A link in the chain for disability in Costa Rica

thumbnailFor the first time, the Costa Rican government has funded its children’s department to set up a project specifically focusing on helping children with disabilities, supported by Viva’s partner network in San José.

Brenda Darke, a regional consultant for Viva on the issue of disability, outlines the situation in the country, the encouragements from the past 12 months and the hope going forward.


Imagine trying to catch a bus in Costa Rica if you have a disability. It’s great that buses are required by law to have lifts for wheelchair access. However, the problem is but pavements, even if they exist, are totally inadequate for families to get to the bus stops.

This is one example of the fact that, despite good laws being in place to protect and provide for people with disabilities, there remains a huge degree of discrimination and apathy from the majority of people towards those with disabilities.

hiddenThe areas where we are working have especially bad infrastructure and few social opportunities for children with disabilities. Many families feel isolated and do not have the economic means to pay for taxis which are often the only means of transport for them.

People in these communities have very little idea of the challenges that these families face and lack education about disability. Many still attribute disability to a punishment or curse from God, thus leaving the family with a heavy burden of guilt.

Children with disabilities generally have less opportunities than other children and their quality of life can be limited by social isolation. They often lack economic security as fathers frequently abandon the family when a disabled child is born, and the mother can no longer work outside the home as she frequently has to give round-the-clock care to the disabled child – both at school and home.

I’ve seen trends like these many times in my work as a part-time consultant with Viva Latin America over the past 14 years, as I’ve aimed to raise awareness around the inclusion for children with disabilities across the region, especially seeking to engage churches and Christian ministries.

I have trained various national networks, and published a book to use as a tool for Viva’s partner network members, as well as other pastors and ministry workers. I have discussed the myths around this topic, taught positive attitudes from the Bible and given ideas for simple practical steps.

Therefore, after all of this work, it was fantastic to get some breakthrough in Costa Rica with Viva’s partner network last year as we were invited to support the government’s children’s department in investigating the situation of children with disabilities – the first time such a thing has happened.

Two of the very poorest and most violent areas of San José were selected for the project: Purral and San Felipe de Alejuelita.

The first phase was to complete a basic mapping, contact the families and arrange interviews. We wanted to find out how life was for these families and especially how much social interaction their children had access to.

After this, they were invited to a fun day in November 2015. In each area, we identified a host church accessible to children with special needs and we worked with small teams of volunteers to prepare them for receiving the families.

We had a very enthusiastic group of about 15 families in both communities and for many this was the first invitation they had ever received to take part in a social event specifically aimed at children with disabilities.

The churches welcomed the families into brightly decorated rooms, where they were given name badges and volunteers engaged them in conversations and then music, games, and delicious food helped everyone feel at home.

VotingThe children were invited to vote for their favourite activities by placing a hand print on a prepared chart. The parents were given opportunity to express their hopes and desires which was often an emotional moment as they commented that this was not something they had been asked before.

One family said, “We thank God for the chance to get out from our home and have activities especially for us”. Another said, “It is wonderful to be in a place where people care and treat our children well.”

As a result one church has started a support group called Eslabón which, translated to English, means “link in a chain”. The pastor in the other community has expressed interest in starting a support group but there has been some increase in violence in the area, so this is on hold for the present time.

shared prayer requestFamilies from both groups took part in Viva’s World Weekend of Prayer back in June. We organised a morning of prayer and other activities in the Peace Park in San José attended by 125 people, some of whom weren’t known to the network beforehand. These groups brought many volunteers to help with the complicated logistics involved in hosting a group of children with varied and multiple disabilities.

There was signing for the deaf, wheelchair access at all times, arts and crafts, finger painting on banners, a workshop on rights for people with disabilities and a picnic with cake to celebrate birthdays!

The forming of this small church-based support group is a very positive sign. Many Christians have already generously given time, financial donations and other gifts as well as offering to host events but we are only going to meet the need if more churches become involved.

The second phase will be to improve the opportunities that the children have to access social activities and be part of their communities.

We aim to empower both themselves and their families as well as educate and train those who work with children and young people and, by changing attitudes and infrastructure, give a realistically improved future to these disadvantaged children.

The government has promised 70 per cent of the money towards getting this to happen, leaving the other 30 per cent to be raised locally.

Overall, we have felt very encouraged by the positive response to churches tackling the issues surrounding disability. Juan Carlos Morales, Viva’s network co-ordinator in Costa Rica, has said that one of the most important results so far has been to see the increase of awareness in the local churches and that, although still few in number, they are very committed. For that we give thanks.