By Shai Frankllin / David Bernstein
Dayro Reyes Acosta, an international participant in the Ruderman Inclusion Summit held earlier this month, manages the Office for Projects and External Affairs of Asopormen, a social service agency based in Bucaramanga, Colombia, dedicated to helping people in poverty and advancing disability inclusion. Asopormen serves more than 1,100 children and youth with special and inclusive education (focused on work skills and human development), medical programs, arts and crafts education, and athletics.
The Ruderman Family Foundation interviewed him after the Summit.
RFF: Tell us about Asopormen
Dayro: We are celebrating our 50th anniversary this month. The organization does direct service work in education and health. Our Executive Director, María Eugenia Acuña, has been with the organization for 32 years. I’ve been with the organization since I was 14 years old, for more than 18 years. When I started at the organization, there were only nine staff members. Today there are 220 staff with expertise in education, health, and administration. These are the unsung heroes who do critical work every day. Inclusion is one of several programs.
RFF: What is the current state of disability inclusion in Colombia?
Dayro: Of course we are not as advanced as the United States, but the country is making progress. We are in a state of transition. Several years ago the country passed legislation requiring inclusion in schools, among other things.
The law did not tell us how to do it. Unfortunately, local governments often lack the expertise and will to implement the law. We’ve been doing everything we can to help the process along and make the law a reality.
RFF: Tell us about your inclusion work.
Dayro: We run a program in the schools for 458 kids with disabilities. The law mandated that schools include kids with disabilities in the classroom. In the beginning teachers resisted. Most teachers didn’t know how to teach and manage special needs. It was a real war. They thought that it wasn’t their responsibility and that it would distract from their teaching.
We were able to win over much of the educational establishment and became a model for other school districts. We created a widely acclaimed training program. We brought experts from other Latin American countries with more experience in inclusion. We brought social workers, teachers, psychologists, secretaries of education, and principals. Many teachers came to understand that if it could be done in other countries, it could be done here, too. Now teachers want the inclusion programs in their schools and classrooms.
The training program has become so popular that other school districts have sent teachers. They are often skeptical and not enthusiastic. But like the teachers in our district, they often see the value. We now do this training program every 2-3 years. Since the beginning of the program, we have tried to organize a twice-a-year event gathering all the people involved to assess the program, share experiences, figure out the new challenges, convince other districts, schools and teacher to be open for inclusion. We have called the event “Masters by Masters” or “100 Voices for Inclusion”.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the way it’s changed the students. Students come to know kids with disabilities and want more in their classes. It changes the entire culture of the school.
RFF: How do you identify the kids in your programs?
Dayro: Most but not all of the kids with disabilities who participate in our school program live in severe poverty. They often live in makeshift homes with no water or electricity. This program gets them out of the slums, brings them to the schools from early in the morning to the evening, and provides proper nutrition and medical care. We prepare some of the kids for para Olympics games. We also hold arts and crafts and dance workshops.
We also provide support to middle class kids. We have also taken this program to private schools to open a door for those kids with means to have a proper treatment, but whose families don’t want to expose them, show them in public or accept that there are serious programs that can transform their lives and make a kids more independent and able to lead a better life.
RFF: What are some of the challenges you face?
Dayro: We do so much with so little. The program for kids with disabilities in schools costs $300,000 a year and will end this month if we can’t find the funding. Funding is always a challenge.
Sometimes we feel alone. We have to sue governments and companies to provide services. Some kids are wrongly diagnosed because the government doesn’t have the ability or the interest to provide services. A child with autism, for example, may be given the wrong treatment. There’s severe corruption in the system, which leads to poor services. Corruption sucks up resources.
These problems can prevent us from realizing some of our goals. We are sometimes forced to use all our resources to cover gaps in services. We would love, for example, to start a Think tank, produce more research and publications, get complete and reliable data, and form partnerships. Limited resources can be a major obstacle. But we continue to do our best in serving our population and changing our society.
Taken from the Ruderman Family Foundation Blog