Marieta Quesada

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Costa Rica
Fellow Since 1998
This description of Marieta Quesada's work was prepared when Marieta Quesada was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Marieta Quezada is changing the long-established pattern in Costa Rican society that treats disabled people as invisible, passive recipients of professional assistance and charity. Through her personal and professional life, Marieta is demonstrating that disabled people can be protagonists of their own lives and can proactively improve their economic, social, and educational opportunities.

The New Idea

Marieta Quezada is conducting a nationwide census of disabled people, visibly mapping their existence, their current circumstances, and their most pressing problems. Simultaneously, she is establishing support groups for disabled people through which she initiates the long-term and arduous process of building their self-esteem. She is working to change disabled people's inherited attitude about themselves from one of shame and passivity to one of pride and productivity. Marieta's approach is unique in her inclusion of the entire family throughout this process. She supports family members in their often-stigmatized role while encouraging them to craft more positive relationships with their disabled family members. Marieta is also reaching out to social service agencies and other organizations that have traditionally served the disabled population. She is striving to change the paternalistic culture within these organizations, where disabled people are "cases" who need "treatment." Instead, she is advocating a culture of participation and empowerment, one that recognizes the disabled person as the agent of his or her own life and enables individual decision making. Marieta is also applying practical solutions to the very real economic hardships that disabled people face. She is helping set up businesses that are owned and operated by disabled people, in industries that have traditionally excluded their productive participation. By breaking down each barrier–from access to credit to learning a trade to owning a business–Marieta is enabling disabled people to improve their economic and social circumstances, while rupturing a society-wide prejudice that disabled people are not able to lead productive, self-sufficient lives.

The Problem

Approximately ten percent of the Costa Rican population is disabled. Disabled individuals typically experience a wide range of discrimination, including daily social segregation, unequal access to education, employment, health care, housing, and recreation.

Costa Rica's National Registry of Handicapped Persons tracked the education and income level of a group of 90,836 disabled individuals from 1975 until 1995. Within this group, only 5.3 percent completed primary school, and 1.9 percent completed secondary school. Only one percent was able to start university-level education. This contrasts starkly with the rest of Costa Rican society, which enjoys a relatively high level of education and a 97 percent literacy rate. In terms of financial circumstances, the study found that only 8.8 percent of this group were generating their own income. Furthermore, as a reflection of social segregation, Marieta has found that 80 percent of the blind women in Costa Rica never marry, and of those who do, only twenty percent marry sighted partners.

These forms of discrimination and inequality rest on a solid foundation of negative social stereotypes. Costa Rican society stigmatizes disabled people and their families, and rarely regards a disabled individual as a person in his or her own right, able to lead a fulfilling and dignified life. Disability is typically conflated with sickness and tragedy, rather than as a single characteristic of an otherwise capable human being. Disabled people in Costa Rica are largely invisible, as they are kept inside their homes to prevent their families from constant shame. Most disabled people internalize these stereotypes, and, as a consequence, suffer from low self-esteem.

The Strategy

Marieta is conducting a nationwide census, house by house, to develop a comprehensive picture of the existence, conditions, and needs of people with various disabilities throughout Costa Rica. She has found that families often hide a disabled relative in order to avoid being stigmatized, and that current statistics do not accurately portray the gravity of the problem. She has divided the country into regional sections, and she is training members of her organization to survey their region, interview families, and collect appropriate data, which she will then aggregate and analyze.

As disabled individuals are identified, they and their families are invited to join support groups. Each group elects its own president. Marieta stimulates a reflective process regarding disability in an attempt to challenge the negative images internalized by both disabled people and their families. She has introduced a methodology of consciousness-raising and self-esteem building in fourteen groups and is enabling the groups' presidents to spread the approach. She has formed a network of the presidents that serves as a coordinating body through which she can chart overall progress and introduce new initiatives. Additionally, the presidents can learn from one another's experience and exchange ideas and information to take back to their respective groups. Marieta's particular emphasis on working with the entire family helps each family member define their appropriate role vis a vis their disabled relative and supports them in their often difficult and stigmatized position.

Marieta is also working to change the relationship between social service agencies and their disabled clients. Within the support groups, she encourages disabled people to play an active role in their relationship with their medical professionals, asking for information and insisting on making any final decisions that affect them. Likewise, she sensitizes social workers and medical professionals to the need to encourage protagonism among disabled people.

Concurrently, Marieta is addressing the immediate economic concerns among disabled people. She has piloted a model for forming microenterprises run exclusively by disabled individuals. Her pilot involved establishing a baking cooperative operated entirely by blind women. Each step required challenging and changing tenacious social norms. Banks refused to give credit to the blind, so Marieta obtained a loan from a local business. No one would teach the blind women how to bake, fearing they would burn themselves, so Marieta convinced a major bread manufacturer to teach them in exchange for their guarantee to purchase all industrial machinery from him. They learned basic business management through trial and error. After enormous effort over two years, they succeeded in launching the world's first blind women's bakery, which is now fully functioning. The bakery (and by extension, any successive microentrepise) serves a dual purpose: it improves the members' overall circumstances both by generating needed income and building confidence through participation in a successful, productive experience. Simultaneously, it unveils the issue of disability in Costa Rican society. Through the everyday, ordinary act of buying bread, non disabled individuals come face to face with a very different image of disabled people than the passive, incapacitated one they grew up with. Thus, by creating opportunities for disabled people to participate in the public arena, Marieta has also found an effective way to change public attitudes.

Now that her approach is consolidated, Marieta is eager to replicate it across Costa Rica and Central America. She is engaging in preliminary discussions with regional representatives of the support groups and identifying other markets more conducive to rural economies. Her long-term goal is to have enough disabled people who own their own successful businesses that they will function as financiers for other projects, campaigns, and emerging businesses.

Finally, Marieta is working directly with the media in an effort to challenge the way disabled people are presented in journalistic endeavors. She sees the struggle to improve disabled peoples' lives as a two-way street: one that involves disabled people actively changing their own lives, and a concurrent effort to change the way society views–and thereby treats–disabled people. Over the next three years, she will train 25 disabled people to actively analyze and critique current detrimental media images, and to produce new and more accurate messages in print, radio, and television media.

The Person

Marieta grew up in a large family of modest means with twelve siblings. She and four of her sisters were born blind. From early in her life, Marieta was subjected to severe discrimination. She was told that she could not lead an active and normal life. She consistently defied this prescribed role and fought to gain equal access to education and other opportunities taken for granted by non disabled citizens. She was removed from her family and confined in an institution for eight years. Upon returning, she was able to complete secondary school, but she was rejected by both peers and professors when she tried to pursue university studies. Once, while attending a class, the professor interrupted his lecture and insisted that Marieta leave the room, as he was not a "special education" instructor.

Marieta persisted in her pursuit of independence and self-sufficiency, determined to demonstrate to her family, her society, and herself that disabled individuals are capable of leading fulfilling lives. She found work as a receptionist in a private company and began to gain the self-confidence and consciousness to translate her own struggle into a collective effort for disabled rights. Marieta organized a support group for blind women, which turned into the first association for blind women in Costa Rica. She is currently serving as president.

Marieta has also pursued a fulfilling personal life. She married a sighted man and decided to have a child in spite of everyone's insistence that a blind woman cannot be a mother. Each of her decisions in her own life reflects her commitment to establish a very different reality for disabled people.

Marieta has become, because of her perseverance, a natural leader for the cause of disabled people. In addition to holding the presidency of her own organization, she was recently elected president of the Costa Rican Federation of Disabled People, and she is becoming more involved with disabled issues on a Latin America-wide level. Her leadership role reinforces the central driving tenet in her work - the overwhelming majority of leaders who work on disability, whether from the perspective of rights or as social workers and medical professionals, are not disabled. This is a persistent source of tension within the disabled community, and Marieta represents an important step forward by demonstrating that disabled people can in fact be the leaders and protagonists of their own cause.