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Berkeley disability group shares insights with Costa Rican disability activists

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Thursday September 12, 2002

This week, four women from Costa Rica’s budding disability rights movement are visiting a city that plays host to some of the world’s foremost political experts: Berkeley. 

The women, representatives of Foro por los Derechos Humanos de las Personas con Discapacidad (Human Rights Forum for the Disabled), based in Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose, hope to pick up valuable lessons about organizing the disabled so they can wage an effective political campaign on the homefront. 

The activists are currently fighting to win implementation of Costa Rica’s Law 7600, passed in 1996. The groundbreaking legislation guarantees access to public transportation, education, the workplace, recreation, health care and more for the disabled. But according to “El Foro,” as the organization is known, Costa Rica has a long way to go to make the law a reality. 

The activists’ fight currently centers on public transportation. Law 7600 gave the government seven years to create accessible bus service, but with the deadline only eight months away, none of Costa Rica’s 5,000 buses are accessible, advocates say. 

The El Foro representatives, hosted by Berkeley’s Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, or DREDF, have visited a number of local advocacy and service organizations and sat in on a disability law course at UC Berkeley Tuesday night. They said they have picked up a number of lessons that will help in their struggle. 

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned here is strategies – how to build an agenda, a communication strategy, political ways to fight,” said Catalina Derandas, an attorney with El Foro. 

But Andrea Vargas Carmiol, a student active in El Foro said the burgeoning movement has learned a more basic lesson in Berkeley, where college students helped kickstart the national push for disabled rights in the 1970s. That lesson is that building a largescale movement and creating real change is possible. 

“In the United States, the movement of people with disabilities started many, many years ago and we are just beginning,” Carmiol said. 

The relationship between El Foro and DREDF dates back to October 2000, when DREDF convened an international conference of disability advocates in Washington D.C. on the 10th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which helped inspire similar legislation in 40 other countries. 

Derandas said Dr. Federico Montero, who would soon co-found El Foro, was in attendance and began to build a relationship between the Berkeley group and the Costa Rican movement. 

DREDF then won a $48,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to conduct a Dec. 2001 workshop in Costa Rica. 

A second State Department grant, totaling $58,000, is paying for the current visit to Berkeley and a follow-up forum, run by DREDF, in Costa Rica this December.