At the age of 26, Xavier Torres Correa was made a quadriplegic as he attempted to shield his young nephews from the murderous rage of their father, his brother in law. His sacrifice was in vain, though. His sister’s husband killed both boys before taking his own life. That was in 1990. Xavier left Ecuador and spent two years in Cuba, where he regained use of his hands. When he returned to Ecuador in 1992, he joined the Association of Paraplegics of Pichincha. Over the years, he rose through the ranks to president, before moving on to the national organisations, National Federation of Ecuadorians with a Physical Disability (FENEDIF) and National Advisory for Disability (CONADIS).
Initially, his advocacy fell largely on deaf ears, with government support for the disabled nationwide totalling a meagre US $3 million. In Torres’s words, the support was ‘very limited, almost non existent’. All that changed with, in 2007, the Rafael Correa administration. Correa’s vice president was the wheelchair-bound Lenin Moreno, a friend of Torres’s, whose spinal injury was also a result of gun violence (though in his case the perpetrator was a random carjacker rather than a family member).
Moreno recently stepped down from the post, which will be taken over by the able bodied Jorge Glas. During the six years from 2007 to 2013, Moreno and other advocates made sure the disabled got their share of Ecuador’s rapidly expanding social services. The budget increased by scales of magnitude and is now well over a hundred million dollars per year. Ecuador’s disabled were guaranteed, for the first time, a monthly income as well as the provision of mobility aids, including prosthetics – which Ecuador now has three factories producing. These prosthetic factories, nearing saturation of local demand, intend to start exporting at a discount to neighbouring South American countries.
Before this, the disabled population had in many cases been living in worse than Dickensian conditions, sleeping on floors or with animals, in cupboards and wardrobes. They were often, to quote Torres, ‘discriminated against by their own families’, who would have struggled to make ends meet even if all members had been healthy.
To this day, much poverty, while falling, persists, and the country´s remote and rugged nature makes reaching all those in need of help difficult. But that has not stopped the Ecuadorians from trying, with three mobile units scouring the countryside for disabled people either unaware of the services available or unable to reach them. They employ a service whereby a photograph is taken in the field which is then used in the prosthetic workshop to produce a custom limb, thus meaning that a disabled peasant need only reach the service centre to have it fitted.
Beyond this, job creation programs were launched, including legislation that Torres says requires any company with more than 25 employees to maintain a ration of 4 per cent disabled employees.
I first came into contact with Torres while covering the massively-expanded disabled section of the Ultimas Noticias 15K road race for a disabled sports magazine from the United States (which had a surprisingly strong readership amongst the disabled athletes). At the same event, a disabled athlete competing as part of the postal service team told us how the new policies, which got him his job at the postal service, among other things, had changed his life ‘totalmente’.
It’s a reminder that much of the popularity of South America’s ‘radical’ stems from its habit of bringing public services up to something approaching western standards. What’s more these victories seem permanent. Much as with the Coalition’s obligatory support for Labor’s proposed improvements to disability insurance, the programs are impossible for Ecuador’s opposition (who aren’t much of a threat at present, anyhow) to attack. Even El Comercio, a privately-owned paper fiercely critical of the Correa administration, couldn’t help but have a special, highly celebratory insert about the large-scale disabled participation in the iconic race, though it failed to interview Torres or any of the other architects of the day. Anyone who wants to try putting these people back in the barns and basements is going to have a hell of a fight on their hands.