Despite limited funds, vice president leads the charge to make Ecuador accessible to the handicapped

Mar 16, 2011

The ornate lobby of the nation’s vice presidential palace is teeming with people in wheelchairs and on crutches, mothers leading the blind and the developmentally disabled.

Many are here because they believe that the man upstairs is one of their own.

Ever since a thief’s bullet ripped through his spine 13 years ago, Ecuador’s vice president, Lenín Moreno, has been paralyzed from the waist down. When he was elected second-in-command of this Andean nation in 2007, he became one of the highest ranking politicians in Latin American history to have a visible disability.

Sitting in a wheelchair behind a wide wooden desk at his office, Moreno, 58, is quick to downplay his historic role.

There have been congressmen and judges in wheelchairs before, he said. There have been Latin American presidents with speech impediments, and Joaquín Balaguer, the former president of the Dominican Republic, was in his 90s and legally blind when he won a third term.

“We’re all handicapped at some moment in our life — whether it’s as children or as seniors,” Moreno told The Miami Herald. “So I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

What is certain is that Moreno and President Rafael Correa have done more to promote the rights of people with serious disabilities in Ecuador than any administration in recent memory. 

The vice presidency spearheaded the first door-to-door survey to locate and identify the nation’s disabled population; the administration has increased the budget for disabled care from about $100,000 a year to $65 million per year, and it has required businesses to reserve one out of every 25 jobs for people with disabilities.

Just as important, Moreno’s high-profile status has helped shine a spotlight on a segment of the population that had long been ostracized.

On his trips around the country, Moreno said he has encountered people with disabilities who have been hidden from public view in sheds and chicken coops.

“There was a time when a disability was considered God’s punishment — it was almost like they had been cursed by the devil,” he said. “Even today, people with disabilities are wary of showing themselves in public.”

Several times a month, the vice presidency organizes events designed to get those with disabilities onto the street, and Moreno often leads rallies for disabled people.

Such acts have won the administration fierce loyalty. When Correa was detained in a hospital by disgruntled policemen in September, a contingent of wheelchair-users joined the throngs demanding his release.

With his legs shriveled by polio as a child, Segundo Torres, 42, is just a few feet high and gets around in a wheelchair. He makes a living by playing songs — including a rendition of Hotel California — on a pan flute on the streets of Quito.

“This government has helped lift our spirits,” said Torres, who keeps a picture of Correa and Moreno on his mobile phone. “And they’ve taught me that I can be an example for other disabled people. But this country still has a long way to go.”

While discrimination is still the top obstacle, the nation’s infrastructure also makes it difficult for disabled people to find work, Torres said.

Like many Latin American nations, public transportation in Ecuador is rarely accessible. Wheelchair ramps are scarce, and sidewalks — where they exist — are often pitted with holes.

But not everyone is convinced that Moreno is good for the long-term health of the nation’s disabled population.

Carlos Valdivieso is the secretary general of Ecuador’s Paralympic Federation. A one-time advisor to the vice president, he said he broke with Moreno because he feared that institutions and nonprofits that have long dealt with handicapped people were being sidelined. The National Council for the Disabled, for example, was absorbed by the vice presidency.

“All the responsibility for controlling, executing and maintaining programs for the disabled are under the vice presidency, where they shouldn’t necessarily be,” he said. “What happens if the vice president gets sick, or needs to step down or — even worse — he dies? The new vice president may not care about disabled issues.”

Moreno calls those fears unfounded. He said by the end of his term in 2013, all the programs being run by the vice presidency will be moved to the ministries of health, education and other government entities.

There are also those who question the government’s statistics. By most counts, about 10 percent of the global population has some sort of disability. Those rates spike among the poor, where the World Bank estimates 20 percent are disabled.

Ecuador’s study — which was done in conjunction with Cuban doctors — found 294,611 Ecuadorians with serious disabilities, or about 4 percent of the population. That’s lower than the United States, where about 12 percent of the population is considered disabled, and lower than the regional average.

Moreno said global statistics are imprecise and inflated, and are being touted by organizations that hope to receive more resources by overstating the problem.

The people identified in Ecuador’s survey “are just the citizens who need priority attention as granted by the Constitution,” he said.

Moreno was born in the remote river town of Nuevo Rocafuerte — in the Ecuadorian Amazon along the Peruvian border — and studied public administration in the nation’s capital.

He held a post in the Ministry of the Interior in 1996, but much of his early career was spent in the tourism sector. In 1998 thieves who were after Moreno’s car shot him point-blank as he bought bread in Quito. The bullet lodged in his spine leaving him a paraplegic. After the attack, Moreno said he spent almost four years in severe pain “virtually bedridden.”

Among the few things that eased his suffering — at least temporarily — was laughing. That realization launched a career as a motivational speaker and led him to write five books about laugh therapy.

Asked about his favorite joke, Moreno deflects the question and launches into a scholarly discussion about humor and why gags are an inferior form of the art.

“The only thing jokes do is allow our internal pressure cooker to explode,” he said. “A good sense of humor is more subtle. It’s the best defense we have against life’s problems.”

Credit: By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald (www.MiamiHerald.com); photo caption: Vice president Lenin Moreno (left) with President Rafael Correa and U.N. Sec.-General Ban Ki-Moon at the presidential palace in Quito 

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