CEUTEC Leads Efforts to Boost Employment of Those Living with Disabilities
Paola Mariela Ortiz sees the world differently than most people. That’s because she was born with a visual impairment.
“It’s very hard for me to recognize faces, for example. I have to get up really close to see someone,” Ortiz explained.
If living with a disability weren’t difficult enough, pursuing an education exacerbated Ortiz’s struggle. A society that lacked resources for those who aren’t able to see well also failed to be more generally inclusive.
“It was segregation,” Ortiz recalled. “Children with impaired vision were treated separately from completely blind children.”
Children who were blind had the option of attending regular school or such institutions as Pilar Salinas, a traditional school for the blind, but there were few options for students like Ortiz, who were not totally blind. Ortiz said she faced similar challenges during her undergraduate studies.
“I started my education at CEUTEC. Back then, there really wasn’t a program specifically designed for students with disabilities as there is now, but they admitted me, and I graduated as a psychologist in 2013,” said Ortiz.
Upon graduation, Ortiz faced even more obstacles. She was diagnosed with glaucoma and had to undergo a series of surgeries. After the worst of her surgeries were over, Ortiz began studying for a master’s in psychopedagogy.
“It [my master’s] is primarily focused on education inclusion — how different diversities can be included across all segments of regular education, from preschool to higher education,” Ortiz said.
When it was time to enter the job market, she would face many rejections, mainly because of her medical condition.
“The process of finding a job was very complex. I had been searching for around six months and didn’t have much luck,” Ortiz explained. Her luck would soon change, however, because of the Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors) project at UNITEC.
“The project, in alliance with DAI [USAID funds], was designed to provide the most discriminated-against groups [LGTBQ community, people with disabilities, Afro-Hondurans] an opportunity to develop work experience in the form of an internship,” explained Nadina F. Mazzoni Pizzati, corporate social responsibility director for UNITEC Honduras.
For the first few months, participants learn soft skills at UNITEC and earn a diplomado (certificate). Then, for six months, they are provided positions in the public or private sector.
“I was the member of INFRACNOVI, an institution that helped me with the process of inclusion in education throughout my academic journey,” said Ortiz. “I had been searching for around six months for a job, and it was then when I went to the offices of SIAR, which is the umbrella organization for groups that are working with people with disabilities in Honduras. When I visited them, they told me about this organization. I applied and was selected, and that was how I became a member of the first cohort of the Open Doors project.”
The program helps participants develop a holistic vision, to see every part of the education process and consider all students regardless of whether they are living with a disability.
“If something is good practice, then it may benefit many others as well,”said Ortiz.
Open Doors focuses on various areas of the student’s special needs and his or her experience at the institution, such as academics and psychological support. After completing Open Doors, Ortiz was hired by UNITEC to develop a protocol for students with disabilities.
“My work includes a structure for admissions, helping students choose an area of study,” Ortiz said. “Our approach is to widen the scope as much as we can to include as many students as we can.”
Ortiz credits the program with finding her meaningful employment, but what stands out more to her is the opportunity to work with so many people living with disabilities different from her own.
“The hearing impaired is the biggest number in the group, but you can really learn from everybody,” Ortiz said. “Also included in the program are people with chronic degenerative illnesses and people suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. It’s important to hear from somebody who has an actual disability. People living with disability should be part of the decision-making process, and CEUTEC is doing that through this program and hiring people like me.”
While CEUTEC has provided Ortiz with the start of a career, her sights are set on changing the entire country’s approach to the inclusion of those living with disabilities.
“The experience that I have had here can be applied to different areas of education, not just higher education but also high school, elementary and even preschool,” said Ortiz. “In Honduras, when we talk about inclusion in education, we always tend to focus on the concept of special education, thinking that students with disabilities are different and need to be dealt with differently, or that they need to be given preferential treatment, which is not the case.” “The objective of inclusion is to reach the same goal in a different way,” she added. “This means if there is something someone else can do and I need to do it, I find a way to adapt, rather than just be told, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ True inclusion seeks to give each person a journey they can follow to reach the same objectives.”