Nicaragua: Disability, After the Revolution

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Nicaragua: Disability, After the Revolution

by Adrianne Aron

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October 1981, p. 29 — 30

Adrianne Aron is a member of the East Bay chapter of SftP and lives in Berkeley. 

Disability is no fun, even after a revolution takes power. But in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista government is committed to integrating the disabled into the revolutionary process, a hope exists among the disabled that could not have existed before. 

Concern for disability often increases sharply after a war, when the number of disabled rises dramatically and the need for equipment is seen very clearly. Nicaragua fits the classic pattern: a devastating war, tens of thousands dead, upward of 100,000 wounded (many of them disabled), and desperate shortages of everything except determination. This determination explains the existence of the Che Guevara Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries, formed last year by people who were flat on their backs at the Aldo Chavarría Rehabilitation Center in Managua. 

Left over from the old order and inhabited by patients who, for the most part, owed their disabilities to the barbaric Somoza regime, the Aldo Chavarría resembled other rehabilitation centers of the Third World. It was understaffed; many of the workers were neither caring nor competent; the food was horrible; wheelchairs and prosthetics were insufficient in number; and the patients suffered from neglect (pressure sores), poverty (juice bottles as urine collectors for the incontinent), and immobility, all of which compounded the desolation of spirit characteristic of the newly disabled. Everybody just waited to get out, but life on the outside held few promises. 

Then, during a visit last year from wheelchair rider Bruce Curtis of the U.S., spirits lifted. Inspired by this indefatigable advocate of disability rights, Curtis gained instant celebrity by having the only motorized chair in all Nicaragua, a group of patients with spinal cord injuries organized in the hospital and resolved to create an independent living center for disabled Nicaraguans. With Curtis’ help, the fledgling Che Guevara Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries (ORD) applied for, and received, a seed grant from USAID and set up an office in a building formerly owned by a Somocista. Today, less than a year after Curtis’ first visit the ORD has a growing list of names of disabled compatriots, disability centers, government leaders, media and health care workers who have lent support to the organization. In their inventory are a hand controlled van with a power lift, wheelchairs, braillers, catheters, leg bags, crutches and more gifts from the Disabled International Support Effort, a U.S. based group of disabled people committed to the struggle for independent living. 

Can a revolution transform years and years of backward thinking and experience? Héctor Segovia of the ORD feels very strongly that it can, but that it will take time. For the present the disabled are tolerating the indignity of being offered alms while waiting on the streetcorner for a taxi. They swallow their anger at the fact that no university in Nicaragua is wheelchair accessible, and look for ways to cope with the traditional tendency of Latin families to overprotect disabled relatives, thereby discouraging their independence and self-sufficiency. With the Sandinistas in power, these sacrifices are not so difficult, for they differ greatly from what was endured in the past and what is forecast for the future. Under Somoza, one’s very life was at risk just being on the streets, for it was on these streets that savage attacks were made by the National Guard and countless permanent injuries were inflicted. Before the revolution only 18% of Nicaraguan children were allowed to attend school at all, and the vast majority of the people were so poor that families sent their disabled members out to beg. The Sandinistas have already shown their intention of caring for and integrating the disabled of the country. 

Only a few doors away from the mansion once occupied by Somoza’s mother, the Center for the Blind has been installed, providing living quarters and vocational training for people who before had lived in dwellings resembling chicken coops. During the International Solidarity Encounter that took place in Managua earlier this year, wheelchairs were in the vanguard of the mass demonstration and rally, for the ORD leaders were invited to head the march in support of the people’s struggle in El Salvador. The ORD has established relations with those ministries of the government responsible for health care, social welfare, construction, and transportation–opening the possibility of improved medical services, greater public awareness of disability, and greater accessibility of buildings, roads, and vehicles. 

Owing to the dire economic straits of Nicaragua at this time, the government is able to provide little in the way of financial support to the disability movement. When Somoza fled, the country was left in ruins, with $1.6 billion in debts and a national treasury whose total assets amounted to less than the value of Ronald Reagan’s personal estate. Nonetheless, the government has made an effort to integrate the disabled into the decision-making process, and to lend moral support. The Ministry of Culture, for example, has offered to assist the ORD in developing educational billboards that will raise public consciousness about disability. Similarly, the Ministry of Social Welfare has reproduced as postcards several paintings by Arnoldo Toribio Cerda; on the card he is identified as an artist who was born in 1957, finished three years of high school, fought in Diriamba during the insurrection, and has been a paraplegic snce 1978. “It’s not one’s disability that counts,” the card asserts, “but one’s ability.”

That principle, of ability counting most, extends itself into all aspects of Nicaraguan life, where shortage produces ingenuity instead of resignation, and improvisations triumph over complaints. Undaunted by the government’s shortage of funds, the disabled are moving ahead on their modest grant monies to execute important projects. 

With the help of Ralf Hotchkiss, a disabled U.S. engineer and wheelchair designer, the ORD is setting up a shop for wheelchair fabrication and repair. The hope is that revenues generated by the shop will support the organization, meanwhile facilitating independent living for others by providing them with services and equipment much needed in Nicaragua today. Local artisans were drafted to assist in launching the project. Using inexpensive native materials and the principle that nothing is impossible, they produced a wheelchair prototype in lightning time under Hotchkiss’ supervision. Manufacture moved from a paper plan to a living possibility. 

The ORD is also conducting workshops for the disabled who are still hospitalized, counseling people on self-care, sexuality, mobility, and other independent living skills. Prior to the first group visit of the Disabled International Support Effort, no real discussions of these topics had ever been sustained, but following the road paved by their disabled friends from the U.S., the ORD has bypassed the one-way street that started at injury and ended at despair. 

Compared to their counterparts in the United States, the disabled of Nicaragua are poorly equipped and poorly attended. They lack many of the basics that allow for a healthy life: proper medical attention, cushions that prevent pressure sores, sterile and correctly fitted catheters, information on preventing diseases and problems to which disabled people are vulnerable. They lack virtually all the necessities for a highly mobile life: accessible buildings and vehicles, curb cuts, graded and maintained pavements and sidewalks, adequate public transportation. But they have a spirit, born with the revolution, that is impressive. 

The disabled of Nicaragua have a collective history of which they can be proud. Many of them became disabled while fighting the dictatorship. A good many blind people used their disability as a disguise of innocence while smuggling messages and arms to the Sandinistas during the insurrection. They now have a government that they can trust to include the disabled in decisions and be self-critical of its own leftover paternalism. And now, through the efforts of the ORD, the disabled also have each other, and a chance to live–as their motto announces–in full conviction of being builders of their homeland.

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 5 <<