A pale blue pamphlet is for sale at most street corners in Caracas alongside a range of other pamphlets. Here, it is no surprise that many are aware of their social and political rights because the laws of the country are widely available for ordinary people to read. The law for people with disabilities is one of them; it can fit in your pocket and was on sale for around a pound. In fact, I had been browsing through a selection of laws when the owner of the stall thrust a copy into my hand.
This is just one example of a raising of political awareness that is taking place in Venezuela today. On 7 October, more than 80 per cent of the Venezuelan voting population turned out for presidential elections – a figure unheard of in UK elections – in which Hugo Chavez was re-elected for the fourth time. People queued up for hours to exercise their vote, from four in the morning until late in the evening. Disabled people were helped to the front of queues, as I was to find out when, at each polling station I visited, I was asked if I needed help to go and vote myself.
The backbone of Venezuela’s political process is the Bolivarian constitution, passed by referendum in 1999 after a public consultation which saw thousands of suggestions and alterations from members of the public taken into account in the final document.
Article 81 of the constitution states “Every person with a disability or special necessity has the right to the full and autonomous exercise of his or her capacities, and family and community integration.”
The law for people with disabilities, passed in 2006, took further steps. As well as requiring public transport to include facilities to ensure access for disabled people, it also made it compulsory for all companies to have disabled people in five per cent of their positions. Coming from a country where disabled people are currently being penalised for supposedly avoiding work, the difference in approach is easy to notice.
But it is not only through legislation that people are empowered. As I witnessed myself on a trip on the metro through central Caracas, disabled people have learnt to make their own voices heard. My younger brother and I, both travelling for free, as disabled people and a person accompanying them always do here – in stark contrast to London – were on our way to Plaza Caracas, where a few thousand people were expected to gather for the official declaration of Chavez as president re-elect. The metro was packed to overflowing as usual so we had made our way to the carriage reserved for disabled people at the far end of the platform.
When we boarded the train, another man in a wheelchair was sitting on the other side with his partner and their young child. But this carriage was also quite full, with people standing close to the doors making our entrance a bit awkward. Nevertheless, we managed to get on.
But as we pulled out of the station, the man sitting in a wheelchair turned to a man wearing a suit jacket who was standing directly in front of me.
“Why are you standing there?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter”, the man replied, attempting to avoid the line of questioning.
“I’m getting off at the next stop.”
Unfortunately for him, it did matter, and the man in a wheelchair continued with his verbal denunciation, saying that he shouldn’t be standing in a place reserved for wheelchair users in the first place.
I’ve written about my own experiences of discrimination from travelling on public transport in the UK from a young age, whether it was bus drivers refusing to let me on or simply not stopping when they saw me waiting, but not once had I experienced something like this. Disabled people in Venezuela have been empowered not only by a political process that puts their rights into law, and puts the power to make decisions into their hands. But also by a transformation of consciousness in society. In a society where human value is the primary objective, rather than profit or financial gain, disabled people are proud to raise their voices when they see something that is wrong or unjust.
Out of all the cities I have travelled to in the world, it is in Caracas that disabled people are most visible in everyday society.
Things are not perfect though. Discrimination still exists and there is much progress to be made. In terms of travel, most tube stations only have escalators and the buses are antiquated vehicles. But importantly, there has been a fundamental shift in attitude. If there is no way to get into a metro station for a wheelchair user, staff will happily reverse the direction of a moving escalator in order to assist. Blind people are helped from platform to platform, and they don’t have to book the service days in advance. When the government built a cable car extension to the metro system, travelling from the centre of town up into the poorer neighbourhoods in the surrounding hills, turning a lengthy traffic-filled nightmare of a journey into a peaceful 10 minute glide over the landscape, every station on the line was fitted with a lift. The cable car is not only free for disabled people to use; it is free for everyone.
As I saw written on a white board propped up on the pavement on my way into town one day last week: “Venezuela: an example for the world”.
This is what the political process here is about; proving that discrimination and prejudice should never be tolerated, and that another better world is possible. In Venezuela, disabled people are a part of building that future.