International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Luis’ Long Road to the 7th Grade

In honor of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs shares the work it is doing to help people with disabilities succeed in the 21st-century global economy.

Luis (pictured here practicing an exam) discovered his aptitude for math with the help of the DOL-funded “Espacios Para Crecer” program. Luis (pictured here practicing an exam) discovered his aptitude for math with the help of the DOL-funded “Espacios Para Crecer” program.

Daniel Mueses is a community activist and educator in Cotama, Ecuador. One day, he asked his students what they wanted to be when they grew up. A young boy named Luis, who had dropped out of school in the fourth grade, stood up and said, “I would like to be a great professor. I would like to go back to school.”

Luis, who has autism, had stopped attending school due to issues interacting with classmates and participating in a formal learning environment. Autism is a developmental disorder often characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication.

“The school said that he had behavior problems, but the issue was that they didn’t understand the nature of his disability or how to work with his disability,” Mueses said.

While not in school, Luis was unable to further his education. He had attempted to attend a night school in a nearby town, but he had trouble integrating into a learning environment consisting mostly of adults. So he spent his days hanging around his family’s house or working in his parents’ store.

All that changed when Mueses reached out to Luis’ family and suggested that Luis attend his group called “Espacios para Crecer,” or “Spaces for Growth.” Through this program, Luis discovered he had a natural aptitude for math.

“His mother said that, before joining the group, he wouldn’t listen to her and would drag his feet when she asked him to do something around the house,” Mueses said. “She said that after joining the group he became more responsive and communicative.”

Luis’ story illustrates the role that disability plays in making children more vulnerable to child labor. Worldwide, individuals with disabilities face significant barriers to education and work. Because in many cases schools are not accessible or accommodating to their needs, children with disabilities are more likely than their counterparts without disabilities to be forced out of the classroom and into the workforce, where they are more vulnerable to labor exploitation.

At the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, we recognize that ending child labor means addressing issues like disability. Mueses’ after-school group is part of an ILAB-funded project called EducaFuturo, which delivers targeted, direct services to vulnerable communities in Panama and Ecuador. The project aims to address the link between disability and child labor, whether children are forced out of school and into work because of their disability, made to perform child labor because of a family member’s disability, or acquire a disability as the result of their work.

To give impoverished families alternatives to child labor, the project provides them with business training and economic assistance. It also helps people with disabilities access community training opportunities and works to connect them to social services.

Another ILAB-funded project in Panama and Ecuador, implemented by the International Labor Organization, takes the innovative approach of working with government agencies to weave disability issues into child labor eradication efforts. Research and analysis of the relationship between child labor and disability helps to identify ways that government registries can more effectively track disability information. The project is also developing pioneering guidance for making education more inclusive and is working to improve employment opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities.

In Luis’ case, Mueses believes the innovative approach of “Espacios para Crecer” works because his role as the facilitator of a safe space has allowed him to act as a mentor instead of a disciplinarian. The interactive learning model engaged Luis in a way that formal academics had not, Mueses said.

After Luis declared his desire to return to school, Mueses began the long process of getting Luis re-enrolled, which included completing paperwork, getting formal recognition of his disability, and playing academic catch-up. Mueses spent several hours each week tutoring a newly motivated Luis.

In September, Luis began the seventh grade. Mueses reports that, although he is keeping up with his classmates in all subjects, math is still his favorite. With every child who is able to overcome early struggles and barriers to education through programs like “Espacios para Crecer,” more families prosper, strengthening communities around the globe.

Jessica Creighton is an International Relations Officer with the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

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What a great story of perseverance and determination! So many young people are undiagnosed with a disability which may be why they are not able to effectively participate within a community such as a classroom setting.

I hope that Luis continues this developmental stage of his life! And, fantastic that Mr. Mueses was able to see Luis beyond what most of us could not.

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