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June 22, 2018

‘Viva Latin America! Deepening Ties With Japan’ Vol.2: Persons With Disabilities Work Across Borders

As a JICA expert in Colombia, Masako Okuhira, who uses an electric wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, served as the chief adviser of a project to promote social participation by persons with disabilities from March 2015 to June 2016. This project aims to create an inclusive society (one in which no one is left behind) in Colombia, which endured more than 50 years of continuous civil war.

JICA continues taking this approach to disability and development in Latin America, which has long suffered from poverty and conflict, and where many people with disabilities have been left behind. In this second installment in the series "Viva Latin America! Deepening Ties With Japan," we examine JICA's initiatives on disability and development in Latin America, incorporating the experiences of Ms. Okuhira.

photoAs part of a JICA initiative in Colombia, persons with disabilities went out into town and walked the streets. People in the town watched them with amazement.

The effects of conflict and poverty were severe

photoA workshop intended to empower persons with disabilities

The project Ms. Okuhira was involved in was the Project for Social Inclusion of Conflict Victims with Disabilities*1. It targeted two cities that were greatly damaged in the conflict. What Ms. Okuhira saw, however, was different from what she'd imagined.

"I was mainly thinking about physical disabilities. But among those damaged by conflict, I found many people with psychological scars. Beyond that, I clearly saw the effects of poverty," Ms. Okuhira said.

She saw a lack of education, insufficient medical care and serious cultural issues, as well as several cases in which people with disabilities were isolated in their homes because of the belief that the presence of family members with disabilities brings shame to their families.

At first, the project considered the approach of directly training persons with disabilities in the target areas to be leaders. However, it eventually chose an approach of training leaders among individuals with disabilities who lived in the department capital, and having those leaders go on to train other people with disabilities in the target areas. The reasons are that it wanted to train in a way that would allow the initiative to spread into other areas after the project was finished, and it wanted to create a mechanism for peer training among persons with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities get involved in increasing their own status and capacity

photoMs. Okuhira, front-left, working in Colombia. She said she had a difficult time laying the groundwork for her work there — such as finding an apartment and securing helpers.

"If we are going to make the empowerment of people with disabilities (increasing their status and capacity) and cultivating leaders our main themes, individuals with disabilitiesabsolutely should be part of that initiative," says Ms. Okuhira.

It is becoming mainstream to view persons with disabilities not as vulnerable people who receive assistance, but rather as a central force in solving society's problems. JICA is proactively sending individuals with disabilities to work in developing countries, and one reason is to serve as role models for people with disabilities in those nations and make them think, "I want to be like that." And so, Ms. Okuhira was sent to Colombia as JICA's first long-term expert with disability.

The Project for Social Inclusion of Conflict Victims with Disabilities held a Leadership School, mostly once a month, a total of 13 times. Participants learned methods of peer counseling to give persons with disabilities greater self-reliance. They also learned about government policy on people with disabilities. Out of the 51 who registered, 45 completed the training. Afterward, one succeeded in having sign language interpreters placed in classes at her own university.

The social inclusion strategy comes to fruition

As a result of the project's work with the Colombian Ministry of Education, the country has passed laws on inclusive education. Also, after JICA worked with the Ministry of Labour, persons with disabilities got involved in coffee growing.

These project activities and a project survey made it apparent that health care, education and working are particularly important for the social inclusion of persons with disabilities. In February 2018, JICA experts and related local government agencies collaborated to create the publication "Strategy on the Social Inclusion of Conflict Victims with Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities," which summarizes important issues to address in these fields and methods of grappling with them. Next, JICA will use the two years until the end of the project to practice these strategies in different regions and verify their effectiveness.

'I'm glad I met you'

photoThe Independent Living Center in Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica. It was established as the first independent living center for persons with disabilities in Latin America, growing out of the cooperation between JICA and the Mainstream Association.

The people who underwent peer counseling training at the Leadership School in Colombia were staff of the Independent Living Center for Persons with
Disabilities in Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica. The center was established in 2011 as the first independent living center for people with disabilities in Latin America, growing out of cooperation between the NPO Mainstream Association in Nishinomiya, Hyogo prefecture, Japan, and JICA. A similar center has been established in Bolivia.

Some individuals with disabilities Ms. Okuhira met through the training have told her, "I'm glad I met you."

Ms. Okuhira looks back on this work and says she thinks her identity as a person with a disability and a woman gave it impact, and that it conveyed the importance of initiatives led by people with disabilities.

JICA continues dispatching persons with disabilities as not only experts, but also as Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and Senior Volunteers. In Latin America, Meri Hirose (who has an auditory disability) has been working at a school for the deaf in the Dominican Republic since January 2013, and acupuncture and moxibustion massage therapist Akira Tsunakawa (who has a visual impairment) taught Shiatsu and Anma*2 in Nicaragua for two years beginning in October 2013.

*1 Social inclusion is the philosophy that no one, regardless of disability, should have to live in isolation.
*2 Shiatsu and anma are traditional Japanese massage therapies that have been often practiced by visually impaired people.

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