2011-02. Transitions: Violence, Disability and Vindication
February 18th, 2011
December 3rd, 2010.
Issue: Violence & SocietyIn Guatemala, the post-war years continue to ratify the violent legacy from 36 years of brutal war. Murder statistics for the first month of 2011 continue a troublesome trend: 533 violent deaths, most of them by firearm. That is over 17 per day in a country of only 13 million people. (1) Yet many victims of violence do not perish. Instead, their lives are tragically altered forever. Since 1996, the Antigua-based organization Transitions, has provided youth with disabilities indispensable services involving physical recovery, mental health, education, job training, employment, and above all, social reintegration. Some members suffer from congenital diseases or have been disabled from accidents. But the vast majority has survived a violent attack and now faces the steep challenge of gaining independence and reintegrating in a society indifferent to their special needs.Transitions’ wheelchair workshop currently employs 15 youth. Most are disabled young men who initially joined Transitions through the education or rehabilitation programs.The workshop, unique in the region, produces six different models of wheelchairs for various uses. Some chairs are donated from foreign countries and fixed or modified in the workshop, but members of Transitions make most wheelchairs from scratch. Materials used for the construction of the chairs may include recycled pieces from old chairs, bicycles or even scrap.At the age of 14, Alex Gálvez (left) was confused for a gang member and shot near his home. After struggling to stay alive for many years and suffering from pressure sensitive sores, Alex received medical treatment in the United States thanks to the sponsorship of U.S. citizen John Bell. Once back in Guatemala, Alex realized many victims of violence were not as fortunate as had been. His eagerness to help other disabled youth led to the foundation of Transitions in 1996 with John Bell.According to Alex Gálvez, “mental and physical recoveries pose a bigger challenge for those of us who live in countries where there are practically no services available for people with disabilities. In 1994, the Pan-American Health Organization estimated that rehabilitation services for disabled people in developing countries only meet between one and three percent of the demand.”
Luis Enrique Chupán Castañeda, who suffered a motorcycle accident in 2008, tests the Leverage Freedom Chair (LFC). Developed in 2008 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the LFC is described as a “lever powered mobility aid for developing countries”, particularly on uneven surfaces. Transitions has partnered with MIT as one of the few workshops around the world able to produce the LFC and provide input on ways to continue improving this innovative wheelchair. (2)
German Chub Choc (left) and Vinicio Cabrera (right), both paraplegics due to firearm wounds, are relatively new to the Transitions workshop. German, originally from El Estor, Izabal, was playing soccer on a Sunday afternoon in September 2009 when a stray bullet from a shooting spree nearby severed his spine. On February 2009, assailants shot Vinicio outside his home in Antigua during a botched robbery of his motorcycle.
Juan Chiti was held up and shot while running during the annual September 15th Independence Day torch relay near his hometown of Santa Cruz Quiché. Serious injuries left him paraplegic after barely surviving the attack. Juan has been a staff member of Transitions for over ten years and Alex Gálvez describes him as “fully independent, studies English, and is a recognized leader in Guatemala who has helped and motivated hundreds of disabled people over the years.”
Since 2002, Transitions’ Prosthetics and Orthotics Clinic has equipped and trained over 400 patients. Nacho, 18, lost both arms in a corn grinder accident as a child. He first joined Transitions a decade ago as the beneficiary of an educational scholarship. Today, Nacho works in the wheelchair workshop and also trains patients on the use of upper limb prosthetic use.
Transitions also operates a small graphic arts, desktop publishing, and offset printing enterprise. The print shop functions both as a disabilities job-training program and an income-generating project. Earnings are used to cover training costs, printed material costs, and small salaries for the employees.
Alex Gálvez with members of the Special Education Program during an event commemorating the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, held last December 3rd. The Escuelita (or little school, as it’s affectionately called) offers education to children with special needs from low-income households in the neighboring indigenous community of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Transitions is continually looking for individual sponsorships for students. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
“The results of armed violence go beyond the obvious physical injuries,” explains Alex Gálvez, “they also greatly affect mental health and socio-economic conditions both for the survivors and their families… [Nevertheless], despite the difficulties, a disability does not necessarily mean that life is over.”
Activities involving the wheelchair basketball team reflect the general philosophy behind Transitions. “Besides their recreational value,” continues Alex Gálvez, “sports provide people with disabilities with self-confidence, higher self-esteem, a better health, and ultimately provide a cornerstone for individual independence.”
The team, which scrimmages every Friday afternoon, has gained notoriety throughout the region. The current Guatemalan National Wheelchair Basketball Team, made up mostly of Transitions’ members, is the current Central American & Caribbean champion and will participate for the first time in the upcoming Parapan-American Games to be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November 2011.
Hugo Leonel Andrino, who suffered from poliomyelitis during childhood, co-founded Transitions with Alex Gálvez and John Bell. His leadership and vast experience manufacturing wheelchairs has been key to the success of the workshop. In addition, Hugo Leonel is widely considered Central America’s best wheelchair basketball player.
Twenty-three year old Diego Armando Marroquín Estrada (right) signed a professional soccer contract at the age of 18. He played in Guatemala’s top division with Deportivo Antigua, C.S.D. Comunicaciones, and was a key player with the Under-20 Guatemalan National Team during the 2007 Olympic soccer qualifiers. On March 2008, Diego suffered five bullet wounds during a robbery. “I never thought about playing basketball,” Diego states while smiling broadly. “But now, I love it! The truth is that my life has not changed much since the incident, because deep down, I am still the same kid.”
“Small arms can be purchased cheaply on the streets,” comments Alex Gálvez. “Poverty, violence, and fear caused by decades of war still bear heavy consequences on everyday life for Guatemalans… Surgery and therapy healed my body, but sports and art helped me envision a future for myself.”
Over the years, Transitions has provided wheelchairs for hundreds of low-income disabled Guatemalans. A designated gift of $450 will provide a new wheelchair and a gift of $150 will refurbish an existing wheelchair.
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Flash version of the photo essay, click here.
Version en español aquí.
This photos essay was made possible with the financial support from the Daniele Agostino Derossi Foundation, as well as the editorial assistance from Angela J. Bunch C.
01 “Violencia marca inicio de año”. Prensa Libre. February 4th, 2011.
02 Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) Website. http://mlab.mit.edu/lfc/Welcome.html