By Irene Caselli BBC News, Quito.
Disabled people in Ecuador were once marginalised, shut up in their homes and considered unemployable. Since 2007, a single government initiative has transformed many of their lives.
Before his accident, Angel Quevedo worked as a house painter in Ecuador’s capital city Quito. He was originally from a farm in the Andean highlands, but had moved to the city to find a job. During a party at his cousin’s house in 1989, a fight broke out. As he got involved to break it up, he was pushed and fell from a terrace on the second floor. The impact left him paralysed from the waist down. Pain confined him to bed for eight months, while his family had to sell seven cows to pay for medical expenses.
“It was tough,” he says. “All of a sudden I had to depend on other people’s help to live.” Slowly Mr Quevedo learnt how to get around in a wheelchair, while he resigned himself to live off the charity of family and friends in a city that became hostile.
“People looked at me strangely,” he says. “They called me ‘cripple’. They thought I was good for nothing.”
Back in 1989 it was unthinkable that a person with a disability could find work in Ecuador. They were often confined to their family’s homes, hidden from society. Those who ventured out in their wheelchairs had to roll next to cars in order to move around the city. Unable to find work, many would beg at traffic lights.
Things started changing in 2007, when Lenin Moreno took over as vice president after winning the elections as Rafael Correa’s running mate.
Mr Moreno, who became paraplegic after being shot in the back in 1998, set out to make a difference. Since taking office, has has implemented the Ecuador without Borders programme, which turned the rights of disabled people into state policy.
The same rights were later included in the 2008 constitution and became an all-encompassing law in 2012.
The government launched programmes to research the causes and numbers of disabilities across the country. Ecuadorean doctors, helped by their Cuban peers, visited every village in Ecuador to establish how many people had disabilities, and what help they needed.
The government recognised that approximately 295,000 people have a disability (just over 2% of the total population) and sent out technical assistance to those in need – free wheelchairs were handed out, as well as health and housing support.
Moreover, starting in 2010, it became compulsory for companies with over 25 employees to fill at least 4% of staff positions with people with disabilities.
For people like Mr Quevedo, this was the most important step in what he, and a majority of Ecuadoreans, deem as the most successful set of policies under the administration of President Rafael Correa.
Mr Quevedo, who had not had a full-time job since his accident, was hired by a furniture shop looking to comply with the new law.
“When I started working, I felt so much better,” says Mr Quevedo, now 53. “I can earn my own money and not depend on anyone.”
“For me it was a joy to see other disabled people working too.”
Angel Quevedo spent two decades without work . Atu, the company he works for, employs 15 people with disabilities.
At the beginning, it was not easy to find employees, says Paola Cueva, the manager who was in charge of hiring new staff at the furniture factory.
This had been a worry for several businesses, who had initially complained that quota would be difficult to comply with it.
Some companies were fined for not meeting the 4% quota, and there is still concern that some businesses are not complying.
Ms Cueva explains that it was hard to find a good fit for a factory where manual work can be tough, but she still approves of the regulation.
“It’s been an enriching experience. They are all very hard-working and responsible,” she says. “If the law didn’t exist, companies would have never hired disabled people in such a massive way.”
In an interview with the BBC’s Outlook, Mr Moreno said the legislature’s greatest achievement was to give visibility to a part of society that had previously been isolated.
“Visibility means being able to say: ‘I am a human being. There are things I cannot do because I have a disability, but I remain a human being,'” he said.
“Now disabled people can be proud when they go out into the streets.”
Pride is felt strongly among Atu’s disabled workers. Many of them are also athletes.
Wilson de la Cruz, one of Ecuador’s most decorated athletes, works at the factory. He participated in three Paralympic Games and played basketball professionally in the United States.
Mr Quevedo also has an impressive record. He has competed in many events, including the world’s longest wheelchair race in Alaska.
Their sporting achievements did not earn them much fame or money in Ecuador, but they have become a great bonding mechanism in the workplace.
Mr de la Cruz organises a weekly basketball game, and many participate, including Luis Aguayo, 27, whose leg was amputated in 2007 following a work accident.
“Wilson motivated me to keep going,” says Mr Aguayo. “Now I feel like a normal person, because I can work with other non-disabled people.”
After leaving a very successful legacy, Mr Moreno retired from politics in May. But his career may not be over, as the Ecuadorean government is promoting him as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability.
If that were to take place, it would be a reason to celebrate, says Mr Quevedo.
“We could show other countries that here in Ecuador we disabled people can do anything we set out to do,” he says.
Ecuador’s disabled population
- A government survey suggests almost 300,000 (more than 2% of population) of Ecuadoreans live with disabilities
- Firms with more than 25 employees must fill 4% of their posts with disabled workers
- World Bank estimates 10,000 disabled Ecuadoreans have been helped into work since 2006