Able to be José Palacio: A force for change in Colombia

The force awakens

A smiling José raises one fist in the air, holding his crutch in the other hand, and wearing a shirt with the Star Wars logo. © Private

I am a big fan of Star Wars, because it depicts a universe where every diverse individual can be accepted.

My name is José and I’m from Barranquilla, a port city in northern Colombia. Just as I was taking my first steps as a baby, I contracted polio. My mother told me the emergency room was full of poliomyelitis cases, and that the doctors thought that I wouldn’t survive. I made it, but my left leg was paralysed.

Being listened to makes people feel better. José Palacio
José aged six with his mother. © Private

Since I was a child, I’ve had to face discrimination from my people around me for being in a situation of disability, which I prefer to think of as ‘functional diversity’. In medical school, some teachers even disapproved of me becoming a doctor. They said I wouldn’t be able to do the job properly. But I overcame all these barriers. I majored in medicine, and now I am a surgeon.

I like to listen to my patients’ life stories. Sometimes they seek more than just physical treatment − they need someone to listen to them. Being listened to makes people feel better.

A new plan for freedom

José receives his graduation certificate in medicine while people around him applaud. © Private

Today I walk with the help of a brace and a cane, but I prefer to use a wheelchair for longer distances. This can be a challenge because the city of Barranquilla is not very accessible.

We still have many architectural barriers in Colombia. Public spaces lack ramps; we don’t have audible traffic lights or tactile paving. We face communication barriers too, such as lack of braille books and sign language interpreters in schools. Attitudes can also be an obstacle– for example, people disregarding reserved parking spaces or teachers refusing to teach children with functional diversity.

I am committed to the social transformation of my country. José Palacio

We have made some progress in changing laws and regulations, creating financial support programs and more inclusive education. But oppression is still a huge problem in our society.

I am committed to the social transformation of my country. So I’ve written a book which proposes a new model for liberating people through better access and more personal autonomy. I call this model ISAIAS, and the overall goal is social inclusion through equal opportunities and free and dignified cultural, political and economic participation.

José talks to a patient while sitting at a table outdoors. © Private
The biggest difference I have made for myself is accepting my situation of disability. José Palacio
José sits on a sofa with his wife and two children next to a table with a cake. They smile and his eldest son points to the university certificate indicating that José has become a Doctor of Social Sciences. © Private

Becoming Professor Xavier

Knowledge makes me feel empowered, especially understanding the structural problems in our current reality. Having the love of my family and the firm support of my friends also makes me feel empowered. They are always there right beside me in the many projects I undertake.

The biggest difference I have made for myself is accepting my situation of disability. And understanding that we are all different, but no less equal in law.

This is why I now try to also make a difference in other people’s lives. I try to guide them in their liberation process, away from those old paradigms that see functional diversity as an evil that must be treated.

Sometimes I tell my friends that this is like what Professor Xavier does in X-Men. This is a movie about the struggle that exists in society, between excluding or including those who are considered different.

Just like in Star Wars, some organisations might want to take power by force, but there will always be resistance to fight for the freedom of all. And most importantly, no matter how strong an empire is, it will always be defeated by hope.

José and his friends take part in a national march for higher education. José is in his wheelchair wearing a red t-shirt and holding one fist in the air. Many other people walk alongside them down a main road with tall buildings in the background. © Private

Facts about people with disabilities in Colombia

1. There are around 4.5 million persons with disability in Colombia.

2. 90% of children with disabilities do not attend a mainstream school.

3. 93% of people with disabilities in the country live with their family.

4. People with disabilities find barriers for their mobility and daily activities in streets (46%), public transportation (34%), platforms (29%) and parks (26%)

5. Colombia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2011.