Cambiando Vidas brings the voice of Latinos with Disability to the community

Several years ago, Access Living noticed a need in the Latino community for disability support. Cambiando Vidas, a group at Access Living that works to provide Latinos with Disabilities in the Chicago-area education and support, was formed to address the need. The group is led by Michelle Garcia, Access Living’s Latino Community Development Organizer. Originally, the group provided much needed medical equipment to those who did not have access to healthcare services such as undocumented individuals. The operation started small; just a few volunteers staffed a hotline in a clinic in the Little Village neighborhood. However, it was clear the need for support was much greater than this hotline could provide. Soon Cambiando Vidas broadened its services to include educational campaigns on disability rights and building self-esteem. Beginning this summer, Michelle hopes to broaden the subjects covered by the group even further. “I want to add a new twist by talking about sexuality and disabilities, as well as education outside the home. Latino families tend to over-protect their loved ones with disabilities,” says Michelle. They prefer to home-school their children because they believe no one will fulfill their needs better than their family. However, this prevents many of the disabled members of the Latino community from interacting with the general public, making friends, and entering into personal relationships. Cambiando Vidas hopes to create an open forum in which Latinos with disabilities and their families will openly talk about and address these subjects.

Recently, Cambiando Vidas has organized and collaborated with other local and national Latino groups. Just last week, after much perseverance, Cambiando Vidas was able to have a significant presence at the National Latino Congreso, hosted at the Arturo Velazquez Institute by many Latino National conveners such as the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights, Latino Policy Forum and National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, among others. The conference aimed to provide a new and open space for the Latino Communities in the United States to discuss important political policy and social issues unique to the community. Although they were initially invited to participate two months prior to the meeting, event organizers did not go out of their way to include the group or the topic of disabilities in the Latino community in any of their scheduled forums on education, immigration, and employment. Though the group was discouraged by the omission, Michelle encouraged her group to not “throw in the towel,” even though it appeared as if organizers of the Latino Congreso were not motivated to integrate disability into the conference. The Monday before the Congreso, Michelle and her team wrote a letter to the leader of the NALAC, one of the conference organizers, informing him of their frustration and predicament; The letter stressed that Cambiando Vidas wanted to be included in the conference in a fair way. NALAC immediately responded, promising Michelle that they would remedy the situation.

In the end, Cambiando Vidas participated in six workshops, bringing the disability perspective to such issues as housing, education and employment. In addition, Cambiando Vidas was asked to present a resolution that would offer the Meeting organizers advice on a strategy for the next event. The approved resolution entitled “Reducing Barriers to Engagement and Participation,” asks that all organizations of the National Latino Congreso commit to work together to break down barriers and promote the full inclusion of all people with disabilities in society. As a result, Cambiando Vidas has been invited to become a member of La Red Mexicana (Mexican Networking Committee), a networking group focused on the Mexican Community.
Cambiando Vidas also brought the issue of health care to the Congreso. While participating in a large panel discussion, Cambiando Vidas brought up the lack of discussion of healthcare coverage for undocumented members of the Latino community at the Congreso. By making it clear that this was an issue the group cared about, Cambiando Vidas was then able to network with other organizations across the country working on this same issue.

Reflecting on the weekend, Michelle believes “this was a great opportunity for some members of the group to truly experience the feeling of exclusion for the first time.” Speaking about members of Cambiando Vidas, Michelle said, “They learned to speak up about issues that affect them and act like leaders.” Moving forward, Michelle hopes that the growth and momentum the group achieved during the conference can continue into the future. “We have to keep fighting to educate and change the views of the Latino community of Chicago.”

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