Rebekah Nimtz is an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo: Salome Flores Ubaldez getting a tire on her wheelchair replaced, Potosí’s mining slag piles visible in the distance. Photo by Rebekah Nimtz.
I remember my first glimpse, on a bus ride down the mountain in Potosí, of a blind man maneuvering a very narrow and broken sidewalk. He was passed by a briskly moving woman in high heels. I was sobered by the quantity of people I saw on a regular basis with missing limbs, mostly due to mining accidents. With such narrow, sometimes cobbled streets, Potosí’s sidewalks often disappear altogether. This was the case on a recent visit when I found myself slowed behind a similarly looking old man with a bundle tied to his back, clicking his white cane. Once I waited for the cars in the street to pass and was able to make my way around him, I realized he was not only blind but also missing a hand.
When I first became friends with 25 year old Salome Flores Ubaldez, one of nine born into a mining family and confined to a wheel chair after a fall from a precipice, I got a bit of a glimpse into the grit and nerve it takes to maintain mental strength and sanity in Potosí. There are already enough daily challenges to face while confined to a wheelchair, but even more so in a hilly town with such difficult terrain. Taxis are the only available transport—at least those willing to pick up someone who has to load a wheelchair into the trunk. There are no public provisions for the disabled outside a ramp here and there leading into a bank. The only visible work opportunity for the handicapped that I observed then was a public position of parking attendant out in the cold and sleet at 13,900 feet above sea level.
Salome managed to work overtime selling cement mixers in a cold store-front open to the street, despite her far below minimum wages being late or frequently non-existent. An expert knitter, she crafted beautiful items in her time between customers while she also worked her way through a law degree. We managed to visit sometimes during my lunch hour. Eventually she grew worn down by the lies and intimidation of her bosses and left that job.
The only reason she stayed as long as she had was that both Salome and her employer knew her options were incredibly limited. People with disabilities face great prejudice and difficulty finding employment. By law public institutions are required to hire people with disabilites, but often only one person per institution is hired for a maximum of 1-6 months and then let go. Family assistance is not always guaranteed due to economic strain and sometimes prejudice within the family unit.
“Simply put, people with disabilities in Bolivia are poorly treated. We are always discriminated against,” Maria Ramirez* tells me. She is the former leader of the Departmental Federation of Disabled People in Cochabamba. She helps lead Cochabamba’s Federation of Integrated Disabled Sports Teams. One of the challenges the group faces is a lack of access to suitable wheelchairs. Once the government donated chairs of lower quality than the ones they currently owned, which required them to hand in their former chairs to receive the new ones. Currently the teams finance themselves, without state support.
When I moved to Cochabamba in early 2016 the disabled community was in the beginnings of nationwide protests to have their monthly stipend from the government raised from $10 a month to a little over $70. I was on a bus passing under a bridge near my house when I spotted wheelchairs holding their occupants suspended from the bridge many feet above the freeway as a sign of protest. For months they had been camping out in a blocked off area under the bridge. Someone on the bus muttered something about handicapped people being lazy and just needing to work. Due to my friendship with Salome, I was able to chime in that they were only asking enough to pay the monthly taxi rides to and from a job.
Six months into the protests, members of the handicapped community travelled across the country and over the Andes to the capital of La Paz. After 35 days on the road the main group arrived to see all entrances to the plaza and the government buildings blocked off by eight foot high barricades. It was the first time the State had erected barricades of that kind in response to one of Bolivia’s many protests. The protestors camped out in the capital for three months without an audience. When they finally tried to push down the barricades they were met with water canons, tear-gas and were violently removed.
Meanwhile back in Cochabamba, the camp-out under the bridge continued. A vigil was later held in the same spot to honor two participants who were killed one night by a drunk driver. An eight year old girl who was accompanying her mother, one of the victims, was admitted to the hospital in a coma and now lives in a children’s home. Those in La Paz also mourned their fallen.
A documentary produced by The Guardian shares that the leaders of the protests were eventually threatened with ten years in prison if they didn’t leave. Later the government decided to offer 35% of the requested amount to those who “really, really” need it and only for covering medical attention.
Over the past year and a half, Salome has been working a good job at as a secretary at a medical clinic. She was able to gain employment through the government program My First Dignified Work, for urban or semi-urban dwelling young people in situations of particular economic need. The program paid her first six months’ salary and then her employer decided to continue. During a recent get-together I noticed how so much of her old timidity has vanished, as she holds her own in a lively debate with an economist friend. As the conversation ensues, she laughs in response to us encouraging her toward being a future radio presence. She is now in the final stages of finishing her law degree and hopes to eventually work helping improve the situation for Bolivia’s disabled community. In rising against the odds, individuals like Salome are able to inspire others to persevere in their difficult fight for a better life.
*Name changed for privacy