> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

If you are in a wheelchair in Guatemala, lots of nice people will be willing to carry you up the stairs… But that’s not the point. A recent conversation with Alan Tenenbaum, a disability inclusion advocate based in Guatemala, offered me that perspective. Tenenbaum, who became a quadriplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury in his late twenties, focuses his work on the Latin American country. Those looking to advance disability inclusion in Guatemala, like in most countries, have their work cut out for them. Countrywide, according to Team Around the Child, less than two percent of Guatemalan adults with disabilities have work, most children with disabilities do not attend school, and only a small percentage of those in need of wheelchairs have one. To date, according to a recent paper from Trickle Up, most efforts to advance disability inclusion in Guatemala have been limited to urban areas – even though 50 percent of the country’s population resides in rural areas, where economic opportunities are harder to come by.

I sat down with Tenenbaum to get a sense for progress made and challenges still present in Guatemala for persons with disabilities (PwDs). Since his injury, Tenenbaum wrote a book sharing his story, En la Silla de Morfeo (On Morpheus’ Chair), started and led a foundation, Sigue Avanzando, and has regularly given speeches for schools, universities, news outlets, and private companies. At the heart of these efforts is what he identifies as the biggest barrier to disability inclusion: public awareness.

In Guatemala, and in most Latin American countries, Tenenbaum says, “I want to think that [disability inclusion] is not a matter of immorality, but of ignorance. I believe that here you become aware of the exclusion only when you or someone very close to you has a disability. When you live with it, then you realize how bad and overdue our countries are with this subject.”

Globally, about 15 percent of people have a disability, according to the World Health Organization, making this the largest vulnerable population in the world. Within this group, 82 percent live in developing countries and 20 percent live in extreme poverty.

Tenenbaum’s foundation, among the groups in Guatemala working to combat these statistics, focuses specifically on those with spinal cord injuries and those in wheelchairs. Sigue Avanzando provides educational resources, organizes sports and community-building activities, advocates for infrastructure changes, and works to build public awareness.

Another Guatemala-based organization, Transitions runs a wheelchair manufacturing workshop that’s staffed entirely by individuals in wheelchairs. The chairs are custom made for their recipients and are given away free or for a nominal price. The organization offers education, healthcare, skills-based training, and assistance with social integration, as well.

As a reader of this blog, you’re likely aware of the potential of microfinance to ameliorate the intensifying cycle between disability and poverty. You might also know that current estimates indicate that less than one percent of microfinance clients around the world are PwDs. In Guatemala, for all potential client segments, there is huge room for growth in the microfinance market. According to the Global Findex, only 22 percent of adults, and only 13 percent of the bottom two quintiles of the economic pyramid, have a bank account at a formal financial institution.

CFI has worked with partner MFIs and organizations around the world to sound the call for financial inclusion for PwDs, identify issues among providers that impede inclusivity, and equip them with the tools and resources to bring on PwDs as viable clients.

Between 2010 and 2013, Trickle Up developed and implemented an economic strengthening project for PwDs in Guatemala, applying an approach that combines grants, savings, and skills training. Their paper shares pitfalls and lessons from the project, and serves as a guide to encourage and assist other organizations in including PwDs in similar programs. Reflective of Guatemala’s needs, the project paid special attention to PwDs in rural areas.

Mobile money holds great potential for furthering inclusion in Guatemala. Although a small portion of the population is formally banked, and mobile money has yet to take off in the country, mobile phone penetration is high: there are 8.8 million unique subscribers in the 15.5 million total population. Mobile money could help sidestep some of the logistical and transportation challenges of PwDs.

The general lack of awareness of disability inclusion is signaled in the parking lots of Guatemala. According to Tenenbaum, “Most establishments don’t even have handicap parking spaces. And if they do, they’re not made with the specifications needed. And if they are, someone without a disability parks there without caring!”

Though this all could be changing and very soon. Through my window to the disability inclusion movement at CFI, I’ve seen powerful momentum building in recent years. Our PwD inclusion work at CFI has gained traction around the world. Just last month, the UNDP released a policy paper, Financial Inclusion of Excluded Segments – Learning from Experience Delivery of Financial Services to Persons with Disabilities, based on our work in India. And some of the biggest names in the development community – like BRAC – have also joined the fight.

Progress on exclusionary infrastructure should soon accelerate in Guatemala. According to Tenenbaum, construction companies were offered incentives to meet disability requirements in the past. But now those requirements have become law.

Image credit: Mario Bollini

Have you read?

A How-To Guide to Realizing Disability Inclusion at MFIs Is Now Available

Disability Inclusivity and the Smart Campaign at Fundacion Paraguaya

Adopting Digital Financial Services in Guatemala