José de Jesus is architecting the pre-conditions for the empowerment for people with disabilities, putting interconnected systems in place that allow them to live independent, purposeful lives that in turn inspire and pave the way for others. Through Juntos, José supports people with disabilities to develop their leadership skills, while also creating an enabling environment by engaging families, communities, and the private and public sectors to ensure effective inclusion at all levels.
The New Idea
José de Jesus strives to break the vicious cycle of discrimination, exclusion, and vulnerability faced by people with disabilities. To achieve this, he is catalyzing their leadership by providing them with the skills, resources, and support network necessary to empower and inspire them to challenge the social and institutional barriers that lead to wide-spread unemployment and political invisibility.
Convinced that economic independence can provide a path towards social integration, José offers specialized professional training for people with disabilities and connects them to job opportunities. Recognizing that employment at a large company is not accessible to many in rural and indigenous communities, José also offers a specific micro-entrepreneurship program for people with disabilities and care-takers.
To ensure that the conditions are in place to facilitate the success of people with disabilities, José simultaneously engages with and builds the capacity of other stakeholders to establish support systems at home, in the community, and at work. To facilitate work inclusion, José accompanies businesses through a long-term process of institutional transformation to create an environment where disabled professionals can flourish. In rural communities, he equips locals with disabilities and their care-takers to develop and lead grassroots projects to build up the community’s capacity to meet disabled persons’ needs and combat discrimination, and co-lead implementation of the micro-entrepreneurship program. Participants’ families are also involved at each step of these programs to overcome misconceptions that impede participants’ autonomy; their families are given the resources and tools they need to understand their role in this process and offer their support.
Finally, José is spurring disabled persons to influence top-down change by helping them learn their rights, training them in advocacy strategies, and opening up spaces to meet with authorities. Armed with these knowledge and skills, disabled women and adolescent girls are becoming politically active for the first time to guarantee that their perspective is accounted for in policies that concern them.
Through these different programs, José has built a network of leaders with disabilities who are triggering change in their communities. He has also convened strategic partners from the private, public, and civil society sectors to champion his vision for the field. Using this collaborative approach, José is poised to scale his method across Mexico and Latin America to spur society to embrace differences.
Persons with disabilities face significant barriers to employment worldwide, resulting in higher rates of poverty than the population average. According to the UN, 70% to 80% of people with disabilities of working age in developing countries are unemployed, while in industrialized countries this number is between 50% and 70%. In Mexico, only 40% of people with disabilities are formally employed compared to 70% in the general population, and among those in work 22.6% receive less than the minimum wage and 30% earn less than non-disabled people in similar positions. Lack of economic security has a knock-on effect on their ability to exercise other human rights, such as access to education and health, which creates a vicious cycle that keeps them from participating in economic and civic life.
People with disabilities often lack access to formal education and training to develop skills necessary to obtain competitive jobs and face physical barriers that limit their prospects. At the same time, businesses frequently exclude candidates with disabilities due to discrimination or a lack of readiness to manage their needs. Indeed, survey data shows that 1 in 4 people in Mexico believe that persons with disabilities are "useless at work." Although several programs exist to foster work inclusion, these tend to be one-sided—focusing on either people with disabilities or companies— and rarely result in long-term employment. Additionally, existing government structures are not addressing the issue.
Furthermore, work discrimination is only one aspect of the broader exclusion that people with disabilities face in Mexico and globally: according to official statistics, 72% of people with disabilities in Mexico have experienced discrimination. The negative perceptions of people with disabilities prevent them from seeing themselves as leaders; this is heightened by the lack of role models in their community. This situation is exacerbated for disabled women and people from rural and indigenous backgrounds, who face compounded inequalities. For instance, the prevalence of disabilities among indigenous people in Mexico is higher (15.5%) compared to the non-indigenous population (13.2%). Women are also more likely than men to be disabled (54%), and the unemployment rate for women with disabilities is as high as 70% compared to 47% for men. Yet the specific needs of indigenous people and women are rarely considered in inclusion programs and policies, and they are scarcely engaged in participatory governance or advocacy processes.
At one level, José solves the immediate problem of unemployment among people with disabilities by helping them acquire a job. At the same time, he is cultivating the leadership and capacity of the disability community to put their voices at the center of solutions, by giving them tools and training that allow them to foster leadership skills and ensure long-term inclusion in society as well as the workplace. José ensures that these solutions take root by also engaging companies, communities, and policymakers to change the systems that lead to exclusion. Juntos’ team is made up of people both with and without disabilities to integrate an inclusive perspective at each step.
Building upon 20 years of work in the sector, José provides specialized professional training for disabled people and links those who complete the certification to opportunities at partner companies. Together with public calls for applications and scouting in communities where they work, Juntos partners with schools for children with special needs to provide a bridge between school and working life for graduates. After participants with disabilities are employed, they can continue to access trainings with Juntos to build their skills. Simultaneously, companies are guided through a thorough assessment, advisory, and training process, so that they have the capacity to ensure inclusive hires will be successful and lasting. This process includes awareness-raising sessions to shift organizational culture, adaptation of physical spaces, establishing inclusive policies and processes, and training internal champions to drive sustainable change. The process usually begins with a pilot at a local office that is monitored, evaluated, and then scaled across the company. For example, Katya, a site manager at 3M, was inspired by the workshops with Juntos to launch a pilot group with 10 visually impaired people, who face the most difficulties when finding industrial jobs. The pilot was a resounding success: all 10 participants were hired permanently at the San Luis Potosí site. The results convinced other site managers to join Juntos’ inclusion program, spreading the work to 3M offices in Ensenada, Monterrey, and Ciudad Juárez.
To date, this two-pronged strategy has allowed José to place 650 people with disabilities across 13 states in formal jobs with +120 companies, out of 700 participants. The boost in companies that hire people with disabilities increases the social pressure for competitors to become more diverse with their workforce. In one case, 18-year-old Lucy was desperate to get married, because she was afraid that she would have no other ways to sustain herself as a disabled woman. After participating in Juntos’ programs, she opted instead to finish her education and find work, becoming one of her family’s breadwinners, as well as an activist for disabled women’s rights. She is a representative for women with disabilities at San Luis Potosí’s Women’s Institute and the Center for Justice for Women.
Taking into account that opportunities for formal employment are more difficult to access for rural and indigenous communities, in 2020 José de Jesus created a program specifically for people with disabilities and care-givers who live in high or extreme poverty in rural regions. These groups receive training and mentoring over 4 months to both establish or strengthen a micro-enterprise and gain business planning tools and seed funding. The first cohort included 85 women who created 12 businesses, creating a source of income that can help break cycles of poverty and violence.
José’s decades-long work with people with disabilities showed him that inclusion efforts are likely to fail without a strong support network, more so in marginalized communities where access to public resources is limited and violence, stigma, and discrimination are especially acute. This is why Juntos encourages program participants to cultivate their leadership by establishing disability councils in their communities that engage their families and neighbors. These community councils seek to change social norms at a grassroots level, build local capacity to address disabled people’s needs, and make visible their contribution to local development. Juntos provides training in skills such as project management, administration, and resource mobilization, links them to other councils to share learnings and promote collaboration and provides ongoing advisory. In addition to creating their own projects, councils establish health brigades that train others in the community to do rehabilitation therapy and lead local implementation of the micro-entrepreneurship and certification programs. More than 500 families across the state of San Luis Potosí currently participate actively in their local disability council.
Since 2020, José has been supporting people with disabilities to take their leadership to the next level by influencing public policies. He decided to start with women and adolescent girls as they face intersecting forms of violence and exclusion, as well as making up a higher proportion of the disabled population. The program also includes women who care for disabled persons or are directly related to them to bring the needs of those with more severe disabilities into the agenda. Juntos helps participants understand their rights and trains them in advocacy and civic participation strategies. Participants then create a project proposal, and Juntos connects them with the relevant stakeholders to jumpstart their initiative. Through this strategy, José seeks to facilitate disabled persons’ political engagement to increase representation of their needs and interests in the policy agenda and dispel prejudices that negate their political agency. The first generation of participants, a group of 110 women, submitted a proposal to incorporate a gender perspective in San Luis Potosí's Law for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities that is currently under discussion by the State Congress. This initiative and the media coverage it garnered has drawn the public and policymakers’ attention to the specific forms of violence faced by disabled women, contributing a new perspective to the nation-wide debates around gender-based violence.
Jose de Jesús has created a unique space for people with disabilities in Mexico to grow as leaders. In their journey through Juntos’ various programs, participants gain new skills and connections that inspire confidence in their ability to be independent and create change. Juntos gives them an opportunity to assume responsibility not only through employment or entrepreneurship, but also as facilitators and mentors for new cohorts or as leaders of disability councils and advocacy groups. Beyond advancing their individual development, these opportunities allow people with disabilities to connect with each other, building up a collaborative network of leaders who become role models for the broader community. José facilitates access to tools and spaces of influence to help increase leaders’ visibility and impact. For instance, during the 2020 election cycle, José is linking Juntos alumni with candidates to advise them on disability issues. Together with a coalition of social organizations, he also presented a bill to make consultation with people with disabilities a requirement for passing any state laws that concern them.
To amplify Juntos’ reach across Mexico and Latin America, José recently launched an online platform featuring all of their training content. This platform has already helped train people in Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia in addition to new states in Mexico. He also created a consulting agency owned by Juntos to further professionalize an advisory service for businesses and generate a new funding stream for the organization. In the next 10 years, his goal is to grow the network of leaders with disabilities who can bring Juntos’ programs to their communities, to help 1,000,000 people with disabilities access employment, and to influence policies for institutional change.
A self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur,” José launched multiple ventures before leading Juntos. As the eldest of three brothers from a modest family, he started working since he was 13 years old hauling boxes of produce at San Luis Potosí’s largest market. There, he met entire families living on USD $90 a month and decided that he wanted to seek better opportunities for himself. He earned a partial scholarship to attend university and started several small ventures to pay for the rest of his tuition — from setting up a bar to selling adverts for a local newspaper. According to José, learning to deal with failure and build back up again has been key to his current success. He prides himself in having a keen eye for identifying opportunities and is skilled in building the relationships necessary to make them a reality.
At twenty years old, José began volunteering with the student group at his university that, with his vision and leadership, eventually became Juntos. At the time, Juntos focused on organizing summer camps to bring together people with and without disabilities. José helped organize the camp; he designed the events so that people would be willing to pay for them, bringing in funds for future events. The experience opened his eyes to the realities faced by the disability community and ignited his passion for fostering understanding, empathy, and integration. He threw himself into his volunteer work and rapidly took on more responsibilities within the group. As a student group, its leadership was constantly changing as students left university, but José stayed on even after graduation. When the university authorities decided to cut its support, José guided the group through the transition to a new university. When it did not take root as expected, he rallied the remaining team members and in 2010 established Juntos as a legal organization, taking on the role of Secretary.
After setting the foundations to ensure the organization’s sustainability, José took on new opportunities in other organizations working with persons with disabilities, such as Fundación Teletón, Mexico’s leading organization in the field. Eventually, José joined Unidos, an organization led by Ashoka Fellow Estela Villareal that works to break down stereotypes and misconceptions about people with disabilities. The people he met at each of these organizations exposed José to the pervasive unemployment, underemployment, and poverty faced by the disability community. At the same time, he was receiving requests from multiple businesses asking for advice on inclusive employment, so José started offering advisory during the weekends. He developed the methodology for work inclusion together with his wife Alejandra, guided by the conviction that economic independence and community involvement are essential to realize social inclusion. Seeing the success of this side project, José realized that there was a gap in the field that was not being addressed and decided to dedicate himself fully to this opportunity.
With the vision to turn Juntos into a platform for broader change, José returned to Juntos as Director in 2013 and steered the organization to change its approach. While he valued the relationships that emerged through the camps, José understood that it was not enough to remove deeply entrenched social and institutional barriers. José has continued to evolve the organization, positioning Juntos as a leader in San Luis Potosí and spreading its impact across Mexico.