María Pilar Ferro

Ashoka Fellow
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Argentina
Fellow since 2008
C.A.R.E (Center of Assistance and Special Rehabilitation)
This description of María Pilar Ferro's work was prepared when María Pilar Ferro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .

Introduction

Pilar Ferro is improving the quality of life and social integration of marginalized communities such as the elderly and disabled people by enabling them to access new technology at reasonable prices. The Center for Special Assistance and Rehabilitation (CARE) works with the government, universities, engineers, health professionals and educators to develop and disseminate new technologies.

The New Idea

In 1996 Pilar founded CARE, a civic organization (CO), after noticing there were few opportunities for many Argentines to access technology. CARE considers what kinds of help a handicapped individual requires and to meet their needs it either provides existing technologies, adapts them, or creates new tools. CARE’s multidisciplinary team of engineers, educators, and physical therapists not only provides technology but also works with the recipient on how to use it. Additionally, the team trains users’ families and friends, which is strategic for CARE in three ways: it spreads knowledge about the technologies, makes the handicapped more integrated into the community, and acts as a self-help system so that users require less customer service.

In addition to private donations, CARE is able to provide its services at reasonable prices due to partnerships Pilar has cultivated with the government and research universities. For example, Pilar has developed computer-training courses for different marginalized groups and the municipal government of Buenos Aires provides scholarships for these trainings at the Foundation for Equality. CARE uses the foundation’s space and computers to train users on their specific technological aids. Pilar has developed hardware and software such as special keyboards and computer programs. The CARE website offers free software such as a program for operating the mouse with facial gestures or a program for the blind that provides audio for Internet Explorer.

Pilar has become known as an expert in Argentina on the emergence of new technologies for the handicapped. She is currently overseeing an awareness campaign and is working with legislators to make technological aids available for the disabled. Through lectures, workshops and seminars Pilar has generated awareness about the advantages of technological aids and trained professionals on how to use them. Pilar works with universities on research and development, and has also created a new post-graduate degree in technologies for the handicapped. She is collaborating with other COs to make technology more available to the disabled and she is also involved with international organizations for the handicapped.

The Problem

In Argentina there is a ‘digital divide’ in which much of the population does not have access to technology. People who are poor or from rural areas are at a disadvantage because it is harder for them to access, afford, and use computers. There is little distribution of technology to these areas and few ways for the population to learn how to use computers. This digital divide also affects handicapped people who cannot use computers because the special tools required are very expensive and hard to find. Many disabled people cannot access the technology because they, along with their communities, are too poor to afford it. Others are among the 40 percent of handicapped Argentines who do not have health insurance to help them pay for the services. In a world were technology is advancing fast and is ever more prevalent, being unable to access it is a barrier to social inclusion and to a better quality of life.

Although technological aids for the handicapped exist in small quantities, their price and poor distribution make them inaccessible to most of the population. Argentine companies mistakenly assume that the market for these products is very small so they produce very few of them. With a low supply and high demand, these services are costly and thus out of the reach of most handicapped citizens. When technological aids are available in Argentina, they often fail to meet the precise needs of disabled individuals. For example, computer programs are standardized and do not account for the special needs of different users. Computing solutions for the handicapped are advanced in wealthy countries, but they are hard to find in developing ones like Argentina. These products are very expensive to import so most Argentines cannot afford them. Foreign products are also difficult to operate because their user manuals are not written in Spanish and no customer service is available for consumers to call instead.

Given that technological aids for the handicapped are so unavailable, there is no support system in Argentina for these services. COs that work with the disabled focus on community inclusion through activities such as the arts and vocational training, but they do not focus on technological needs. Academic tracks that focus on disabled populations do not include technological aids in their curricula because they do not have information about them. As a result, very few professionals who work with the disabled have the necessary training and technical expertise to help handicapped individuals access or use available technologies.

On the government’s part, little action has been taken since 1997 when the last major legislation was passed. This outdated policy stipulates that all disabled people have the right to basic assistance, but it says nothing about technology. As a result the law does not recognize that being unable to use technology is a barrier to societal inclusion.

The Strategy

Pilar founded CARE in 1996 based on the premise that the degree of an individual’s handicap is proportional to how many resources they can access. Because many Argentines do not have access to existing technologies, CARE works to create a system that supports the development and distribution of these resources. Pilar does this by forming partnerships with the government, COs, and universities. For the CARE staff she also organized a multidisciplinary team of computer programmers, engineers, educators and health professionals.

Pilar has made sure to design a model that allows CARE to do everything in its power to use technological aids to help disabled people feel less isolated from society. CARE’s adapts existing technologies and creates new products that are tailored to users’ needs. These technologies allow people to participate in society by doing such things as playing, studying, working and communicating. CARE products include four kinds of mouse, two keyboards, and toys that have been adapted to operate using a remote control. The CARE website offers free software such as Head-dev, which is a program that allows people to move a mouse by making certain faces. Another is Talkative Web, which uses audio to read Internet Explorer out loud. Pilar is working with her team to develop virtual reality programs to simulate real life experiences that can help individuals learn. The programs can be used by parents and educators to help teach children with autism and cerebral palsy.

Pilar uses partnerships with different sectors and industries to provide ways to distribute these technologies cheaply. One example is a partnership with the Buenos Aires municipality and the Foundation for Equality, which allows CARE to provide courses that train handicapped individuals on how to use computers and their aids. In this instance the municipality provides the funds and the Foundation for Equality provides space and computers. To make sure users understand how to use their aids, the CARE team trains families and friends of users and also offers technical support by providing Spanish manuals and a phone service that users can call.

Strategic partnerships allow Pilar to execute and expand CARE’s work. She works with different sectors and industries to introduce existing technologies that act as catalysts for continued research, development and dissemination. In addition to her partnership with the Foundation for Equality and the Buenos Aires municipality, Pilar collaborates with three universities. These university partnerships allow CARE to educate students about technological aids and to engage students and professors in researching, developing and disseminating both new and existing products. This year, Pilar was able to train 600 Special Education teachers from across Argentina thanks to a partnership with the Telefonica Foundation. Pilar is now developing a strategy for CARE to partner with other CSOs that work with the disabled. This partnership will allow CARE to establish technical support groups throughout the country that can raise awareness and distribute technological aids. CARE will train the groups using materials provided on its website. Lastly, Pilar’s ongoing partnership with the Argentine Syndicate of Educators recently succeeded in establishing a post-graduate specialization in technologies for the disabled.

Pilar is spearheading a campaign to raise awareness about the advantages of new technologies among the general public. Pilar is currently working with a Senator to draft national legislation that could make technologies for the disabled available through health insurance companies. Last year, Pilar also began working with the elderly, because their technological needs are similar to the needs of disabled people. As CARE’s work becomes better known, Pilar is becoming recognized as an expert on the disabled population and technologies that serve them. She is currently a member of two international organizations that focus on new technologies for the disabled. Pilar also sponsored the creation of the Argentina branch of The Network for the Disabled and is now a member of its Board of Directors.

The Person

Pilar comes from a modest background, and her parents raised her to value responsibility and dedication to the community. Her father was a factory worker and also acted as a delegate in the municipal government. From a young age she was active in the community.

As a teenager, Pilar became the leader of a youth group that worked to improve her peers’ access to school materials and activities such as sports. After graduating from high school she began working as a teacher and developed a strong interest in children who had special needs. As a result, Pilar went back to school to obtain a degree in Special Education that included a concentration on hearing and speech impairment. Pilar’s dedication to working with the disabled was reinforced after her younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When Pilar began working as a Special Education teacher, she realized that the available resources in the education system were not sufficient to improve disabled people’s quality of life and their social integration. When she began searching for alternative resources, Pilar began working with new technologies. This spurred the creation of CARE and led Pilar to develop an expertise in the emerging field of technological aids for the handicapped.