Making a difference

Can LatAm’s startups make life easier for the disabled?

Whilst Latin America has made significant steps in terms of infrastructure, legislation and social acceptance of the region’s disabled population, progress still lags that of Europe and North America. Indeed, advocates of educational inclusion were alarmed when shortly after assuming Brazil’s presidency, Jair Bolsonaro mandated the establishment of ‘special rooms’ and schools for disabled schoolchildren. Congressed stopped him but it speaks to alarming and intolerant sentiment that pervades much of the region.

A Mexico-based education entrepreneur focused on helping students with disabilities explained, “There aren’t enough companies serving people with disabilities. Governments have been lacklustre in supporting such initiatives, few properly analyse census data to properly understand the geographic and demographic spread of disabled people and thus how best they might be engaged with.”

“There aren’t enough companies serving people with disabilities. Governments have been lacklustre in supporting such initiatives, few properly analyse census data to properly understand the geographic and demographic spread of disabled people and thus how best they might be engaged with.”

Entrepreneur, Mexico

Data published in a report last year by the World Bank found that 85 million disabled people across the region were “excluded”. Excluded means different things to difference people but as an example, take the state of streets in most large Latin American metropolises, broken and uneven pavement, a lack of signage and badly parked cars can make navigation particularly – and unnecessarily – challenging for those with physical impairments.

In economic terms, there is a stark economic cost associated with lack of progress, both legislative and in terms of policy. The World Bank study estimates that excluding people with disabilities from the workplace can represent a drop of between 3%-7% of a country’s GDP.

In response, the region is producing a slew of innovative startups focused on making disabled lives easier. Take cerebral palsy in Brazil for example where startup Adapted World connects sufferers and carers with each other so that experiences and best practice can be shared – user numbers have surged since it was founded in 2016.

Also in Brazil, TiX Tecnologia Assistiva has more than doubled its revenue over the last year due to surging demand for an innovative technology – a wireless mouse that allows people who cannot use their hands to control equipment including mobile phones, tablets and computers using only head movements and facial gestures. Further north, in Mexico, Wheeliz, an app that connects passengers with mobility challenges to handicap-accessible cars has seen exponential growth over the last year.

“In Latin America, Mexico has provided a good model that other countries would do well to emulate. AMLO has offered scholarships for people with disabilities which has resulted in a real uptick in the number of disabled people progressing to university.”

Entrepreneur, Mexico

This matter. Across the region, data shows that disabled people have unequal access to healthcare – where specialised clinics are hard to come by outside of major cities and where fiscal pressures have squeezed funding. On education, academic attainment tends to be lower for disabled people too. Few disabled figures hold prominent political positions and public office.

“In Latin America, Mexico has provided a good model that other countries would do well to emulate. AMLO has offered scholarships for people with disabilities which has resulted in a real uptick in the number of disabled people progressing to university” adds the entrepreneur. All of society stands to benefit from such policies.

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