Ruh Global IMPACT logo
Close this search box.

People with Disabilities in Latin America6 min read

People with Disabilities in Latin America
David Pérez Rueda is the Chief Global Strategist of Ruh Global Communications

By David Pérez Rueda

On the year 2011, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published a study titled “People with Disabilities in Latin America: From legal recognition to real inequality.” In this document, the author Maria Fernanda Stang shows how even though People With Disabilities in Latin America are being included in both national and regional agendas, inequity is still preeminent with significant socioeconomic gaps that place PWD in a condition of social vulnerability that demands action.

ECLAC´s study shows that in the early 90s international organizations and governments in Latin America started paying more attention to the issue of People with Disabilities, not at an ideal level but at least there was a space in their discourse and planning for policies regarding the matter. The early 90s is also a significant period because as Mujica and Calle stated in 2006, it marked a significant shift in the approach and language going from considering people with disabilities as victims, and objects of charity or beneficiaries of social assistance into subjects of law, participants and actors, recognizing the contributions to society of PWD and demanding their integration.

Cover of the UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for PWD.
Cover of the UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for PWD.

This shift and the creation of a robust legal framework can be analyzed as the result of a systemic international effort carried out by the United Nations and its organs. With the declaration between 1983 and 1992 of the decade of People with Disabilities and the publication of a declaration titled “Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities,”  the laws that were approved after this period were both more politically correct and focused on equality of opportunity rather than social assistance.

Most countries have made reforms to their legal framework to adjust the terminology utilized to refer to the issue of People with Disabilities.  To this day almost every country has a law regarding the matter. Moreover, when analyzing the rights guaranteed by these statutes, we realize that they are very complete texts addressing topics in most cases like Health, Accessibility, Employment and Social Security. However, one essential aspect is mostly lacking, and that is political participation.

According to the World Bank,[1] there are at least 50 million people with disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean, the equivalent of 10% of the region´s population.  Although these numbers are not precise due to data collection methods; it is estimated that:

  1. Only between 20 and 30 percent of children with disabilities have access to education.
  2. Between 80 and 90 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, and those who have jobs are underpaid or receive no monetary compensation.
  3. Less than 20% of people with disabilities in the region have social security.

Although these numbers might be shocking considering that we have talked mostly about positive things, strong legislation and a paradigm shift in the way governments have approached these issues has not benefited people living with disabilities in any real way. I could sit here stating more and more numbers that show that the title of the text published by ECLAC is more than accurate. There is no equality, even though there is legal recognition.

Latin America is a very complex region composed of 20 countries, 20 different realities, 20 different governments, 20 different economies, 20 diverse cultures and many other factors, it has not been, and it will not be, an easy task to address this issue.  Nevertheless, there is hope that If these countries have decided to take the first step and make legislation, no doubt rests in my mind that real access to opportunities at all levels can be achieved.

One of the first stages of this process comes from genuine political participation and real political communication. There is only one way to produce “Public Policy” that has a real impact on any group of people and that is by following the slogan proposed by the International Caucus on Disability “Nihil de Nobis, sine Nobis,” which means nothing about us without us. The inclusion of persons with disabilities in the conversation is going to be a crucial factor in the development of Public Policy because it assures that the laws created will allow them to have equal access to opportunities, healthcare, employment and personal realization.

Having worked with the UN Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO), I can guarantee that the International Organizations commanded by United Nations are leading this effort.  The efforts made by UNESCO and the International Labor Organization (ILO) through the Global Business and Disability Network (GBDN) and many others are starting to make a difference.  Every day we can find new social organizations being created all over Latin America addressing these issues. People with disabilities in Latin America want a voice.  They want their place.  They want to be heard.

The most emphasized aspect in the Sustainable Development Goals[2] (SDG) regarding people with disabilities in Latin America is without a doubt the need for hard numbers on their real situation.  Government officials understand that the problem is not going to be solved by numbers.  However, they realize that to develop Public Policy that helps them achieve the goals they have set out to achieve, they need to understand where we stand and how many people need help. To solve this issue, methods have been developed to help countries gather the information.

Sustainable Development GoalsThe Sustainable Development Goals are seeking among other things to eliminate disparities and ensure equal access to all levels of education, to achieve productive and decent employment for persons with disabilities, promote social, economic and political inclusion; and access to secure and sustainable transportations for them. If we take into consideration the vast amount of influence that the efforts made in the 90s had over Latin America, these goals will help directly to bring real change for persons with disabilities in Latin America.

How can developed countries help? Well, the answer is simple: include Latin America in the conversations. Information is going to be a decisive factor in the success of the SDG, and the efforts to go from legal Recognition to real equality, knowing where the world is moving in ICTs and accessibility is going to be essential for this process as Hellen Keller said “We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Only love can break down the walls that stand between us and our happiness.” Together developed countries and developing countries can create a future where happiness is accessible for all.


If you want to join the conversation follow the group Human Potential at Work on Facebook, we would love to hear your opinions about this issue and many others that we are tackling in Human Potential at Work.

If you would like to learn more about David Pérez and his work with Ruh Global Communications look for episode #64: INCLUSION IN CENTRAL AND LATIN AMERICA of our Podcast Human Potential at Work hosted by Debra Ruh.



[2] Goals adopted by the United Nations countries to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

About the Authors

David Pérez

Chief Financial Officer 

Ruh Global Impact

David is a Costa Rican Political Scientist with his MBA and masters in diplomacy. He is also a leader, advocate, social media specialist, and communication strategist. David has experience in public policy implementation, development, evaluation, and consultancy services for NGOs like UNESCO and others linked to the European Union. David´s professional background is mainly in work with minorities, ensuring they have access to their rights.

His primary focus is to expand Ruh Global IMPACT’s vision across the globe and impact the lives of People with Disabilities both in developed and developing countries. He has spoken in Latin America and the US on disability inclusion and accessibility. He has been asked to be a Visiting Professor on these topics and the Future of Work for The University Del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia. David recently was a keynote speaker at the Future of Work and the Employment of Persons with Disabilities in one of the first conferences on this topic in Colombia. David is fluent in Spanish and English and often advocates for Americans (Latin, South, and North America) that speak Spanish. 15 to 20% of the US population are Spanish Speakers, and this group is often disenfranchised in the US.

Share this post with your friends