A Discussion with Modesta Escobar Cuellar, Head of Special Education, Fe y Alegría Bolivia

July 31, 2012

Background: As part of the Education and Global Social Justice Project, in July 2012 undergraduate student Lisa Frank interviewed Modesta Escobar Cuellar, the head of special education for Fe y Alegría Bolivia. In this interview Cuellar discusses the challenges they encountered in launching their special education initiative, the importance of internships in helping disabled youth secure employment, the programmatic options available to children/youth and their families, and the relationships with businesses and the state that help sustain the effort.

How did Fe y Alegría enter this field of finding employment for people with disabilities?

The pilot program started in 2005. Fe y Alegría already had previous experience working on a job training curriculum for older youth. The youth and adults were in a special education center. The characteristic of the centers in Bolivia was that people came in, but never came out. We’ve been working with PREEFA [the special education program of Fe y Alegría] since the 1980s, and the people in the centers had stayed this whole time. You’d see people that were now quite old falling asleep on a machine. That was a call to attention, and we began rethinking the intention of the program.

The occupational training curriculum was being validated at this time throughout Bolivia. The government does not have a curriculum, but Fe y Alegría tries to organize one to coordinate our work. We asked whether the special education centers were for kids to come and stay forever, or if there was an alternative. The kids and the population in a center grow, and each year we have less space if they do not leave to do something else. From this point, the idea we had was work and social integration. Now we believe that integration is insufficient. It’s not enough to accept that someone is different; rather it’s obvious to us now that the world has to be different.

Our values have helped us in this. I've learned from these people too. Equality is not justice, when someone is in a different situation. It turns out that equity is much fairer. A girl with no hands who types with her feet told me, "You know, professor, you say that everyone has to be challenged equally. But that's not fair, because I have to be challenged based on what I can do, and someone else, on what he can do." So I learned that equity is much fairer than equality. Equality ends up being unfair when there are differences.

Tell me about launching the special education program.

When we began this work, it was a new area for most of us. We have always worked in education, but to enter the economic or productive arena demands different skills and logic. Initially, I was a little afraid, but we chose to do this in Santa Cruz because it is a city that offers many opportunities for Bolivia in terms of economic strength. We tried to work in three different areas, including the commercial, administrative, and economic sectors. The first people we worked with were in economics, but they didn’t know anything about pedagogy. It is also a very tough area. One of the things I learned was how to be guided by what you feel. When we first took the economists to a center, I said, "Tell me what you feel, not what you think or believe." That's the human side: sensitivity and awareness in terms of the other. Christians believe they should see the image of God in the other.

One of the people said they felt like crying. I thought, "Why do they feel like crying?" We got a lot of "but" and wound up firing the first two people. There was a manager also who said it gave him inspiration and respect, and he began to work on the issue of social responsibility. Also, we started thinking in the area of social communication and trade. It was a woman with very severe physical disability that began to work on this issue, who developed this strategy based on her experiences. It's a mix, seeing the opportunities that exist in the workplace, and what people knew about disabilities. In this phase of research, we focused on some companies and public and state agencies. The law in Bolivia says that you should have 4 percent people with disabilities employed in your agency, a very low percentage. At this time, the Santa Cruz public entities said they have more than 16 percent of employees who are disabled. And I say, "Where are they?"

This was in 2005. We found a very curious thing: that most of the people in the public did not know the law or the topic in general. We got to 120 firms and found that 40 to 50 percent of employers said yes, they’d accept a disabled person. One was very fearful, but at last was a yes. Twenty percent said no, never. Then we had a population that said perhaps. Our strategy was to consolidate the "yes" and make the "maybe" becomes a yes, and forget those who have said no because we don’t have time for them.

Originally we hoped that they would start working with the first youth one year after starting the project, but it was much faster. There were companies as soon as we made a plan said, "Do you have youth to work? We need them now!" Reality walks a few steps ahead of the projects. We started with those who had very good skills, because they were the first.

The teachers sometimes cause us difficulties. As they have spent so much time with these young people, they thought no one else could love them; no one could understand better than they could. The parents were also very accustomed to putting them on the bus, and the bus returns with them later. They were so comfortable, it was a very hard process for us, for parents and special education teachers. The only people who were pleased were the kids with disabilities. They were the ones that made an effort every day and kept asking the educators when they could start working.

We tried a marketing strategy. Basically we do what’s done in a supermarket. When a business incorporates a new product, they use all these strategies to promote and market a product. In this analogy we have a product: disabled people with job skills. That is my main product. My market is businessmen. What we do now is to offer an internship—that’s the key. If the youth gets the support they need during the internship, and we identify and address the needs, afterwards they keep working alone. They say an internship should be three months, but we do it in three weeks. And so far, we have found 60 hours to be enough. Sometimes it's the employer, not the kids, who have to learn and adjust. There are many prejudices in society, people think that people with disabilities cannot work or cannot speak, because they don’t know anyone with a disability. People do not know how to value and recognize them. The world is not conditioned to receive these people. The kids do better.

We set a goal of placing 15 to 20 young people per year. To place about 15 to 20 kids, you have to do twice that many internships. We also do sensitization activities for the company, but only for people who work directly with that person because they’re a vulnerable person. They don’t have the instincts you need if you’re in an unhealthy environment. In some cases these kids have been used to steal things from the company, taking them in a pocket, that sort of thing, so sometimes it’s not good that everyone in the company know there is this person with a disability. We don’t have them wear a uniform. It was hard to change this because they always wore uniforms or polo shirts with their name and phone number. We have other strategies now that are not as visible, like having them carry a booklet with this information.

What about assessment, education, and training?

For us it was important to develop a team, from the people responsible for early stimulation to the last teacher who is working with the kids in technical training. Also, there’s a smaller group of four of us. One handles the occupational assessment. She identifies the potential of the youth and what they know and can do well. The parents say, "But you cannot..., he does not know..." but we can’t find a job based on what someone doesn’t know. Sometimes a dad comes forward and the child behind and we ask, "How old are you?" And they’d say, "25 years old." Well, then, we put their chair in front! Sometimes we try to calm the parents, so they don’t answer for their child, to teach patience. Also on the subject of occupational assessment, they do a life project: what you want to do, why you want to work, etc. Romerio is responsible for this assessment. The final product of it is a skills profile of the youth, with support needs and a life plan.

After we finish the assessment and life plan, three things can happen. The first: someone who has very few skills should return to their center, to develop a bit in a regular school or special education program. The second option, if they are young (18 to 25 years old) with no technical training, they will learn a trade. The third alternative, if they are a little older, is to start working, but it all depends on the life plan. If someone wants to study, we will study. If they want to work, we work.

Vocational training takes two years. Romerio tests interests but sometimes that’s not enough, in which case we do pre-insertion for one month, in two specialties. They go to a regular school with people without disabilities. They decide between the two specialties, and then enroll in the program like any student. Our mission is to offer the same quality education for all, only that at times it must be adjusted to make it more concrete, or sometimes we increase the time that the student has to learn. For example, instead of beauty training, they’d just learn hair or hands. Maria Lourdes is in charge of this phase.

After finishing, they do an internship, ideally in their area of training. There are some who are in other specialties because they also gain general competencies in this program. Elena, who is a lawyer by training, monitors their work. During the first week, there’s basically continuous tracking. The first day, she’s often there with them until the mid-day. The second week, she goes three times a week. In the last week we go at the beginning and end of the week, and finally do the negotiating for employment and discuss what we have learned. Depending on the dynamics of the company, there may be a verbal or written contract. The company speaks directly with the family; we don’t sign any papers or receive any payment. They pay the family. Usually when kids start to work, the first month is easy. During the second or third month, problems can arise.

We offer psychosocial support to the family, because they now have a different dynamic. Family responsibilities are not always redistributed well, or there’s trouble managing the money. Maybe they let the youth manage all their money and they spend it in three days, or maybe they don’t give them anything. We have to negotiate with the family. We support the family in recognizing that the youth have a right to their money but they need help—installments, perhaps.

Also, sometimes they find new expectations in life. The first year maybe they decided to buy a TV, hot shower, laundry, and then they want their own home. To the family it seems very fast, but of course it happens. What prevents them from financing a house independently? Suddenly they decide they want a partner or spouse. This brings the Greek tragedy. The family says, "I do not know how he could be married, he can’t," and we say, "Why not?" We try to make things as good as possible, that there is no abuse when the other person is not disabled, and if both are disabled, you have to see where they need more support, without meddling too much. We try to guide them a bit on that. That's the plus. We support all youth for a year after starting work in theory, but in practice we never leave.

Fe y Alegría is here for the needy? 

Yes, and for me, who are the most needy? These families, when they have a child with disabilities, face a lot of challenges. It's a very heavy social burden. We must try to make this country like heaven for the people who are with us.

Can you tell me about your alliances with the government and businesses?

I have the job of coordinating our team and relationships with other state organizations to generate public policies. We make alliances with other organizations and other Fe y Alegría projects. We work in the ministries of education, health, and many networks as well. From this dynamic, last year we held the first congress of inclusive education. We had no financial support, but it was a necessity and we all contributed something. People from various countries came, and we discussed the issue of sensitivity and recognition.

Every two years we recognize companies in two categories: a company that has started the process of becoming inclusive, and one that has consolidated the process of becoming an inclusive company. It has helped us to have entrepreneurs share their experiences with other entrepreneurs. They spread the word, and so we grow. We try to do something more sustainable than social responsibility. The charity helps, but not enough. The other spaces generate a more concrete process.

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