Ecuador's disabled vice president shines spotlight on handicapped population

The ornate lobby of the nation’s vice presidential palace is teeming with people in wheelchairs and on crutches, mothers leading the blind and the developmentally disabled.

Many are here because they believe that the man upstairs is one of their own.

Ever since a thief’s bullet ripped through his spine 13 years ago, Ecuador’s vice president, Lenín Moreno, has been paralyzed from the waist down. When he was elected second-in-command of this Andean nation in 2007, he became one of the highest ranking politicians in Latin American history to have a visible disability.

Sitting in a wheelchair behind a wide wooden desk at his office, Moreno, 58, is quick to downplay his historic role.

There have been congressmen and judges in wheelchairs before, he said. There have been Latin American presidents with speech impediments, and Joaquín Balaguer, the former president of the Dominican Republic, was in his 90s and legally blind when he won a third term.

“We’re all handicapped at some moment in our life — whether it’s as children or as seniors,” Moreno told The Miami Herald. “So I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

What is certain is that Moreno and President Rafael Correa have done more to promote the rights of people with serious disabilities in Ecuador than any administration in recent memory.

The vice presidency spearheaded the first door-to-door survey to locate and identify the nation’s disabled population; the administration has increased the budget for disabled care from about $100,000 a year to $65 million per year, and it has required businesses to reserve one out of every 25 jobs for people with disabilities.

Just as important, Moreno’s high-profile status has helped shine a spotlight on a segment of the population that had long been ostracized.

On his trips around the country, Moreno said he has encountered people with disabilities who have been hidden from public view in sheds and chicken coops.

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