As an advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities, I thought I understood the issue well.
But today I finally understand what putting myself in someone else’s shoes really means.
I recently attended an event organized by Fundación Saraki, the leading disability rights organization in Paraguay. The event was intended to raise awareness and support for their activities, but it ended up teaching people like me about the world people with disabilities live in.
After I arrived at the Hotel Guarani, I was forced to walk up the stairs to the main event room, rather than use the elevators. Organizers wanted guests to experience the inconveniences that many people with physical disabilities encounter every day. Reaching the second floor with my high heels and a loaded backpack was challenging — imagine what it must be like for someone in a wheelchair?
At the entrance to the venue, I registered … with a tiny pen that would be too small for even my son’s small hands, and on a paper that was placed on a registration desk that was only a foot tall. Another message: This is everyday reality for people with disabilities who are significantly shorter than the average height.
To reach the event room, I had to navigated through a dark tunnel that organizers had constructed. As I meandered through the claustrophobic space, I could not see anything, and I struggled to go around obstacles with my hands and feet. Unfortunately, this is an experience all too common for someone who cannot see.
After traversing the frightening tunnel, I finally reached the event space. Twenty to 30 people in wheelchairs blocked the entrance, forcing me to apologize and suck in my stomach as I tried to get around them and into the room. Message received: This must be what it’s like for someone with a physical disability who is trying to enter a public restroom that is not accessible.
I finally reached my seat and opened an envelope with the agenda. It was in Braille. I don’t read Braille. I tried to close my eyes and imagine what it might say, but I couldn’t. This information was important, yet it was not available to someone like me who has different capabilities.
In the background, I could hear one of my favorite songs, Maxixe by Agustín Barrios. But this time, it was at a high pitch and too loud. Instead of being a song for the soul, it was an absolute nuisance to my ears.
When the music finally stopped, a woman took the floor and began to speak. I could not understand anything. She might have spoken in French and German, two very common languages, but incomprehensible to me.
Then a short film played on a giant screen. The film and sound were blurry and I could not understand what people were saying or what was being shown.
The whole experience lasted less than 30 minutes, but it worked. It was enough to make me feel totally excluded. I couldn’t get around. I could not understand the people around me. Everything felt narrow, too low, or too uncomfortable. I could not see well. Nothing was done to accommodate my needs.
I realized this is daily life for so many persons with disabilities.
No one should have to fight this way to live their lives. We can change it. We have to continue fighting for an accessible society, an inclusive Paraguay without barriers.
With the support of USAID, Fundación Saraki is working to make this a reality by raising awareness, influencing legislation, strengthening organizations for persons with disabilities, and promoting inclusion in work and education.