Social Issues

Law enables Colombia’s Down syndrome population to take charge of their lives

By Dido Polo Monterrosa

Bogota, May 24 (EFE).- Purchasing a home, taking out a bank loan and negotiating and signing formal work contracts.

Alvaro Macias has carried out those and other legal transactions in recent years thanks to a Colombian law that enables people with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, to exercise their rights and take full responsibility for their own lives.

Before Ley 1996 was signed into law four years ago, “people with Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities and mental illness” had been regarded as legally incapable of making the types of contractual and financial decisions that Macias has, the executive director of Asdown Colombia, Monica Cortes, told Efe.

“I feel proud about exercising my rights,” the 31-year man told Efe of his search for a home in Bogota and the nearby municipalities of Mosquera, Madrid and Girardot in the central department of Cundinamarca.

He eventually used his own savings and a subsidy to buy a residence in Girardot, a purchase that he says was “a victory on his path to independence.”

Macias says making decisions is a fundamental part of his daily life and involves simple actions like choosing his clothes, deciding what food to eat or commuting to work by himself.

An office and warehouse assistant at the District Attention Center for Social Inclusion (Cadis) in Bogota, Macias is one of the more than 1.3 million people with disabilities registered by the Health Ministry as of December 2020.

Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused when abnormal cell division results in an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21, occurs in about one in every 800 live births in Colombia.

“The families of these people struggle to ensure their children develop their potential and acquire skills in different areas,” Cortes told Efe, explaining that until 2019 parents or guardians were required to declare their Down syndrome child under interdiction – a measure to protect and provide for a person of limited capacity – when he or she turned 18.

Ley 1996, however, removed that concept that had denied full legal recognition to people with disabilities, according to Cortes, one of the main champions of that legislation.

Enacted four years ago, the law was not fully implemented at first due to challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. But it is now helping to empower people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

For her part, the program and project director at the Down Syndrome Foundation of the Caribbean (Fundown Caribe), Karen Orozco, stressed the importance of recognizing these individuals’ legal capacity in Colombia: “It’s recognizing that we all have rights, a voice and deserve the same opportunities to decide.”

Silvana Escobar, 37, is a businesswoman with Down syndrome in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla who said she initially worked in a beauty salon where “they didn’t pay her fairly” and “took advantage of her condition.”

She therefore decided to take the plunge and start her own costume jewelry business.

“I moved forward and fulfilled my dreams of working,” Escobar said, adding that she is convinced that “people with Down syndrome can get ahead and achieve their goals and dreams.”

She developed skills in painting and creating ceramic pieces, Christmas balls and T-shirts. Gradually, Escobar expanded her range of products to include chain straps and crochet earrings.

“We need society to allow us to exercise our rights, such as work, health care and education, just like everyone else.”

Escobar and Macias are “Autogestores” (people with intellectual disabilities who defend their rights) at the Fundown Caribe and Asdown Colombia organizations, respectively.

Orozco told Efe that empowering people with disabilities means ensuring they are fully able to exercise their rights, adding that it is necessary to remain vigilant and ensure the law is being upheld.

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