Community organizer finds new experiences, new allies, and access issues in Colombia

By Khadejaa Glass

Curiosity was the foundation of Michelle Garcia’s trip to Bogota, Colombia between August 26 and September 2, 2013. That curiosity made Michelle thankful for her return to Chicago, a city that has barriers but is completely functional if compared to Colombia. A Latina from Texas, eventually moving to Chicago, Garcia wondered how politics, areas of disability and voicing rights were implemented in Latin America. This interest was sparked by her great work and accomplishments as a Community Development Organizer at Access Living. It was also rooted from the achievements she had seen reached over the years within the disabled community. Michelle questioned if life as a disabled person was as understood and tolerable in developing areas. She wondered about the comparison of it and her experience. This spotlighted accessibility, unity and advocacy. Her curiosity provoked her to seize the opportunity to plan a trip to Colombia. Her goal was to make the population aware that unfairness does not have to be met at a compromise. People don’t have to settle for lack of accommodations.

Her eight day trip to Bogota, Colombia was made possible by Mobility International U.S.A. and the Department of State. Michelle was a good fit to represent Access Living on the trip. Daisy Feidt, Executive Vice President of Access Living said, “We were approached by MIUSA to see if we wanted to send someone from Access Living on the exchange. We chose to send Michelle because of her work on issues impacting Latinos with disabilities. We thought she could bring an important perspective to people work on disability issues and Colombia and would be a great host for them while they were in Chicago.”

Michelle stayed at the hotel of Morrison in Bogota. During the exchange Michelle joined with Universidad del Rosario and Fundacion Arcangeles. Fundacion Arcangelese is a rehabilitation center. Michelle remembers it as being huge. The center was not occupied with individuals who were born disabled, but rather with people who acquired a disability. The injuries of their patients were the same, such as those who suffered from a car accident or acquired paraplegia, which could have resulted from a number of incidents. Garcia felt that information was oddly amazing. It is common for a person to have a disability from birth. The fact that Fundacion Arcangeles had no exposure to those individuals was astonishing to her. It seemed that in Colombia, having a disability is often thought of or portrayed as receiving it after birth as opposed to being born with it. Having a disability is often thought of or portrayed as receiving it after birth as opposed to being born with it. Michelle also observed that staff had a concern of fixing the patients rather than teaching them how to fight for their rights.

Michelle met Esteban Awad at Arcangeles. Arcangeles workers said that he had potential to be a organizer but he admitted to not knowing how to get people to listen to him. Michelle encouraged and instructed a group of seven people, including Esteban, to start an advocacy journey. The individuals were intrigued by the story of Michelle’s Latino, cross disability group, Cambiando Vidas, which she steers at Access Living, and they wanted to start their own. Fearful at first, they did.

Since returning to Chicago, Michelle has been contacted by Esteban with good news of recruiting two members to their group. These members have disability types new to Arcangeles, which now makes the organization a cross disability advocacy group. One member is a visually impaired man by the name of Jorge and the other is a woman who has Cerebral Palsy. That was a great achievement.

Helping to find people with disabilities employment is one service offered at Arcangeles. The center also offers social activities and sports. They have a famous wheelchair rugby team, which has traveled around the world. Arcangeles also has a campaign titled “I’ll Lend You a Leg,” for those who have served in the military. Politicians and community members promote it in through commercials, stating, “lend your leg,” “save our people.” The center also encourages and has templates for others to do a campaign in their own country. One that is an option is called the Segregator. The purpose of the Segregator Campaign is to bring awareness of unfairness by comically pointing out someone’s short comings and assumed incapabilities on hidden camera. The camera is later revealed. Although the emotional effect is temporary, the motive is understood. It is designed to make society aware of how people with disabilities constantly are treated and feel regarding segregation. It was also mentioned at the center that, except for tourists, people who used a motorized wheelchair, which Garcia has, were never seen. Residents of Colombia don’t use motorized wheelchairs. They had manual wheelchairs and Colombians said they were easier for travel, but considering the pavement of Colombia is hard to navigate with a manual chair, it is wondered how.

Commuting around Colombia was a strain for Michelle. Streets went into an uphill and they resembled and were close enough to being separated blocks of uneven brick. Considering the infrastructure of streets and buildings, manual and motorized wheelchairs, even feet, would be tough to maneuver around with. There were a few people with disabilities who had their own vehicles. When Michelle Garcia traveled by vehicle, she rode in an ambulance. Michelle wasn’t alone. According to what Michelle learned, the country accommodated all wheelchair users with an ambulance. There were two different emergency vehicles, depending on if the user had a manual or motorized wheelchair. The vehicle Michelle rode in was bigger and operated with a lift. Ambulances that serve manual wheelchair users are smaller and consist of a ramp. This can be tolerated because manual wheelchairs are lighter and can be easily boarded by push. These wheelchairs are usually smaller, which means the extra room that the bigger ambulance provides would be unnecessary for a manual wheelchair user. When Michelle told me about that interesting way of commuting in an ambulance I immediately wondered how many emergency engines there were. I also pondered if someone needing to be driven to a hospital was ever delayed or not met at all because ambulances were being occupied by those in wheelchairs. If that had never occurred I thought about the possibility of it. I thought about the average demand for ambulances for general transportation and someone needing to be hurried to seek medical attention. What is that ratio?

Michelle reminisced on visiting a shopping mall in Colombia. She remembered it being well populated. She said that the security guards there had various disabilities, which included those who use wheelchairs.

While in Colombia Michelle also connected with Universidad del Rosario. She met a professor by the name of Andrea Padilla. Padilla was formerly a lawyer and resigned from that to study disability rights. Her specific area is research as opposed to advocacy. Professor Padilla was interested in learning about advocating and looked toward Michelle for insight. Michelle learned that Padilla was once an activist who unfortunately was kidnapped due to the guerillas in Colombia.

Colombia has a strict government. Colombia has committees that make decisions on behalf of people with disabilities. There are laws written for people with disabilities, however, they are not implemented or enforced. It seems that people with disabilities are unaware of what their rights are, which explains the lack of advocating for them and unity. Although Michelle wanted to inspire the Colombians to fight for their rights and teach them how to do it, she feared her guidance would promote harsh retaliation.

Michelle returned to Chicago with many stories about her visit. She maintains contact with the group, but mostly Esteban, who is the organizer. When possible, Michelle and the group meet once a week on Thursdays at 5pm via Skype. Her most memorable aspect of the trip was meeting new people, hearing their experiences, and collectively agreeing on why advocating is important and guiding them on how to do so. Michelle helped the disabled community in Colombia realize a voice that otherwise likely would not have been discovered or heard.