Julio Cesar Canizales, who lost his vision just before he turned 24, is organizing visually-impaired people to develop new job skills, while at the same time challenging the legislative framework which limits opportunities for the blind to participate fully in social and economic activity.
The New Idea
Julio Cesar Canizales knows that, in order for blind people to assume their rightful place as active citizens in El Salvador, and by extension in any of the surrounding countries, three types of changes need to occur: they themselves must acquire marketable skills and the confidence to apply them; the public at large must move beyond stereotypes to acknowledge their productive potential; and the legal environment must be adapted to embrace their participation rather than exclude them. Recognizing the inter-relatedness of these challenges, Julio Cesar has embarked upon a quest to improve the status of blind people by combining three initiatives, using his position as president of the Salvadoran Association for the Blind to integrate these efforts.The first involves the establishment of vocational training opportunities for the blind, focusing on modern computer software which allows his students to use braille and interactive techniques to produce word-processing, spreadsheet and internet applications, which in turn create employment openings for them in the emerging high-tech economy. Secondly, Julio Cesar is launching computer training courses for people without visual disabilities, to promote discussion and exchange among groups which to this point have had little to do with each other, while at the same time generating revenues to subsidize the services offered to the blind. Thirdly, by organizing the Network of Associations of People with Disabilities, Julio is building an effective advocacy movement (including people with various types of physical and other disabilities) to strike down the archaic legislation that prevents blind people from voting, and reform the Health Code to be more respectful of and helpful to people with disabilities. A natural leader and strategic thinker, Julio Cesar is already looking to broaden his network, both nationally and regionally, to engage business leaders who can donate equipment and provide job placements. He is also mobilizing the families and friends of people with disabilities to help identify new sources of support, and to contribute to public education and lobbying efforts designed to challenge negative stereotypes.
In El Salvador, approximately 95% of blind people do not have access to jobs. This is due as much to their lack of access to vocational skills as it is to their visual impairment. El Salvador has no adequate policies to promote mental, emotional, and material well-being for blind people. The few laws that do exist to regulate the issue treat blind people as incapable of taking care of themselves, their children, or of playing a productive role in society. Until recently they were even denied the right to vote!
The pejorative view informing these regulations has contributed to a lack of available specialized schooling for blind people, and hindered the development (or importation) of educational materials that can help them. In this context, many blind people, who usually receive very little formal education, don't feel the motivation or receive the support to continue their studies. According to data from the Foundation for Educational Development, there are approximately 90,000 blind people in El Salvador, with tens of thousands more across Central America. The absence of equipment and training designed for blind people further handicaps them, and makes it impossible for most to participate actively in society. Even in the Center for Blind People, financed by the Salvadoran government and the only one of its kind in the country, there are no computers for use by the students.
Julio Cesar teaches blind people how to use computers with equipment adapted to the braille system and a phonetic interface, so as to provide them access to information and the skills they need to obtain employment. The methodology that Julio has developed is interactive. His central objective is to give the blind effective technological tools and teach them how to look for information with the use of computers. Julio's more significant contribution lies in his identification of appropriate software, technologies and experiences from other countries, which he then imports into a society that has no concept of the productive potential visually impaired people can offer. He has introduced a combination of external resources and local understanding to meet fundamental needs for the advancement of visually impaired people. The computer skills Julio provides are part of a broader effort to challenge prevailing public beliefs about the blind, and to empower them to address a restrictive legislative framework and an even more limiting labor market.
In the short term, Julio is working to consolidate an institution that will ultimately grow to benefit a significant proportion of El Salvador´s blind population. With assistance from Spain, he founded the Cultural Center for the Blind, and attracted funding for the installation of computer training workstations and the production of braille texts. While this training has the potential to result in employment for many blind people, it is also critical to overcome their continued exclusion from the economy and society, and to suggest other ways in which they can be productively integrated. As president of the El Salvador Association for the Blind, Julio is already directing a information technology training program, working to obtain more computers, modify them with phonetic software to facilitate their use by the blind, buy braille printers, and get internet access so as to train interested members in this new medium.
He knows that to achieve his goals, it will be necessary to broaden his organization's financial base and consolidate his technical knowledge. Therefore, he is continuing to learn more about the relevant hardware and software, and visiting potential donors, providing them budget plans and information about his work. In order to establish a school with sufficient facilities to address a broad segment of the blind population, Julio has developed contacts with national and international entities, especially Spain's National Organization for the Blind. He is seeking accreditation from the Ministry of Education so that students' academic achievements can be certified, scholarly texts can be printed in braille, and affiliate organizations can be opened in at least three other parts of the country. To guarantee that blind people have access to the services of this school, Julio is also raising support for scholarships. He plans to help the best students to establish similar programs in their home towns, issuing them software and enough credit to purchase equipment.
Beyond these training efforts, Julio plans to extend his network of blind people and organizations to cover all Central America so that he can offer his counsel in the area of information technology throughout the region. He will travel to neighboring countries in the near future to offer training, consulting, and printing services for braille texts. Meanwhile, Julio's leadership in advocacy efforts on behalf of disabled people in general has already produced significant impact. He brought pressure to bear on the legislative assembly from a broad coalition of disabled rights groups and was able to win a modification of the electoral law, to permit blind people to vote in recent presidential elections. At the same time, his proposal for reform of the health code was presented to each of the presidential candidates, and will soon come before the legislature for debate.
Until he reached the age of 24, Julio was a valued technician in a large chemical plant. In appreciation for his work, his employer offered to pay for an operation to correct visual problems from which he had suffered since childhood. But incompetent treatment resulted in an irreversible loss of his sight. The loss of his vision gave Julio a first-hand sense of the poor treatment that blind people receive in El Salvador. He also became aware of the pessimism and inertia of many blind people, which in turn contributed to their confinement and segregation. Julio has transcended his personal tragedy and found new meaning in his life. He is married to a woman, blind from birth, whom he met before losing his own sight. Together they share a commitment to improving the lives of blind people. They are now part of a club of "Friends of the Blind" that is trying to change the social perception of blindness, both among people who are visually impaired and in the population as a whole.