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Handicapped in the Dominican Republic

I’m escorted inside a small factory where men are busy piecing together shoes and sneakers of all sizes. The heat is a bit unbearable, and as I reach for my handkerchief, my guide blurts out three names over the factory noise. The three men at first seem confused, with one pointing at himself as if to say, "me?" They quietly grab their things while their co-workers stare with interest. "Go", says their superior, and we all file out the door to a quiet air-conditioned office where we can speak.

"I feel occupied," says one of the workers. "I’m doing what I always dreamed…working for my country and for my own well-being."

"I was at home with no job," says another. "I applied here and they opened the door for me."

The three men: Leonidas Antonio Brito, Fior Sanchez, and Odalis Castro each live a difficult reality in the developing world. They are a few of the thousands of handicapped Dominicans trying to find a place in a society where they have been forgotten.

Fortunately for them, all three have found employment at the Dominican Association for Rehabilitation (ADR), a non-profit organization focused on the needs of handicapped Dominicans. The association counts 20 centers throughout the country with services that include: special education for children, rehabilitation for persons with physical and mental handicaps, and labor training with job placement among others.

Both de la Rosa and Sanchez are products of ADR’s very successful labor training program. ADR gave them the basic training they needed to become productive members of society and ultimately offered them jobs, something very difficult to come by as a handicapped person in the DR.

Elsa Hernández, Director of Professional Rehabilitation gives me a tour of their training facilities in Santo Domingo. Nearly all of the program’s students are between the ages of 16-19, with many coming directly from ADR’s special education school. Hernández explains that getting these young men and women practical job training is imperative to their integration into the Dominican workforce.

"This program’s result is a person who has been trained professionally during a rehabilitation process and can demonstrate that they can compete on the same level as any other, says Hernández.

Walking down the hallways, I notice each door of the facility opens to a different profession. Some students are busy building crutches in carpentry, others piecing together handcrafts; to no surprise, the boys dominate the mechanical workshop while the girls are occupied in beauty training. ADR offers a total of 14 different training programs that all revolve around the use of manual labor – the type of labor, according to Hernández, that will give these handicapped students the best chance for a job.

"I feel comfortable and I’m with my friends," says 18 year old Manuel Luna, who suffers from low intelligence and is learning to build mops. "I’m going to be a Mechanic."

ADR has been very successful in placing there alumni in job positions. In the present year, the school has given job placement to 30 students and has 70 more in the process of being placed. ADR offers this service by contacting employers throughout the country, and in some cases, receives calls from certain employers who have had good experiences with their alumni. For the most part, job placement for handicapped persons in the developing world can prove difficult, but not impossible.

"In a country with such a high unemployment rate, it’s not easy to knock on doors for job opportunities, but we get it done. We try to make sure (our students) are not discriminated against and that they receive the same benefits as any other employee," says Hernández.

While ADR’s main focus is rehabilitation, the National Council for Disability (CONADIS) is politics. Incepted 7 years ago, law 42-2000 protects the rights of handicapped Dominicans, guaranteeing them social, economic, and political integration. CONADIS’ objective is to defend this law and ensure its application, but a quick look at any Dominican town or city demonstrates that "handicap accessible" is almost non-existent.

Rosa Peña, CONADIS Executive Director admits that the Dominican Republic is far behind developed nations in terms of handicap accessibility, but also argues that changes over the past several years are significant, as does Escarle Peña, CONADIS Technical Sub-Director. Both speak proudly of a recent City Council initiative where 35 of the capital’s principal avenues were studied in order to make them more handicap accessible. Both women mention small bits of improvements around the city such as new ramps on city streets like Tiradentes, Winston Churchill, and El Malecon, along with new accessible construction at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and the Catholic University of Santo Domingo.
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