Ricardo Cobo Díaz

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1997
This description of Ricardo Cobo Díaz's work was prepared when Ricardo Cobo Díaz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997 .


Ricardo Cobo's model to integrate mentally handicapped children into communities is spreading throughout Colombia and other Latin American countries and influencing special education reform in the public schools.

The New Idea

Ricardo Cobo is revolutionizing the care and education of the mentally handicapped in Latin America by replacing custodial education methods with a new teaching and therapeutic model based on art. He has demonstrated that activities such as making pottery and acting in a play are effective ways to teach mentally handicapped children how to read and write and learn social and job skills. His work is changing the experiences of entire families and critical aspects of the educational and welfare systems. "I am replacing discipline with respect," says Ricardo.

Ricardo carries the education of the children to the next step, which is to integrate them into their communities. There is a natural affinity between his art-based work with children and the art and performance festivals that are a familiar part of Latin American public life, and he has made the most of it. With the cooperation of community leaders he is securing the integration of mentally handicapped children into art shows, theater productions, pantomime, dance, music, and other social functions. Ricardo is opening people's eyes to these children's abilities.

The Problem

The Colombian census estimates that about three million people, ten percent of the total population, are handicapped in some capacity. Of this total, about 40 percent or 1.2 million have some mental disability. Citing Pan American Health Organization studies, Ricardo believes these figures substantially underestimate the true incidence of mental retardation. Among poor families, the numbers are higher and often more tragic: when a family lives in poverty, any additional strain can destroy the fragile equilibrium necessary for survival.

For centuries, mainstream Colombian society isolated and discriminated against the mentally handicapped, and if contemporary society has replaced maltreatment with pity, Ricardo believes it is no great advance. It is still a loss to society as well as to handicapped individuals if their potential to contribute to the community is never developed. However, the social institutions are ill-prepared to include mentally disabled children and the adults they become. For example, the training of health professionals does not attend to the special health needs of children with Downs Syndrome or other handicaps; nor do teachers receive adequate preparation to incorporate them as students.

Therefore, while the government is responsible for schooling, it does little in practice to educate or help mentally handicapped children. The schools and other institutions serve as warehouses; students are routinely passed from grade to grade until they reach eighteen years of age, when state responsibility ends. From then on, the mentally handicapped receive family care, which usually takes the form of staying at home, watching television and sleeping. The parents of mentally handicapped children share their children's isolation and there are few sources of social support for overwhelmed families. In cases of abandonment, the mentally handicapped end up on the street where they are subject to extensive abuse and often early death.

The Strategy

In 1985, Ricardo created the Foundation Institute for Stimulating Development and the Arts (FEDAR), which remains today the primary vehicle for his efforts. Through it he organizes his innovative special education, an extensive interface with the community and dissemination of his program.

Ricardo uses art, theater and hands-on experiences that elicit physical and emotional responses and bypass the need to rely on conventional teaching methods. This technique makes it possible for mentally handicapped children to understand and absorb the material for reading, writing and math: their success revitalizes them, and builds their self-esteem. His use of art often has multiple objectives; for instance, acting out scenes in a restaurant teaches social skills, such as how to behave in public places; the use of eating utensils teaches basic coordination skills while the menu offers a reading text. Pottery becomes a tool for therapy, academics and job training: while it helps to control aggressive behavior, hyperactivity and hypertension, it is also a way to learn about numbers, letters, shapes and colors while the student makes useful and decorative ceramic pieces that he or she can then sell.

Painting, dance and music are incorporated and integrated into the curriculum in the same manner. The results of Ricardo's methods are evident in the enthusiasm of the young mentally handicapped students, the excellent quality of the products they make, the way these young people and their products are accepted in society and the joy and love they have for knowledge and life in general.

In cooperation with appropriate officials, Ricardo then prepares the way for children to move into the community and share its life fully. Whenever a local event takes place, such as an Art in the Park weekend fair, Ricardo's students have a space reserved. In the town near Cali where he works, he has arranged with a small local museum to include a permanent exhibit of the children's work. Beyond the local level, he has negotiated space for the children from the foundation within a mainstream network of Latin American events and community activities.

From the beginning, Ricardo has included the families of the handicapped children in his focus. He believes that parents should own their children's centers, and the Institute, which is charged with helping and defending the mentally handicapped, is owned by such a group of parents. The families take new pride in their children, who are now putting on plays, producing beautiful pottery and earning money. The sales of student-produced handicrafts-including their Christmas cards which have become familiar throughout Colombia-help fund the Institute's work, as does the produce from an organic farm operated by the children.

Ricardo's idea has spread naturally as people have heard about it and come to him. Through his Foundation, he has set up seminars to teach future teachers, paramedics, doctors, parents, psychologists, artists and special education instructors how to adopt his techniques and set up other centers. With his help, the public school system has begun the process of incorporating his use of art and creativity as a basis for instruction. Organizations in Argentina and other Latin American countries as far away as Paraguay have asked his help in adopting his program.

Ricardo also disseminates his ideas through a network of international art fairs and festivals for the mentally handicapped. He heads the Colombia Committee of Art Without Barriers, an international movement promoting art by the mentally handicapped, and is also affiliated with Very Special Arts International. Ricardo is also leading a movement in fourteen Latin American countries that fosters exchanges of ideas on art-based teaching techniques; he hopes to expand this dialogue to twenty countries.

The Person

Ricardo's special attraction to the problems of children with mental disabilities began in earliest childhood: he shared his world, brotherhood, and profound friendship with Oscar, the oldest of his five brothers and sisters, who was born with Downs Syndrome. Ricardo's choice of a vocation also reflects his family values. His parents were involved in community development projects, working with peasant children in the rural area where Ricardo grew up. He lives today in a mountain town near the city of Cali.

As a high school student, Ricardo worked part-time as a sports and recreation instructor, but his university training in special education began a lifetime of working professionally with the mentally handicapped. Ricardo's international activities on behalf of special children include participation at conferences, art shows, and workshops in Latin America, Europe, the United States and Asia. However, now almost 40, Ricardo says his chief satisfaction comes from over a decade of leading the Institute. There, he has seen his students progress day by day toward realizing their potential, and seen both children and their families develop much more positive attitudes.