COSTA RICA — Vice President Ana Helena Chacón Echeverría

Title: Vice President of Paradise - Ana Helena Chacón Echeverria. Image: River reflects the bright green canopy above with two people kayaking on the smooth water in the background.

Bordering Nicaragua and Panama on the narrow isthmus of Central America, Costa Rica is a country known for its natural features—lush rainforests, exotic wildlife and stunning geographical diversity. Peaceful and democratic since it abolished its military in 1949, this tiny enclave of four million is considered one of the most progressive and stable countries in Central America, with a rapidly developing economy, progressive environmental policies, and a health care systems ranked higher than the US.

What is less well known is its progress on disability rights, and the players who persistently nudge their country forward on such issues. Among its individual champions is Ana Helena Chacón Echeverría, one of two vice presidents of Costa Rica, and her friend, director- screenwriter Laura Astorga Carrera. For both women, disability issues are deeply personal. VP Chacón’s daughter has a developmental disability, and Laura, who uses a cane, has a father with a disability.

Long before entering the political arena in 2002, VP Chacón was a familiar face in Costa Rica’s human rights movement. Disability-centric and reform-minded, she helped create the country’s first non-governmental organization (NGO) for people with Down syndrome and later an inter-American NGO for people with disabilities.

Vice president sits on sofa smiling with Mrs. Martirosyan, Laura and Lia.
The Martirosyan family hosts a traditional Armenian dinner for Vice President of Costa Rica, Chacón Echeverría & Laura Astorga Carrera (middle) – good times

For years, she went into schools on a weekly basis and taught children how to respect individual differences using puppets with disabilities. She is a former cabinet minister and deputy who has pushed hard to shape public policy to benefit people with disabilities and the disadvantaged. In fact, early in her tenure as vice president, she’s already signed a decree to improve work and technical training opportunities for people with disabilities.

Although she worked with Laura’s father for many years on human rights, she met the director as a result of her most recent film, Red Princesses (Princesas Rojas), a story told from the perspective of the daughter of Sandinista rebels who flee Nicaragua for Costa Rica. The plot draws from the director’s own childhood: her father is well-known journalist and human rights activist Luis Fernando Astorga. The film has won numerous awards and was considered one of the best at the Chicago Latino Film Festival in 2014.

Both women share with ABILITY Magazine their perspectives on the progress and status of disability rights in Costa Rica—its hard-won achievements, persistent challenges, and promising future. INCREMENTAL STEPS Among the subtler shifts in Costa Rica’s disability rights movement has been a change in terminology, away from using disparaging or “less than” words, such as “handicapped” in favor of “disabled.” VP Chacón explains: “We have been changing our nomenclature, because we have been changing our priority on how to approach disability. We now have a human rights approach, which we’ve had for many years. We are not begging for favors, we are begging for our rights.”

Unlike its neighbors Guatemala and Nicaragua, whose disability movements originated with activists who’d already cultivated a voice during their countries’ civil wars, Costa Rica’s grassroots movement began with the parents and especially mothers of children with disabilities.

In fact, so close is the association between parents of children with disabilities and the movement, that it’s not uncommon for parents to identify themselves as disabled, just as VP Chacón does, saying, “I am the mother of a disabled woman; she’s a young woman of 25 who is mentally retarded, so I feel part of this group, you know?” Today, the country has various disability movements, of which most are run by NGOs and people with disabilities while a few are still parent-initiated.

When asked about her use of the term “mentally retarded,” acceptable in Costa Rican parlance but no longer in the US for its pejorative connotations, both VP Chacón and Laura concede that disability nomenclature is still evolving in Costa Rica. “It’s not in a bad way that we use it… although it can be used as slang in the streets to insult someone,” says the vice president. “Things are changing, but we still have a lot to do. We have to make a movie about this topic,” she says. “But nothing in the teach way, just using an emotional way to teach,” adds Laura.

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Although Costa Rica passed “The Equal Opportunities Law for People with Disabilities” in 1996, a sweeping piece of legislation designed to provide equal opportunity for people with disabilities in the areas of health services, education, and employment as well as access to public buildings and spaces, its implementation has been slow and incremental at best.

Special education, for example, is one such area the vice president is working hard to overhaul, particularly curriculum reform and the need for more social inclusion. “We have a lot of challenges because teachers who teach special education don’t have to give information about how they’ve been developing their classes, so they’re not tested by a third party,” explains VP Chacón, adding, “They need to be tested by other teachers to prove that they have really taught the kids.”

Older man with basket of fresh papaya hands one to Vice President Echeverria who sits on a white horse, background hills of bright green papaya plantation.Perhaps nowhere has the battleground been more fiercely fought for disability rights than with public transportation, which the vice president calls “a real fight.” With the passage of the Equal Opportunities Law, mass transit authorities were given 10 years to make every vehicle used for public transportation accessible to people with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs. But a decade passed with little change. A powerful group, mass transit demanded more time and a contentious battle ensued. They were then given an additional five years to bring their vehicles into compliance. Several sticking points was the cost required to retrofit vehicles and the time it takes to lower the lift platforms on buses, which drivers complained slowed down service.

To date, not all transportation units have been adapted, but a recent measure enacted by the government in will help enforce compliance: bus drivers will be required to have a new license in order to drive their buses, which must be retrofitted for accessibility. “But it’s almost 20 years too late,” laments the vice president. “Because they really don’t care.”

Though mass transit stalled compliance efforts for years, there’s been a noticeable shift in cultural attitudes and behaviors in the streets towards those who are disabled, which itself signals a victory. “Only now can I stop a bus and they will stop,” says Laura. “In the past when they saw that I used a cane, they didn’t want to stop. But now, they’ve learned that they have to stop and use the lift to help me if I need it. But this is recent. This is an important shift—it’s not just about the lift, but the attitude.”

She says even when she doesn’t need the platform lift or if the lift doesn’t work, passengers are willing to lend a helping hand. “And this is very important because the chauffeurs and other passengers have changed their minds. Twenty years ago, people weren’t educated about disability. Now, everybody helps; they have the attitude, ‘Okay, I have to do that—it’s part of my job.’”

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Costa Rica strives to reach a quota of five percent employment of people with disabilities in public sector jobs, whereas in the US, only federal contractors are required to meet a quota of seven percent. Unfortunately, rarely, if ever, are these quotas met in either country. In Costa Rica, it’s been difficult to accomplish, says the vice president, because of too many financial restrictions. “So what we have been doing over the last six months is working with the Minister of Education and the Minister of Labor on our protocol for educating and hiring people with disabilities to prepare them for technical careers,” she says.

The quota doesn’t pertain to privately held companies because it’s considered unconstitutional, so Costa Rica, since 1973, has offered private companies double tax incentives to hire people with disabilities. But companies rarely use it because they typically hire only one or two people with disabilities, not groups, so the deductions are minimal.

Although Costa Rica enacted laws to help equalize opportunities for people with disabilities, they still struggle to transcend the discrimination and stigma so many face in the job search. “The worst thing is the perception that some people have about us,” explains Laura. “For me, I am in a privileged situation because I made a movie and I am kind of famous for it, and people respect me. But if I wanted to work in advertising, for example, employers would feel uncomfortable that I use a cane. They feel like, ‘This is not a good match.’”

“Because that’s not the image of a very successful person,” adds the vice president. “If you are disabled, you are not considered successful. And that’s not true at all.” This is especially true for Costa Ricans with disabilities who have advanced degrees. It’s easier to get low-skill service jobs, such as cleaning floors or washing windows, than be hired for professional or managerial positions, a bias the vice president and others are trying to reverse. “People are okay with that because they’re people with mental disabilities, and that’s considered okay,” explains the vice president. “In other words, ‘you can clean my office, but you can’t be my lawyer if you are a blind or deaf person.’”

To help counteract such obstacles, the Ministry of Labor initiated several key measures aimed at increasing the successful placement of candidates with disabilities. To start, companies now have access to a depository of resumes to search for qualified applicants. And those at the ministry are mindful of how to present candidates to potential employers, something VP Chacón says she’s been working on for the last four years.

“We are not focused on what they can’t do,” she asserts. “What we tell the employer is what they can do—‘He’s very good in public relations’—not what they can’t do.

VP Ana Helena Chacón Echeverria sits leaning forward in an orange dress.
VP Ana Helena Chacón Echeverria always smiling.

It’s a different way of seeing disability not to say, ‘This person can’t walk.’ We don’t put that. We change it.” In addition, once an applicant with disabilities is hired, he or she has the option to use a “companion,” the equivalent of a job coach or mentor, who for one to three months helps the new employee navigate his or her environment and figure out how accessibility can be improved on the job site. This service helps companies figure out how best to accommodate their new employee and to help ensure a successful transition.

Intended to create a new paradigm for disability that is less about impairment and more about ability, these measures appear to be having some impact. More and more companies, says the vice president, including large national and international corporations, are beginning to take advantage of the database of resumes. December 3 is Costa Rica’s annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities when the government recognizes companies who have hired employees with disabilities. Last year, five companies participated, and this year the number has more than doubled with 14 companies involved. When staffing her own busy office, VP Chacón is resolute about walking the talk. She actively tries to find people who are disabled to employ, and if she has two positions open for hiring, she makes sure one is reserved for a person with a disability.

She currently employs nine people of which four have disabilities.

“I have one young woman, a human rights lawyer, who had cancer in her legs and they had to be amputated, so she’s in a wheelchair. I have a man who is blind, a mother of a disabled person, and someone with Asperger syndrome.” To accommodate employees with disabilities, the presidential house is currently renovating its bathrooms so they’ll be accessible to all. The vice president says the human rights lawyer who works for her says the renovation is her fault. “I say, ‘No, no, it’s ok. It’s great. They have to accommodate you.’”

Though the vice president maintains she and her staff work well together, if anything should change, she says she’ll hire another person with a disability. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you’re not a good worker,” she adds, while Laura counters, “They still have the right to do bad work.”

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When VP Chacón joined President Luis Guillermo Solis’ cabinet, which took over in May 2014, along with it came a promise to advance disability rights. “We signed a commitment to build a country that’s much more inclusive and accessible for the disabled community,” she says. “We have ongoing rounds of conversations in my office about how to build public policies with labor, education, and accessibility. We are always working on this, because it’s a very important issue in human rights.”

A recent manifestation of this commitment is the government’s use of a sign language interpreter. “We always have this translator with us, so when we talk to the media, she’s translating and interpreting for people who are deaf. This is very important for us,” asserts the vice president, “especially because we want them to have accessibility to all of our actions.” Government officials even have their own sign with a hashtag-like symbol attached in sign language to represent them. For example, VP Chacón is identified not only by her name but also with the sign for dimples, because she’s always smiling.

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, not all politicians are on the same page about how to promote disability rights. Some, the vice president says, use disability as a means to advance their careers rather than make meaningful inroads, which she feels reveals a lack of true commitment. “We have a congressman who does that, and it’s terrible. He is always asking for pity for disabled people, not for human rights, and because he’s blind, he asks for pity and money… and he’s corrupt,” says the vice president. “He does a lot of damage,” adds Laura.

When asked if she’d consider running for president, VP Chacón reflects for a moment while Laura laughs, replying quickly, “It’s my fantasy. I’ve had that thought!”

But VP Chacón clarifies: “Because I want to be happy once in my life,” she says laughing, then adding, “I’ve never been in a job where I’m doing that job because I want to move on to another job. I just do my job. I’m going to finish being the vice president, and that’s all. I’m here to help President Solis; he asked that I be loyal, so I’ll be with him once he finishes.” To which Laura responds: “The thing is, for women in politics, it’s really, really difficult because they’re so exposed, so I can understand what you’re saying… If my country becomes a little more feminist, maybe she can feel comfortable.”

by Lia Martirosyan

Read more articles from the Laura Dern Issue.

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