Stepping Stones to the Land of the Living
By Susan Gray Dueck
On Sunday, February 10,1991, forty-one women with disabilities arrived at the splendid Hotel President in San Salvador, El Salvador. Dressed for cocktails, they watched each other across the tables of carefully arranged wine and cheese at the kick-off event for a week-long seminar entitled, "Disabled Women and Functional Literacy." These women had arrived from all over Central America: Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador. They had come to learn about writing.
Months prior to this Sunday evening, each of these women had received publicity information that explained the upcoming seminar and invited them to partake in the event. And so they had bought tickets, found funding, packed suitcases and traveled to San Salvador. For many, this was the first time they had ever ventured from their villages, the first time they had ever had the chance to come to something as momentous as a week-long seminar. And now here they sat, dark eyes taking in everything in their midst, women from different countries exchanging tentative greetings. Although some women would use the hotel toilets as washtubs (because they had never before seen these white structures) while others had left behind their maids and houseboys, every woman in attendance sought knowledge. Every woman in the room had a disability and craved empowerment within societies that see them as sick, helpless and pitiful.
Sitting in that room, flanked by Spanish / English interpreters (provided for me by the organizers of the conference) I was struck by the undercurrent of urgency. I had arrived only an hour before and my home in snowy freezing Winnipeg seemed a vague half-memory, obscured by the heat and the beauty of the El Salvador darkness. I had been sent from Canada as a consultant for the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (C.O.P.O.H.), a national advocacy organization of people with disabilities. For many months, COPOH staff had worked together with members of ACOGIPRI (a self-help organization of people with disabilities in El Salvador) to plan this project. The groups had joined as partners in developing the seminar, making arrangements and acquiring funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.