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Project Story: Central America

Providing Information Technology Employment Training to People with Disabilities 

“I am blind since I was born and I thank you because this is the first time I am able to send an email by myself working with the computer,” wrote Jose Reyes, age 22, in a message to staff at the Trust for the Americas, a Washington, DC-based, nonprofit organization affiliated with the Organization of American States (OAS). Jose is one of more than 200 individuals with disabilities who received training in information technology as part of an IT employment training project launched by The Trust with support totaling $139,500 from the Development Marketplace and InfoDev.

Such training is now opening up windows of opportunity for people with disabilities in four Central American countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. With the goal of sustaining long-term supports for the disabled in the region, the project set out to enhance the employment prospects of individuals with disabilities, while strengthening the capacity of local NGOs to provide the disabled with ongoing IT-related job training. In addition to World Bank funding, The Trust received $42,000 from the eBay Foundation to develop a website in Spanish linking disability organizations throughout the region. Premier Programming also provided in-kind support of $500,000 in software for the blind.

According to current estimates, roughly 18 percent of those living in Central America have some form of disability, as compared to an average of 10 percent in developed nations. The main causes are war, land mines, natural disasters, and poverty, which contributes to increased malnutrition and the emergence of easily preventable, disabling diseases. 
“The thing that’s so surprising is how little computers are used when it comes to addressing the needs of the disabled, despite the fact that adaptive technology is relatively inexpensive,” says Susan Shattuck Benson, the Trust’s Executive Director. 
To provide top-notch training at an affordable cost, the project leveraged the expertise of Net Corps Americas volunteers from Europe, Latin America, and the United States. An initiative of the Trust, Net Corps Americas was established to deploy high tech professionals as volunteers within communities and organizations in OAS member states. Its mission: to help bridge the digital divide and promote the power of volunteerism in the Americas.

“If we’d used paid consultants, this work would have cost millions of dollars,” explains Benson. “Through Net Corps Americas we recruited high tech professionals from all over the world who wanted to live in a low-income community, many of whom had experience working with the disabled. The quality of these volunteers, who ranged in age from 23 to 67, astounded us.” 

Enrique Ruscitti, an Argentine IT professional with extensive experience working in rehabilitation programs, spent three months as a trainer for the initiative in Honduras, returning later to work in Guatemala. While in Honduras, he trained the staff of Fuhril, a local NGO, in the use of a range of adaptive equipment for the disabled, including screen readers, in which the computer talks users through basic computer functions; Jaws, a software device enabling the computer to read text aloud; and Intellikeys, keyboards with larger keys to assist those with limited motor function in typing. While such equipment is cost prohibitive in Central America, the Trust purchased it at a reasonable price in the U.S. and Europe and shipped it to the various training locations, where local NGOs were required to provide counterpart funding.
The training provided by Ruscitti and others exceeded The Trust’s initial expectations. In all, more 130 individuals within 44 NGOs received instruction in how to train those with disabilities for employment. In addition, 200 individuals with disabilities, 170 of them women, received direct IT employment training. Equipping disabled women in particular with workplace skills was an important goal of the project given their largely overlooked needs.

With a knowledge infrastructure now in place, the project’s impact is being sustained as those NGOs that received training pass on their knowledge within local NGO networks. Also fundamental to sustaining the project’s impact is a new website—the Virtual Disabilities Resource Center—being developed in Spanish to provide those with disabilities and their advocates with vital information on current laws and best practices, while creating a vehicle through which experts worldwide may share ideas.
With funding provided by the World Bank, The Trust was able to pilot the project, test, and refine it. Among the key learnings that emerged was that the training needed to take into account the varying levels of education among those being served. Differentiating instruction—and tailoring it to meet the educational needs of the learner—remains an ongoing challenge. Project implementers also realized that providing technology training to people with disabilities was not enough. Job seekers also needed training in job readiness skills such as how to interview, dress appropriately for the workplace, and manage time effectively. Educating potential employers as to the workplace strengths of the disabled—while debunking long-held myths about their limitations—was also important, as was ensuring that disabled job seekers have the necessary transportation to get to and from the workplace.

The Trust credits World Bank staff with playing a critical role in trouble-shooting and offering valuable advice, for example, when an earthquake threatened implementation in El Salvador. “We had really amazing project managers who sat with us and discussed where we were going and suggested improvements,” says Jessica Lewis, Manager of Net Corps Americas, adding that the detailed reporting required of award recipients was extremely helpful in documenting the Trust’s learning process.
“The funding we received from the World Bank really helped open doors,” Benson acknowledges. The success of the pilot has now enabled the Trust to significantly scale up the project in El Salvador. With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor/ILAB program and the local Microsoft office, The Trust has initiated a nearly $1 million program in the country.

   Student at work

   Blind student working in the    computer lab.


 Carolina (in the wheelchair), participated in the training, with Alberto Loos (Net Corps Americas Volunteer), doing an activity in 
Clic software, which permits easier access for people with disabilities


  This was the first meeting with Los Pipitos, in which the work plan was explained and presentation activities were created. In this picture, we were in the middle of an “ice-breaker”


  Employees of the ceramics
    workshop. The woman in the
       back (in the blue shirt) is Eileen Girón, Director of the Cooperative.

   Employees of the ceramics
       workshop in El Salvador. In
     the center, back, in a green
      shirt, Manolo Orellana,
  manager of the ceramics
     workshop. All the employeesare
   deaf, except the lady in the apron, and everyone attended classes with Stacey, the Net Corps Americas volunteer.


  Alberto Loos, Net Corps Americas volunteer teaches William (young man member of Los Pipitos), helping him through an activity in MS Word, with the group of youth with disabilities.

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Last Updated: May 10, 2004

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