San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Access for Disabled Lags Despite Law

Herald Moya, 29, is deaf, unemployed and discouraged.

A thin, shy man, Moya found work for a time cleaning guns at the Ministry of Public Security. But after several months some of his coworkers began to taunt him about his disability, and he quit, he told The Tico Times in sign language as his mother interpreted.

He applied for a job as a mechanic, but when he was turned away because of his disability, he stopped looking for work.

Moya said he wants to work and study, but feels rejected because of his handicap.

His frustrations are common in Costa Rica, where, 10 years after the passage of the Law for Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities, access for those with disabilities remains extremely limited.

The lack of job opportunities, poorly distributed information about disabled rights and assistance programs, and limited access to public spaces top the list of complaints from advocates for people with disabilities.

According to a 2006 report by the National Council for Rehabilitation and Special Education CNREE), 26% of disabled people who are able to work and actively seeking jobs are unemployed in Costa Rica. The overall unemployment rate in Costa Rica is about 6%.

José Joaquín Porras, a disabled-rights advocate, told The Tico Times the problem extends far beyond unemployment.

Costa Rica has few wheelchair ramps, sonorous streetlights, Braille telephones and ATMs, wheelchair-accessible buses, banks, hospital beds, hotel elevators, restaurants or movie theaters, said Porras, who is president of the Association for People with Work-related Spinal Cord Injuries.

“Ten years after the law (was passed), this is a sin,” said Porras, who uses a wheelchair.

The equal-access law, or Law 7600, has led to some improvement in special education, and a gradual increase in consciousness about disabled issues, according to Bárbara Holst, executive director of the Rehabilitation Council.

The population of handicapped students enrolled in Costa Rican schools increased from 54,173 in 1999 to 79,600 in 2002, according to a 2004 government report. But improving the quality of special education is still a pressing issue, Holst said.

However, the widely praised law includes few penalties for noncompliance, and the lack of sanctions has allowed key provisions to go unenforced.

The law mandates fines for discrimination against the disabled, and minimal penalties – ¢10,000-30,000 ($20-60) – for bus companies who fail to install wheelchair ramps. But it does not penalize institutions that fail to help the handicapped to obtain their broadly defined rights to work and accessible public spaces.

“People comply if they want to and don’t comply if they don’t want to,” said Florizul Aguilar, who heads the Ministry of Labor’s programs for people with disabilities.

Pablo Antonio Ramírez, president of the EFATA Club Association for the Deaf, is among handicapped advocates who praise the law and lament its lack of enforcement.

“The law is there but the problem is more that the private sector has to assimilate it,” Ramírez said. “They have to open the doors to access to work (for the disabled).”

He said inadequate distribution of information has exacerbated the problem.

“Who do we go to? What organization do we go to? We are not informed,” he said.

Government agencies have long been aware of the problems facing Costa Rica’s more than 200,000 disabled residents.

A February 2004 study by organizations including the Public Health Ministry and the Rehabilitation Council acknowledged problems of unemployment, discrimination and limited access to public spaces.

The study attributed the high incidence of unemployment among people with disabilities to phenomena including insufficient information about financial incentives available to employers who hire disabled workers; an absence of employment quotas for the disabled; and uneven access to quality education and training.

Some disabled advocates, such as outspoken legislator Óscar López of the new Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE), said these problems continue because the Rehabilitation Council has failed to adequately enforce the law.

The council “is a white elephant … that simply doesn’t work,” said López, who according to his office is the Legislative Assembly’s first legally blind lawmaker (see separate article).

The council is responsible for orienting policy on access for those with handicaps. It also works with the ministries of Public Health, Public Education, Labor, and the Social Security System (Caja) to create programs for the disabled and inform the public about them.

Holst said critics of her organization don’t understand that neither Law 7600 nor the 1973 law which created the council give it enforcement power.

“When they made the law, they didn’t give power to the council, not at all,” she said. “There hasn’t been sufficient political will … Although (the ministries) know of the existence of Law 7600, they don’t comply with it.”

Holst pointed to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s failure to make the country’s bus fleets handicapped-accessible within the seven years stipulated by the law. After 10 years, between 8-12% of Costa Rican buses have been modified to accommodate wheelchairs, said Viviana Martín, Vice-Minister of Public Transportation.

Martín said though many buses have not put in ramps, they have complied with other parts of the law, by installing devices such as sonorous stop signals and handicappedfriendly non-slip floors. She said the ministry has postponed enforcing ramp requirements up to the limit the law allows, and on June 30 plans to start handing out fines to buses that do not have the required access ramps.

On Monday, exactly a decade after the law was passed, another deadline will pass unmet.

The law gave Costa Rica’s municipalities 10 years to make their public spaces accessible.

Cities such as Turrialba, on the Caribbean slope, and Belén, in the Central Valley northwest of San José, have made consistent efforts to make their cities accessible.

But others, including San José, have only just begun to look at the issue, Holst said.

Facing this problem, several legislators recently proposed laws that seek to bring the Disabled Access Law’s promises closer to reality.

López announced a plan May 15 that would mandate public institutions to hire at least 5% disabled employees. His plan would also raise tax incentives for private-sector employers who hire people with handicaps.

Last week, legislators José Manuel Echandi and Ana Elena Chacón, of the National Union and Social Christian Unity parties respectively, presented a plan that would require public-sector employers to

bring the numbers of disabled people on their payrolls up to at least 3% in the next five years. Echandi said he hopes to eventually extend the plan to the private sector.

When the May 29 deadline passes, disabled communities will have a new legal recourse, Holst said.

“If a handicapped person cannot walk down the streets of San José, he can file a request for an injunction, and if the problem is not corrected, he can present a lawsuit (before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, Sala IV),” she said, predicting that lawsuits will start flooding in next week.

The council is also drafting legislation to gain enforcement power.

Flor Carmona, Herald Moya’s mother, said hearing about these efforts gives her renewed hope that the government will take on the problems facing Costa Rica’s disabled communities. But she is cautious about putting too much credence in plans that have not yet borne fruit.

“I feel better with this … It is worth the while to wait a little more,” she said.

And as new proposals enter the legislature, stacks of pamphlets describing assistance programs for the disabled sit on shelves at the offices of the council and the Labor Ministry.

Carmona said she was unfamiliar with most of these programs until recently.

Last week she discovered a program that might help her get a loan to start a home business where her deaf s on could work with her. After reading a pamphlet from the Ministry of Labor for the Rotating Loan Fund she was cautiously optimistic, but wary in case she doesn’t qualify.

“It could be a good opportunity,” she said with a pen in her hand, underlining the number of the Rehabilitation Council where she plans to call for more information.


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