According to UNICEF, there are at least 93 million children with disabilities worldwide and in developing countries, an estimated 90 percent of school age children with disabilities are excluded from school. In rural El Salvador, individuals with disabilities are often “invisible” – that is they do not attend school or have access to services. University of Maryland College of Education Professor Paula Beckman began a project called “Comunidades Inclusivas,” in 2016, to promote the participation of persons with disabilities in the social and educational life of the community in El Salvador.
“In rural Central America, students drop out of school for the lack of a notepad and basic supplies,” Dr. Beckman said. Students with disabilities in an area with few resources are at even greater disadvantage for educational opportunities, which is one reason why Comunidades Inclusivas works to develop support systems within villages.
Dr. Beckman carries out Comunidades Exclusivas in partnership with the nonprofit organization International Partners, which is dedicated to addressing issues related to poverty. One part of the project is called “Círculos de Amigos,” which are circles of friends and neighbors who work together to support individuals with disabilities and their families.
Members of Círculos de Amigos make home visits, talk with families to identify specific needs, and then work together to provide social contact and practical assistance to families, such as building ramps or learning sign language. There are 27 children and youth across five rural villages currently enrolled in the program and UMD students who attend a related study abroad program have made home visits to these families, as well as helped with data collection and trainings.
Other aspects of Comunidades Inclusivas include a local public awareness campaign conducted in each village on the abilities of people with disabilities, the development of training materials on special education and specialist visits. The overarching goal of this work is help people with disabilities in Central America overcome obstacles that prevent them from accessing education and health services and participating in community life.
An internationally recognized expert in special education, Dr. Beckman works with children, teachers and schools in Central America and provides trainings to improve the quality of education for children with disabilities in economically impoverished communities.