When Maria Teresa Lago logs on to Microsoft Teams from her home in Geneva, she does so with her infant son on her lap. She’s a Diversity and Inclusion Specialist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), her son’s not yet one year old, and she wants him to see firsthand the multitude of ways in which her colleagues communicate with one another. “See,” she tells him, “this one types on the computer, and then it speaks aloud for her. That colleague’s speaking even though his image isn’t on the screen. This colleague talks with her hands.”
Teresa’s been with UNDP since 2016. In addition to leading initiatives aimed at combatting workplace racism and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and striving for gender parity, she’s worked tirelessly to create accessible opportunities and increase inclusion of persons with disabilities. Her crowning achievement to date is the implementation of the UNDP Talent Programme for Young Professionals with Disabilities.
The initiative has two goals: deploy more persons with disabilities in key roles throughout UNDP, making decisions and implementing programs; and give young persons with disabilities opportunities to build professional connections and transferrable skills, increasing their employability across the development sector and beyond. So far, dozens of young professionals with disabilities have been recruited and deployed, and the program’s still growing.
Teresa’s lifelong commitment to building a more inclusive and accessible world began in childhood. “My aunt was part of the household I was raised in,” she recalled, “and she had severe intellectual disabilities as well as some physical disabilities compounded by age.” From a young age, Teresa gained awareness of the challenges that persons with disabilities face daily. “Society had a really hard time relating to her,” she said. “There was a big gap there.” Now, she’s not only raising her son with that same awareness, but also showing him that once accommodations are made available and disabling attitudes and infrastructure removed, persons with disabilities can navigate and contribute to society on an equal basis with their non-disabled peers.
Motivated by her experiences with her aunt, Teresa studied psychology in college, where she developed an acute awareness of the importance of lived experience and human connection. “I discovered that I was aware of certain things,” she said, “things my peers and I weren’t getting just from reading theory. Every person is different, every person with a disability is different, every disability is different, but once you spend enough time around people with disabilities, you do start to pick up on patterns. That becomes part of your intuition.”
After studying clinical neuropsychology, Teresa took a job at the López-Ibor Neuropsychiatric Institute in Madrid, Spain, conducting cognitive assessments. Many of the patients had disabilities, some developmental, others resulting from accidents or violence, and still others caused by age. She worked there for three and a half years, then picked up and moved to India.
“I wanted to live in a developing country for at least a year,” she said, “to open my mind. A lot of us Europeans go about our lives assuming everybody lives as we do. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I wanted to understand how people live in other parts of the world.”
Based in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, Teresa served as the Disabilities Technical Advisor and Vocational Training Project Manager for the Vicente Ferrer Foundation. In this role, she oversaw three centers for young people with developmental disabilities. “I was training the teachers and staff,” she said, “providing them with theoretical tools, and at the same time learning from them, working out how to adapt our techniques and theories to a different cultural context so we could meet these children’s needs.”
When young people aged out of the centers at 16 or 18 years old, Teresa observed, most returned home to live with their families. “I realized that they weren’t acquiring the skills they needed to support themselves,” she said. “Some of them had very severe intellectual disabilities, which made developing professional skills incredibly challenging. Others didn’t have such severe disabilities, but they were all thrown together in the same place, receiving the same treatment and training. We decided it would be better to take a multi-track approach. Some youths could learn a profession while others learned how to manage household chores like cooking or working in the fields. The goal was for them to leave the centers with the tools they’d need to help themselves and their families and contribute to society in meaningful ways.”
“It was a beautiful project,” she went on. “Everyone enjoyed working there and seeing how different people would learn and grow as long as the learning happened at their own pace, in their own way. It brought me joy to see how happy they were, especially after the holidays. They would go home for a month or so and then come back and tell us all about the things they’d cooked and what they’d done for their families. Their families were always amazed, too. As family members of persons with disabilities, we sometimes instinctively focus on protecting our loved ones, and we forget to focus on enabling our loved ones to do more. Once they saw what their children could do, the families became very supportive. It was a remarkable success, I have to say.”
At the same time, this experience gave Teresa new appreciation for the state of disability movements in the West. “We still have plenty of work to do here,” she said, “but in India, the way people with disabilities are treated is determined entirely by individual attitudes, which might be informed by religion or culture, or just by emotions like sympathy, pity or fear. Persons with disabilities don’t have any legal protections. In the US, the negative attitudes are still there, but their impact is eroded by the power of the legal theories and the institutions. That has a lot of advantages. It pushes people with disabilities to interact with institutions, which means participating in public life, and it means that individuals’ beliefs or emotions aren’t the only forces controlling what resources are available to them. Within those legal frameworks, persons with disabilities have actual rights, which forces others to respect them. Those structures aren’t present in many parts of the world.”
Moving to New York had never been part of the plan, but when Maria Teresa’s then-boyfriend, now-husband got a job with the UN, she decided to go with him. “After three years of long-distance, we needed to be in the same place,” she said, “so I moved. I found out the UN was hiring for this program, and I really wanted to contribute. They’d developed a strategy for bringing more professionals with disabilities onboard, but they didn’t yet have anyone to implement it. When I proved to them that I knew the issues, they hired me.”
After getting recruited, she rotated through several positions, always focusing on disability inclusion. “Change doesn’t happen just because one person in one office puts some policies in place or publishes some papers,” she observed. “It only happens through the effort of many–which means, of course, that it’s often slow going. When you first present ideas for how to make an organization or society more inclusive, many people will come back with something like, ‘That sounds nice, but unfortunately, it’s just not possible.’ Sometimes they have a point–maybe the exact reforms you’re advocating for aren’t feasible–but we have to stay focused on making things better instead of getting tripped up when one specific idea doesn’t work. Everything seems impossible until it’s done the first time. We have to continue believing that transformation is possible.”
“Of course, there’s a long way to go,” she added, “but it’s been wonderful to see how supportive everyone’s been at UNDP, and how awareness of disability issues is increasing across UN agencies. It seems to me that more and more people are realizing that this isn’t just something the UN should do for political reasons; it’s actually a really good thing to do, both morally and pragmatically. It makes UNDP a better place to work for everyone, and it lets us do more good things in the world.”
“It’s been incredibly challenging at times,” she acknowledged. “There’s always a lack of funding, and of course it’s a huge organization, working in over 170 countries, which presents certain structural challenges. It’s really difficult to ensure that what we do at HQ gets properly implemented everywhere. But, little by little, change is taking hold. Interest in these issues isn’t just coming out of HQ and going to the field anymore. More and more, it’s moving from the field to the headquarters, too.”
Since giving birth to her son, Teresa’s been on maternity leave and working part-time for UNDP, but she’s still a fulltime advocate for diversity and inclusion, continually educating herself and others about disability and accessibility. Though her son’s not yet speaking, she’s already teaching him International Sign Language as well as bringing him to virtual meetings. “I’m raising him as a citizen of the world,” she said, “but not just any world. My hope is for his world to be more accessible and inclusive than the one in which I was raised, and for him to help build one that’s more accessible and inclusive still.”
Journalist with ABILITY Magazine | Founder and President of Fulbrighters with Disabilities | Disability Inclusion with UNDP