations and assesses the needs of specific countries within the hemisphere, the General Secretariat concurred with the propositions of the "Agenda for the Future" and formally recommended to the Permanent Council the establishment of an Inter-American Commission on Disability Affairs. The proposal includes plans to initiate activities in the second half of 1994 with a technical conference to develop disability legislation in the Caribbean nations. A similar conference for Latin American nations would follow in 1995. The commission would also concentrate its initial efforts on a comprehensive hemisphere-wide data base that would include information on research, technology, epidemiology, disability-related organizations, literature, individual living resources, and vocational information.
The proposal for the commission is before the members of the OAS Permanent Council for consideration. With its creation, the members of the OAS hope to provide the disabled with a strong regional advocate that would help to make phenomena like Sao Paulo's prostheses factory the rule rather than the exception.
Dr. Adelaide G. Farrah is the coordinator of disability affairs of the OAS. Zachary Elkins is an OAS intern.