A Recent History of the Disability Rights Movement in El Salvador

Many argue that El Salvador has come a long way towards trying to repair its disabled past by declaring itself mine-free in 1994, implementing the 2001 National Disability Rights law and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. And yet, El Salvador has only made nominal progress in implementing disability legislation and awareness.

March on Dec. 3, International Disability Day

Many argue that El Salvador has come a long way towards trying to repair its disabled past by declaring itself mine-free in 1994, implementing the 2001 National Disability Rights law and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. The Permanent Table of the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH) and disability rights civil society organizations such as the Landmine Survivors Network have led the struggle in Central America to promote the rights of people with disabilities and guarantee them “free and equal access to services” through the construction of accessible infrastructure and much-needed legislation.

And yet, El Salvador has only made nominal progress in implementing disability legislation and awareness. A census tailored toward understanding disability demographics in the country, implementation of current legislation, and a greater emphasis on disability rights as human rights will help to pave the inaccessible pathway towards more inclusion for all. The upcoming 2009 elections may also have a significant impact on the provision of disability rights in El Salvador.

A Short and Recent History of the Disability Rights Movement in El Salvador

The evolution of disability rights in El Salvador since the civil war that ended in 1992 shows two decades of struggle to reevaluate the meaning of disability, enforce legislation, and create national awareness of disability rights.

It is estimated that 70,000 individuals were killed in El Salvador’s twelve-year armed conflict and another 300,000 people disabled from it.(1) The war ended in 1992 with a peace treaty and thousands of disabled individuals. In conformity with the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords, the United Nations established a Truth Commission to investigate the human rights violations of the war, and the government of El Salvador created a Human Rights Department, led by a Human Rights Ombudsman position to address these claims. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights created a Permanent Table, made up of organizations of disabled people and organizations working on behalf of the disabled, with the objective to make sure that their human rights were respected.

The 1990s disability rights movement was focused on the disabilities of war survivors, and excluded the comprehensive disability awareness found in the 2007 UN Convention on Disability Rights. The disability theme of the 1990s was not human rights; rather it was specific to the issues of war survivors: mobility issues and pension payments, among others.

However, in 2000, the movement began to change. There was a greater push from civil society for inclusion of people with disability into society. It moved from one of labor law, rights of war survivors, and a limited view of disabilities to include not only all types of disabilities, but also more importantly the awareness of the human rights of persons with disabilities.

In 2001, the El Salvador Congress passed a law requiring the following: “equal opportunity for people with disabilities, access to education, and the opportunity to work. ” The law states that both public and private employers should hire one person with disabilities for every twenty-five workers.(2) The older 1984 disability labor law requires that 2 percent of workers must be those with disabilities in companies with over 50 workers. However, as will be discussed further in this analysis, neither law is enforced.


Joselyn Salguero, disabled due to a landmine

El Salvador’s 1994 declaration of a mine-free country was also seen as a progressive step towards healing the war wounds. However, recent Articles, such as the June 30, 2008 La Prensa newspaper article entitled, “Explosion Hurts Four Children in Chalatenango,” suggest that the mine-free declaration is not completely accurate.(3)

On March 30, 2007, El Salvador signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. On October 4, 2007, the El Salvador National Assembly ratified the Convention, making it the eighth country to do so since the Convention opened for signature in March of 2007. On May 3, 2008, El Salvador officially joined the ranks of those countries bound by the laws of the Convention.(4) In 2007, the UN Convention on Disability Rights was signed and ratified by 164 states. On May 3, 2008, El Salvador ratified the UN Convention and its Optional Protocol, thus making it obligatory for the government of El Salvador to implement the Articles of the Convention. Although the track record for the government to implement disability rights legislation has been poor, the evolution of disability rights as human rights, the growing strength of civil society combined with media awareness have made implementation of disability rights a greater possibility than ever before.

Addressing Disability: Implementing Disability Legislation and Demographics

Civil society organizations that address disability in El Salvador have existed since before the civil war, but there was a lack of unity about disability rights until the 21st century. War victims treated in the health and economic sectors were told what was best for their health and which jobs they could work, but there was no language for the expression of human rights. El Salvador has passed a series of important pieces of legislation regarding disabled persons, including the 1984 National Disability Act, the 2001 Disability Act, and the 2007 Convention on Disability. However, it was not until 2001 when the Government of El Salvador implemented the Disability Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or the provision of other state services, that the rights of people with disabilities were openly discussed as human rights.

And yet, according to the 2007 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices in El Salvador, the country has not adequately addressed disability issues:

The government did not effectively enforce these prohibitions, particularly in education and employment, nor did it effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings for persons with disabilities…Access by persons with disabilities to basic education was limited due to lack of facilities and appropriate transportation, Few of the government’s community-based health promoters were trained to treat persons with disabilities, and they rarely provided such services. The government provided insufficient funding to the several organizations dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.(5)

Although the 1984 and 2001 disability laws exist in statute, the government does not enforce them. The National Council for Disabled Persons (CONAIPD) is the government agency responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and The Instituto de rehabilitacin de Invalidos (ISRI) is an organization responsible for the rehabilitation of disabled individuals. And yet, lack of facilities and location of facilities make access to services very difficult for survivors of conflicts and those with other disabilities whom reside in both rural and urban areas.

ImageIn the 1990s, disabled individuals treated in hospitals received primary care to care for their physical well being, but lacked the secondary care to find employment, etc. A variety of organizations were founded to address the needs of war survivors, but few focused solely on disability rights.

In the 21st century, organizations such as LSN began to address these issues. The Landmine Survivors Network, founded in 1995 by two landmine survivors, is the first international organization created by and for survivors. The LSN-El Salvador office opened its doors in 2001. LSN links landmine survivors and people with disabilities to healthcare and rehabilitation services, provides social and economic reintegration programs, and advocates the ban of landmines around the world. The LSN Health Sector objective is to improve survivors’ health related to quality of life in the different health services facilities. Part of LSN’s work in the health sector is to increase the referrals of amputee patients in the hospitals to these rehabilitation centers and to help support the implementation and maintenance of “Survivor Clubs” in hospitals by building a support network of physical therapists, social workers, and psychiatrists.

LSN’s Economic Opportunity Sector works to provide individuals with employment and support small businesses. The Human Rights sector, which has been instrumental in helping to ratify the Convention, provides awareness of disability rights and advocacy training to government and disability organizations. Just as the focus on disability rights has changed to address all types of disability, in 2009 LSN-ES will transition from only addressing landmine survivors to serving all disabled individuals as the Network of Survivors and People with Disabilities.

The 2008 status and future status of disability rights in El Salvador rest on two important issues: A Disability Census and implementation of the Articles of the Convention.

The 2008 Census

El Salvador lacks accurate information of the number of people with disabilities, the type of disability, and other invaluable information about disabled individuals in the country. The 2008 National Census, only the second national census undertaken since 1992, shows two major factors that influence thinking about disability rights in El Salvador: the grossly overestimated population of El Salvador, and the incorrect number of those individuals who are disabled.

On May 12, 2008, El Salvador’s Ministry of Economy released the population demographics for El Salvador to be 5, 744, 113 individuals, a figure noticeably lower than the 6. 5-7 million individuals estimated in previous statistics. Additionally, on June 25, 2008, eleven of the more than twenty-five organizations and persons that make up the PDDH gathered at a press conference in the PDDH Offices to challenge the disability statistics in the 2008 census. The Sixth Public Census results show that only 4. 1 percent of the 5,744,113 inhabitants of El Salvador, or 235,302 individuals, are living with a disability. The PDDH says that the number of disabled individuals in El Salvador is 10 percent of the population or higher.

Jesus Martinez, Director of the Landmine Survivors Network-El Salvador and acting member of the PDDH, assembled with other organizations of the Permanent Table in order to counter the inaccurate results. According to Martinez, “The PDDH is extremely uncomfortable with the results of this 2008 Census. It should include accurate and trustworthy statistics about all of the disabled individuals living in this country. ”

The PDDH also demands the development of a specific National Population Survey of People with Disabilities designed to include full participation of the different sectors and institutions that deal with disability issues.

“The final information obtained suffers from strong limitations, ambiguities and omissions, characteristics that contribute to deepening the exclusive forms, margins, and invisibility of people with disabilities, ” the Human Rights Office stated in a press release. 

According to PDDH, the lack of reliable statistics of the 2008 Census will negatively impact the formulation of public political inclusion, budgetary allocations, and national organizations such as the CONAIPD, ISRI, and the different Ministries that are attending to disability issues in El Salvador.(6)

The PDDH links the inaccuracy of the 2008 Census with the deficient results of the 2007 Fifth House Census: “The results today presented serious differences with the estimates that have already came out in studies of important institutions that approach disability from different approaches. “

On May 21, 2007, in a Public Announcement by the Permanent Table, the PDDH members brought attention to a series of elements that were incomplete in the 2007 House Census to the treatment of the situation of people with disabilities: “… [the Census] did not include people, organizations or large institutions on whom the experience is based…the Census is fundamental for the life of the nation… and it is beginning to fill up the space of statistical information that has historically characterized El Salvador.”(7)

The recent entry into force of the Convention signifies the national and international legal obligations to the El Salvadoran State. For example, Article 31 states the necessity for compilation of statistical and investigated data to accurately represent disability for each State Party. The Convention, unlike the un-enforced national disability labor laws, was designed to address the needs of all persons with disability, and those who have ratified it are obliged to follow the rules.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

"A Paradigm Shift”-From weak labor law to social development

ImageThe goal of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, which opened for signature on March 30, 2007, is to “promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities,” including self-determination, physical and programmatic access, personal mobility, health, education, employment, habilitation and rehabilitation, participation in political life, and equality and non-discrimination.(8) According to the UN Enable website:

The Convention marks a "paradigm shift" in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. It takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as "objects" of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as "subjects" with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society. The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced. (9)

If the Convention marks a paradigm shift in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities, then ratification of the Convention should also mark a paradigm shift, or evolutionary shift, in creating a more inclusive society in El Salvador. Although civil society organizations have been working in El Salvador to promote the rights of the people for decades, it was specifically at the beginning of the 21st century that thinking about the full rights of the disabled changed. The Landmine Survivors Network in El Salvador- one of seven spokes on the network wheel, combined with its Washington D.C. hub-has been on the forefront of the disability rights movement both nationally and internationally.

LSN-ES has been involved in advocating for ratification of the Convention on both the national and international levels since it opened its office doors in 2001. On September 13, 2007, LSN’s El Salvador office presented the Cartilla para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de las Personas con Discapacidad (Primer for the Advocacy of Human Rights for Persons with Disabilities) to government officials, representatives of foreign governments, and leaders of the national disability rights movement.

According to the Survivor Corps website: “Over 40 organizations attended the event where the Cartilla was introduced, and El Salvador’s Channel 12 provided televised coverage. Jesús Martínez, Director of LSN’s office in El Salvador, said in the presentation, "The Cartilla will serve as a tool to inform the people of El Salvador about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the local laws on disability rights, and the impact of human rights advocacy on our daily existence. “

He hopes that by educating institutions and the public about disability rights, the Cartilla will help make El Salvador a more open and inclusive society. ” (10)

LSN staff in El Salvador also advocated for ratification of the Convention on the Rights or Persons with Disabilities by advising the National Assembly about the benefits of the Convention to over 600,000 Salvadorans.

The Upcoming 2009 Elections and the Future of Disability Rights

The March 2009 Presidential elections could lead to positive changes for people with disabilities and those advocating on their behalf. Disability rights advocates expect that ratification of the Convention will drive the government’s rhetoric about disability in El Salvador towards action-that is, implementing the Convention’s Articles in all levels of government.

The civil society representatives of the Permanent Table are holding the future government responsible for implementing the Articles. To date, the government has not declared how it will apply the Articles of the Convention. Instead, the President has organized awareness-raising trainings with the government ministries to educate them on the principles of the Convention. Although education in this regard is important, it does not answer the question of how the government plans to fulfill its Convention obligations.

In the upcoming months, the PDDH representatives will be meeting with each presidential candidate to discuss the inclusion of disability rights in each respective platform. The representatives have already met with the FMLN mayoral candidate, Violeta Menjivar, who has agreed to work on behalf of disability rights. The PDDH will ask each candidate to sign a political agreement that states the candidate’s dedication to include disability rights in their political platforms. The PDDH expects that by May 2009- the one-year anniversary of El Salvador’s signature of the Convention- the government should have a national plan of action outlining the application of the Convention theory to practice. Some of the expectations include improved means of accessibility through the building of ramps and other handicapped-accessible infrastructure; improved locations with accessible services (such as in schools), and greater employment opportunities, among other measurable standards of progress. (11)

Many disability advocates believe that greater progress in recognizing disability rights will be seen if the FMLN, or a party left of Center is voted into power. The notion exists that the FMLN better represents the will of the population, and ARENA, the leading political party since 1989, will not carry out the obligations of the Convention.

The PDDH has and will continue to support disability rights on both the local and national level. The PDDH has been instrumental in supporting local disability groups to recognize and voice their rights on the local level. However, the execution of an accurate and comprehensive census on disability rights will provide a greater understanding about disability statistics in El Salvador. Tougher monitoring, or at least some type of monitoring of law breaking, will provide more legitimacy to the legislation already achieved. However, it remains to be seen how the government will comply with its international obligations to protect the rights of the disabled, and whether or not civil society will be allowed to influence the government into local and national action.

Larissa Hotra is a Peace Fellow with the Landmine Survivors Network-El Salvador, which is a partner organization of the Advocacy Project. Read her blog at http://advocacynet.org/blogs/index.php?blog=131. Photos provided by the Landmine Survivors Network.


1.According to the El Salvador Landmine Monitor Reports of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, it is thought that over 300,000 people were disabled due to the war.

2. Landmine Survivors Rehabilitation Services Database, “El Salvador,” The Landmine Survivors Network (2008) http://www.lsndatabase.org/country_text.php?country=elsalvador, accessed July 11, 2008.

3. Evelyn Machuca, "Explosion hurts four children in Chalatenango," June 30, 2008, La Prensa Grafica, http://archive.laprensa.com.sv/20080630/nacion/, accessed July 10, 2008.

4. For all references to the UN Convention on Disability Rights, see http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/conventioninfo.htm.

5. The State Department, “El Salvador Country Report,” (2007) http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007/100639.htm, accessed July 12, 2008.

6. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights,

“Public Announcement of the Permanent Table of People with Disabilities regarding the Results of the Sixth Public Population Census and Fifth House Census (2007),” (2008).

7.  Larissa Hotra, “The False Facts About Disability in El Salvador,” (2008) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mks9DuWZrfQ.

8. RatifyNow.org, “The Convention,” (2008) http://ratifynow.org/un-convention/, accessed July 11, 2008.

9. United Nations Enable Newsletter, “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and Optional Protocol,” (2007) http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/conventioninfo.htm, accessed July 13, 2008.

10. LSN, “LSN El Salvador Human Rights,” \(2008) http://www.landminesurvivors.org/where_elsalvador_rights.php, accessed July 12, 2008.

11.  Jesus Martinez, interview conducted by the author, July 15, 2008, San Salvador, El Salvador.