A new beginning for Bolivia's disabled?
15 May, 2012 | Roisin Mendonca
A group of Bolivia's disabled population has been exposed to a totally unique experience in which heavy medication has been replaced with stimulation and motivation. This distinctive space, a multisensory project run by Para Los Niños (PLN) at a residential centre for disabled people in La Paz, is the first and only treatment of its kind in a state-run home in Bolivia. The concept of multi-sensory treatment, which originated in Holland, is something that is widely used in Europe. It currently seems unlikely, however, that it is something that will be adopted into standard health practice in Bolivia.
At the time of writing this article, groups of disabled Bolivians from all over the country are staging a protest in the capital, La Paz. In many ways, their story is one that is defined by movement: by their march across the country towards the presidential palace; by the greater social and political movement for disabled rights; and indeed, for many, by a lifetime of limited mobility imposed upon them by their disabilities. This complex tale of protest has as its base one fundamental driving force: the desire amongst the people for a better standard of living. Anybody who has interacted with much of Bolivia's disabled population cannot fail to notice, however, the disparity between such aspirations and the day to day reality that they face. The use of innovative treatment such as is used by PLN is undoubtedly progressive. Sadly, the Instituto Departmental de Adaptación Infantil (IDAI) is the only government funded home that boasts these kinds of facilities. Further to this, everything that goes on inside the five treatment rooms is privately financed. Project founder, Siobhan Farrelly believes that work such as that done by PLN should be "encouraged by the government to ensure there are more services to enable the disabled of Bolivia to achieve personal goals at all levels no matter what type of disability they live with."
The treatment area, funded through sources in Ireland and Sweden, sees over seventy residents from the IDAI regularly get treated according to a specific programme, which is based on their personal needs. The therapy aims to reduce frustrations amongst the residents of the home and provide spaces within which they can find new ways of expressing themselves. Each of the different rooms boast colored lights, musical instruments, textured walls and a ball pool, amongst other things, designed to make the resident more aware of themselves and their surroundings.
This colorful project appropriately encapsulates the key problems faced by disabled people in Bolivia: it encourages freedom of expression and movement, yet is only able to serve a very small number of people. At a wider level, the basic needs of the disabled population have not been sufficiently addressed, and this is only underscored by the current protests. In addition, local Andean topography provides a natural hurdle to freedom of mobility. Bolivia's capital city La Paz, nestled in the Andes at 3,352 metres, can be particularly restrictive for those with certain physical disabilities. Steep inclines, busy streets and inaccessible buildings are all part of the fabric of the city. Without a full time assistant it is arguably near impossible to navigate the streets here. Farrelly and those at PLN believe that "Bolivia is ready to look at the needs of disabled people differently." Clearly the drive for greater disabled rights has been set in motion; the question remains as to whether the government will respond to the movement in the coming months and years.