Corina Lang has developed a simple low-cost method for integrating people with special needs into all social and public institutions in Argentine society. Her program is dismantling the stereotypes and misinformation that have long prevented Argentina's disabled from becoming fully integrated into society.
La idea nueva
Corina Lang is confronting discrimination against the disabled through a strategy that promises to make disabled people the agents of social change. Unlike traditional models which frame the disabled as recipients of the goodwill of others, Corina's program trains disabled citizens to enter "normal" institutions-such as schools, churches and community centers-and break down prejudices through shared activities such as leadership training workshops, recreational games, and camping trips. Her innovative model serves a dual purpose: enabling disabled citizens to lead active, integrated lives which defy and help dissolve outstanding prejudices, and involving non-disabled citizens as proactive co-leaders in the fight against discrimination. Confined thus far to the issue of disabilities, Corina's model projects a message that can easily be replicated to confront other areas of discrimination which have long plagued Argentine society.
Reluctant to welcome those who are "different" into its public sphere, Argentine society has long discriminated against people with disabilities. Opportunities that are taken for granted by the majority of the Argentine population, such as access to education and employment, are rarely extended to disabled citizens. In virtually every sector of public life, the disabled are treated as untouchables. This rejection is made especially acute by what insiders and outsiders alike describe as Argentine society's obsession with perfection. From an early age, children are encouraged to "fit in." There is enormous pressure, perhaps more so than in other Western cultures, for people to blend in with their peers, to minimize their differences and make every effort to conform to the status quo. In recent years, for example, the ever-growing pressure to look beautiful has driven many Argentine women and girls-and, more recently, men-to anorexia and bulimia.
Within this culture of perfection, disabled people in Argentina are reduced to a second-class citizenship that permeates every aspect of their lives. Because of the discomfort their disabilities evoke among society at large, they are shunned and secluded in school, on the streets, and in the workplace. Despite the prevailing tenets of democracy, they are not treated as equals. Although, for instance, a new law requires that schools integrate disabled students into their student body, few schools are equipped, both in terms of physical access and teacher training, to adequately address the challenges that these students bring to the classroom. This forced integration, albeit well intentioned, is often accompanied by student desertion, resistance from parents, and heightened discrimination. Despite slowly growing sensitivity to the plight of the disabled in Argentina and throughout the world, the dominant social representation of disabled people as different and inferior remains.
Corina is shifting the focus of what it means to "integrate" the disabled into society by showing that it is not enough to merely insert a disabled child into a "normal" school or a disabled worker into a "normal" workplace. Instead, she is showing that in order to fully integrate the disabled population into the resistant outside world, we first must break down the long held prejudices and misunderstandings that divide us. She starts by working with groups of disabled people, generally adolescents and young people between the ages of 20 and 35. Through skills building activities and recreational games which take place three times per week, she helps to build their self-esteem and independence.
In conjunction, Corina goes into "normal" institutions-such as schools, youth clubs, and religious groups-and leads sensitivity-training workshops to begin dismantling prejudices. She brings together student leaders and asks them how they deal with differences and what they would do if a disabled student entered their classroom or organization. The "normal" participants then organize an event, or an "encounter," with their disabled peers. The events generally feature games, snacks, and discussions and take place in the home or center of the disabled participants. Through this encounter, able and disabled participants alike learn to feel comfortable with one another and build a new sense of respect and trust. Following the encounter, Corina does an evaluation with the abled children and helps them brainstorm future projects through which they can promote integration. By establishing ties and friendships with their disabled peers, the children themselves become primary protagonists for integration and change. They lead follow-up activities and sensitivity training workshops in their own schools, churches, and clubs.
Corina has now expanded her project into seven "normal" institutions and four institutions for the disabled, all in Buenos Aires, and has plans to spread to major cities outside of the capital. Her work, which started in the Jewish communities of Buenos Aires, has rapidly expanded into other communities. She has established contact with institutions in the cities of Entre Ríos, Tucumán, and Córdoba, among others. She has also received inquiries from Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba. She works with over 400 individuals per year and expects that number to multiply as she solicits workshops in a long list of schools and other organizations. In order to support the travel and administrative costs associated with each workshop, "normal" institutions will continue to pay a small fee for Corina's and her colleagues' services. She also is working to expand her team of leaders-able and disabled alike-who, as the demand for integration grows, will lead sensitivity-training workshops in "normal" institutions. She has designed a year-long course in which students interested in promoting integration will meet once or twice a week to further develop their leadership skills and learn more about the issues and prejudices surrounding disabilities.
Corina received her degree in psychology from the University of Buenos Aires in 1990. In 1991 she was offered a job providing psychological support at a recreational center for individuals with mental disabilities. The Sundays she spent at the center became, in her own words, a time of "internal discovery." Through hours of playing games and spending time with these individuals over a period of five years, she began to see the world in an entirely new light. Bolstered by her training in psychology, she began to explore the prejudices and misinformation that restricted the lives of her disabled friends on a daily basis.
In 1994 Corina traveled to Palm Beach, Florida, to visit her father, whose son suffers from cerebral palsey. While in Florida, she spent four weeks working as a volunteer in her step-brother's school for children with mental disabilities. During this time, she was exposed to different techniques of dealing with disabilities-some recreational, some psychological, some didactic. When she returned to Argentina, Corina began reading, writing, and developing project ideas about integrating people with disabilities into the larger community. Through the Center she had previously worked in, she launched her methodology of bringing together "normal" and disabled young people. Because of her integrationist stance, many of her efforts were resisted by the leadership at the institution. Since then, however, she has received a steady stream of support from families and institutions who are eager to incorporate her methodology into their curriculum, activites, and way of life.
When asked to describe how she envisions the impact of her work, Corina immediately recounts a conversation she had with a friend, while feeling discouraged one day by the obstacles she had encountered. Her friend told her that she is harvesting oregano. "Oregano ?" Corina asked. "Yes," replied her friend, "it is the seed that one plants when preparing to fertilize the earth." "Yes," said Corina, "I am planting oregano."