The Most Politically Powerful Paraplegic on the Planet
Ecuador is known as a biological diverse paradise: From active volcanoes and the Andean highlands, to the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands. But paradise for Ecuadorians with disabilities? Not so much. Until recently it was rare to see wheelchair users out in public. People with severe disabilities were treated as outcasts and hidden from society. In rural areas, some were confined to sheds and chicken coops.
In the last seven years Ecuador has undergone a paradigm shift in support, opportunity and perception for people with disabilities. This sudden shift started with one man: Lenin Moreno.
In 2006 Lenin Moreno, 59, a paraplegic, was elected vice president of Ecuador. Two months ago Moreno became acting president when President Correa took a leave of absence to campaign for his successful February 17th re-election bid, making Moreno the world’s highest-ranking government official who is a wheelchair user.
For Ecuadorians with disabilities, Moreno’s election was a crucial turning point toward inclusion and a bright future.
When Moreno took office, the government didn’t even know how many people with disabilities lived in Ecuador. Moreno, a fierce advocate for people with mental and physical disabilities, set out to change that, and to provide support, opportunity and inclusion. During his seven-year term in office he has helped turn Ecuador into one of Latin America’s most progressive countries for people with disabilities.
In a recent speech, Moreno pledged that the government would reach out to all people with disabilities who need help, saying “This is a revolution”.
He has put his words into action! During Moreno’s time in office, the government has increased state spending on financial, technical and professional assistance for people with disabilities from $2 million a year to $150 million a year! Wheelchair ramps are springing up in major cities, people with severe disabilities now receive a monthly stipend from the government, and Moreno helped enact a law that businesses must set aside at least 4 percent of their jobs for people with disabilities.
In a February 2013 story by John Otis on Public Radio International’s The World, Ecuadorian Sarita Carlsoma explains that 20 years ago she was studying to be a doctor when she became a paraplegic and couldn’t continue her education because the classrooms were inaccessible. As a paraplegic in Ecuador, finding a job was tough and Carlsoma tried finding full-time work for 20 years. Under the new law aimed at bringing disabled people into the workforce, she was hired by an oil company.
“He [Moreno] has achieved so much,” Carlosama says. “But even if he hadn’t done anything, just the fact that the vice president is in a wheelchair changes perceptions about disabled people.”
Another project under Moreno is providing free artificial limbs for poor Ecuadoreans—limbs that used to be very expensive because they were imported into the country. The government set up three manufacturing shops to build prosthetic limbs in Ecuador in what turned out to be a program with multiple benefits:
- The limbs are much less expensive to produce domestically than to import;
- It creates jobs for workers making the limbs; and
- Easier access to prosthetics allows the disabled to integrate into society and find work.
To date, more than 4,000 people have received prosthetic limbs under the program.
Other programs provide braille texts and computers for visually impaired people.
Moreno is an admirer of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and refers to him as “The greatest example of the power of a man in a wheelchair.” Six months ago he met with Hawking and they hit it off.
Ironically, paralysis was a driving force for Hawking and Moreno in terms of their true power and calling. Although Hawking was always known to be brilliant, his brilliance – by his own admission – allowed him to be somewhat lazy in his studies. He says he didn’t really apply himself until after he was diagnosed with ALS. It was then he took to study and work with urgency.
Moreno came to his advocacy role in a similar way. Like many upper class Ecuadorians, he rarely noticed people with disabilities—a prosperous businessman and a public official, he was too busy being an overachiever. That is until 1998, when he was shot and paralyzed during a robbery.
The shooting left Moreno with intense pain, and put him into a severe depression – bed-ridden for four years. During that time he discovered alternative medicine, including laughter therapy. Laughter releases endorphins, distracts the brain, and relieves pain and stress. He focused on laughing a lot – watching comedies, memorizing jokes. The therapy worked. His pain and depression lessened and his condition improved.
Before being selected as running mate for Ecuador presidential candidate Rafael Correa in the 2006 election, Moreno’s laughter therapy enabled him to break out of four years of pain-wracked, bed-ridden depression and write five books on laughter therapy. Moreno’s books include Don’t Be Sick, Laugh, and The Best Jokes in the World. He also formed a foundation to integrate humor into everyday life and became a motivational speaker. Later, he was named the director of the country’s institute for people with disabilities.
Improving lives and providing opportunities for people with disabilities is powerful. And Moreno’s work is having positive waves beyond Ecuador’s borders.
In 2012, Moreno was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the transformation he has brought about in Ecuador, which, under his watch, has become one of the most progressive nations in Latin America in providing financial, technical, and professional assistance to people with disabilities. A shining example, many Latin American governments now turn to Ecuador for advice on policies for disabled people.
Moreno is quick to point out that he is just the catalyst that got things going. He is quoted in an article in The Guardian as saying “This was not because of me. It was because of the citizens. I just lit the flame and it spread quickly. But in regard to what we have achieved for disabled people through politics, it is only 20 percent of the goals I set. We need structural change.”
At the top of his game and a sure thing to get re-elected, Moreno recently announced he is stepping down. News reports speculate he will run for president of Ecuador in 2017.
On February 17, Rafael Correa was re-elected president, and celebrated his victory with Vice-President Lenin Moreno and his Vice-President-elect Jorge Glass.
On stepping down from his political office, Moreno says he is more interested in humor, equality, health and ecology than the trappings of high office. Spurred by his meeting with Hawking and his own experiences, among the projects to which he will now devote himself is a book on the connection between quantum physics and human values.
Another Lenin Moreno quote from The Guardian article capsulized this man’s motivation: “Power comes with a stroke of fortune and you should quickly leave it behind. But while you are in that space, you must take advantage of it to realize your dearest ambition. For me, that was to promote the rights of the disabled.”