Disability Inclusion, in Ecuador and Around the World: An Interview with Larry Reed

Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last month Larry Reed, Director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, attended the International Summit of Productive Inclusion in Guayaquil, a conference focused on financial inclusion for one of the world’s most underserved populations: persons with disabilities. The event was organized by Ecuador’s Office of the Vice President, whose leadership has been seminal in advancing disability inclusion in Ecuador and around the world. I caught up with Larry to learn more about the event and the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s efforts to support persons with disabilities living in extreme poverty.

1. The event included diverse stakeholders and topics related to financial inclusion for persons with disabilities. Did anything in particular stand out to you?

The first thing that impressed me was just how big it was. Over 2,000 people attended the event, and it was also live-streamed. The 2,000 people were not only a diverse group in terms of sector, but also in how they related to persons with disabilities. And the interesting thing was that about half the people in the audience were either people with disabilities or caregivers for people with disabilities. The event included a fair where people could buy things made by people with disabilities. Even the food stands for lunches were all run by people with disabilities. It was an event that actually practiced what it preached.

The event aimed to further the work of Ecuador’s previous vice president on inclusion for people with disabilities and extend it into the financial sector. They’ve done a lot of work in Ecuador to get people with disabilities included. For example, there’s a law that says for any company over 25 employees, 4 percent of its employees must be people with disabilities. But, because there are not very many large companies in Ecuador, that law results in employment for only a small portion of the population that has disabilities. The government sees a need for self-employment and small businesses run by people with disabilities. And to advance that they need to have the financial sector providing services that help promote business start-up and growth.

2. You were quite active at the event, delivering several speeches and serving on multiple panels. Could you tell us about these discussions?

My role at the event was mostly to talk about what financial inclusion was doing in other parts of the world. I dealt not specifically with people with disabilities, but with efforts elsewhere that helped include previously excluded people. I tried to show how that would apply to people with disabilities.

We looked at the things the Microcredit Summit Campaign is actively promoting as financial inclusion strategies that reach people in extreme poverty and assist movement out of poverty – things like supporting agricultural value chains, linking government cash transfer programs to microfinance graduation programs or asset-building programs, technology development that reaches to the poorest, linking savings groups with the financial system through mobile payments, and so forth. I promoted activities that could be applied to people with disabilities.

The same things apply in Ecuador as in many countries where many people with disabilities live in rural areas and could earn an income through agricultural work of some type, even though they have a disability. The event featured examples of some of those types of businesses, but the big challenge is how to look at the whole value chain to make sure there’s enough value to be created – that there are markets for what people grow so that those businesses can succeed and thrive.

3. What messages did you take home with you?

The key thing to me in this whole area of including the excluded is a change of mindset. What it does to a country and to a people when they begin to see a broader definition of “we”? The spirit that was tangible at the event was the sense that, “We can do this. We can care for all our people, and we as a society are better off because we include them.” I think that’s the message we have to get out into the whole financial inclusion world. Everyone has abilities, everyone has something to contribute, and we, our economies and our societies are better off if everyone is included.

4. Disability inclusion is a severely under-addressed issue globally. How did it come to the fore in Ecuador?

This all started in the previous administration with the previous vice president, Lenin Moreno, who is paraplegic. Moreno is now the Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility to the United Nations, heading up some of the U.N.’s work in this area, and Ecuador is sought after all over the world for advice on how to do this work.

Moreno had been a business man, and one day he went out to buy a loaf of bread and someone was robbing the store. He got shot and became paralyzed. He almost gave up, and what brought him back to feeling like life was possible for him as a paraplegic was laughter therapy. And so he has published a few books on good jokes. Out of it all he became a well-known motivational speaker, and then he was picked as the vice presidential candidate, and his party won. Moreno then led a movement to include people with physical disabilities, with himself representing the contribution that people with disabilities could make to society.

While I was there I went out for a run and noticed all the bus stops and buses are handicapped accessible. You don’t step up into the bus. They open the door, more like that of a subway, and someone with a wheelchair can roll right on.

In their disaster preparedness work, teams of survey takers went out to the rural areas – villages, everywhere – and identified where every person with a disability lived. Then in the disaster plans they included how they would locate these people and evacuate them if there is a tsunami, tornado, or earthquake.

The current vice president of the country, Jorge Glas, has continued this emphasis on disability inclusion. His focus is on financial inclusion for disabled people, so that they are able to develop businesses and build assets.

5. Switching gears slightly, how does providing financial services to persons with disabilities fit with the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s push to ensure that vulnerable populations are not excluded from MFIs?

One of our key goals at the Campaign is to see 100 million of the world’s poorest families move out of extreme poverty as a result of access to appropriate financial services and other help as they may need it. As we become more granular in looking at that goal and how we address it, we find that there’s a need to identify the groups of people that are traditionally excluded or among the poorest in different parts of the world, and ask what strategies help address the needs of those groups. People with disabilities is one of those groups.

Even within microfinance organizations that want to serve the poor, there are often unwitting prejudices about the capabilities of people with disabilities, and they end up excluded. So we think this is one of the areas that we need to highlight for microfinance organizations to make sure that they are being inclusive and that where possible and necessary they are taking steps to ensure people with disabilities can access their services and can use them well. At a couple of our Summits Josh Goldstein [who leads CFI’s disability inclusion work] has participated and presented and made Campaign Commitments. We’ve also had workshops on including people with disabilities for Summit participants.

6. What would you identify as the biggest barriers to advancing financial inclusion for persons with disabilities?

Probably the number one barrier is the range of prejudices or assumptions that people grow up with and maintain throughout life. One way of targeting these is helping people see how people with disabilities can contribute and identifying the types of activities they can be involved in.

Other barriers are found among financial institutions’ policies and physical structures. I once spoke with Josh about this. Often a microfinance institution will have a branch office on the second floor because that’s less expensive. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t serve people outside of the second floor office space. Is there a way of creating a kiosk or holding meetings in other locations that are accessible?

7. Our disability inclusion team has been enthusiastic about its collaboration with the Microcredit Summit Campaign. Is this topic gaining traction with other Campaign members? Is there a movement to advance financial inclusion for persons with disabilities?

I think the message is starting to get through. It’s something we need to continue to work on, but Campaign members are already motivated to help people who are excluded. So in their case, it’s mostly pointing out what exclusion looks like in this area and what the steps they can take are to promote inclusion. We’re seeing a number of organizations starting to work through that.

For example, Fundacion Paraguaya is actually working with the government of Ecuador to figure out how to do financial inclusion for persons with disabilities in Paraguay. On the flip side of this, I spoke with the Ecuadorian government and suggested that they need to do more analysis on the results of their disability inclusion work, and I suggested using the “Poverty Stoplight” system Fundacion Paraguaya created. It’s one of the best systems for tracking movement out of poverty, as well as a source of information that helps clients look at their own situation and see how they might improve their lives. Right away upon hearing this Alex Camacho of the Vice President’s Office sat down with Jimena Vallejos of Fundacion Paraguaya and they started planning how to share the information on using the stoplight system.

8. Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

One lasting image I have from this conference is the delegation from Brazil. It was two people who work in the government on rights for people with disabilities, a blind woman and a paraplegic man. I first noticed them because they were staying in the same hotel. I kept looking for the other people from Brazil who got them there – and there wasn’t anyone. As they went through the venue, it was just the two of them together, the blind woman pushing the wheelchair of the paraplegic man while he provided directions to her. Her legs could propel him, his eyes could guide her. It was such a great image of the theme that everyone has something to contribute. We all have something to give, and if we can work together and provide the necessary means, we then include all those abilities in our society – and we’re all better because of it.

Have you read?

Extending Financial Inclusion to Persons with Disabilities in Ecuador

13,000 Persons with Disabilities (and Counting) Receive Financial Access in India

Combatting Exclusion for Persons with Disabilities in India and Mexico

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