Through her program, Friend School, Marcela Páramo promotes empathy among children and adolescents with disabilities and those without them. Teaching empathy early on contributes to a more inclusive society in which the topic of disability will no longer be a physical, social, or cultural barrier. 

This profile below was prepared when Marcela Paramo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Through her program, Friend School, Marcela Páramo promotes empathy among children and adolescents with disabilities and those without them. Teaching empathy early on contributes to a more inclusive society in which the topic of disability will no longer be a physical, social, or cultural barrier. 


Marcela concluded that the only way to end the social exclusion of disabled populations was to foster empathy in children and youth by building opportunities for social interaction between the disabled and non-disabled into school curriculum. From this insight, Marcela created Friend School, a program that offers informational workshops at the preschool, elementary, and middle school levels about what disability is and in what ways it manifests itself. The in-school workshops use educational materials including videos, notebooks, and role-playing activities to give students a better understanding of what it means to have a disability. Unlike other programs of empathy that are voluntary, Marcela’s program is mandatory for all students and teachers in participating schools because the program is integrated into the school’s curriculum. In addition, Friend School promotes coexistence among children and youth of the same age, and family integration, by helping families create realistic expectations about their disabled children’s capabilities and skills. It also teaches them to balance care for their disabled child with the demands of the family.

Friend School has the potential to achieve systemic change; student participants have become more sensitive to disability issues, assimilate more naturally in interactions with the disabled, and often contribute to changing attitudes among their parents and relatives. Marcela’s activities promote coexistence and generate a sense of empathy and cooperation between these children and youth, discovering that despite living under different circumstances, they have similarities and share common interests. This program generates a change of consciousness, removing the issue of disability as a barrier to social and cultural coexistence. Marcela is focused especially on long-term generational change: she believes that by working with children and youth, as adults, they will be more likely to protect the rights of the disabled.

The program can adapt to different types of schools, and has even been requested by companies. Friend School intends to grow to as many schools as possible to become an institutional activity within the formal education system. Marcela complements her work with public policy advocacy, alliances with other civil organizations (COs) and by organizing annual forums that promote the social inclusion of the disabled to disseminate her work to a wider audience.


Despite the existence of laws in Mexico that favor the disabled and the ratification of several international agreements, this community still suffers without basic rights. From employment and social protection rights to the lack of handicap-accessible infrastructure to allow their mobility, there are many factors that keep the disabled socially excluded. As a minority, the disabled are not a priority for the government. Reliable data about the disabled population does not exist because the national census does not conduct a count of disabled persons, but the World Bank estimates that in Mexico 10 percent of the total population lives with some type of disability. Those disabilities affect families, friends, and the community involved with caring for the disabled. Among families, denial of disabilities is common, since many parents are not willing to accept their child’s condition, and may create situations that tear families apart.

Today, there are few educational institutions that accept children with all types of disabilities and those that do, do not have sufficient facilities or adequate personnel. Additionally, when disabled children finish school, it is common to not find work, making it harder for them to provide for themselves, and often leading to depression. 

As a result of this social exclusion and because school curriculum does not include education about the disabled, children may grow up without direct contact with disabled persons. This lack of exposure creates social and structural barriers that make the disabled and their families’ everyday lives more difficult. People with disabilities are marginalized with few opportunities to meet and socially interact with their non-disabled peers.


Since 1985, Marcela has developed and expanded the Freiré Psychoeducational Center, a personalized attention center for children and youth with any type of disability. Freiré operates a preschool, primary, and secondary school, and is the only school in the state of Jalisco that accepts people with any type of disability. Regular classes are held in the mornings and job-readiness workshops with recreational and sport activities for adolescents are held in the afternoons.

Students at mainstream schools complete their mandatory social service at Freiré by conducting the job-readiness workshops. These students are in charge of designing and implementing workshops under the supervision of the Freiré staff. Marcela uses the student’s enthusiasm to create awareness in their own schools. The Freiré staff is continually updating the resources used to provide care. In addition, the personnel provides integral care to the families, offering therapy and evaluations for the students, and the school program for the parents; to help families integrate and manage their situations in the best way possible. 

Using Freiré as an institutional platform, in 2008 Marcela designed the Friend School program which consists of three elements. First, Freiré builds agreements with mainstream schools that will implement the program. Second, Freiré staff deliver informational lectures about disability and its consequences to teachers and students of the participating schools. Third, Freiré staff organize coordinated activities between these students and disabled students. Activities create an environment of acceptance and coexistence among students; focusing on their similarities and generating cooperation.

Currently, the Friend School program has been implemented in more than eleven schools and universities, impacting at least 68,000 students. The program has also received acceptance from the parents of participating students, who have requested a similar program for company work places. Marcela understands that although empathy is a soft skill, it can and should be measured as a learning outcome. As her program expands, Marcela is creating entry and exit surveys to measure increased inclusive behavior and openness to others in order to develop indicators and processes that document the change in social consciousness resulting from her program.

In addition to operating Freiré and Friend School, Marcela organizes an annual conference, lobbies on public policy issues, and uses mass media to spread and promote equality, social inclusion, and respect for the dignity of the disabled. For example, Freiré collaborates with Inclusive Guadalajara, an organization working to make Guadalajara more accessible to the disabled, to implement a campaign to raise awareness about disability issues to the public. 

 To expand, Marcela plans to create teams that coordinate and implement the Friend School program by working with children in public schools through the Secretary of Public Education and with disabled children through members of the Mexican Confederation of Organizations Working in Behalf of the Intellectually Disabled (CONFE) network. CONFE is a network of 160 civil associations with representation in 26 Mexican states. In addition, Marcela is also working with the Secretary of Public Education to make Friend School an integrated part of the public school curriculum. 

In one year, Marcela plans to triple the number of schools with the Friend School program, and in three years she plans to organize it in all of the municipalities of her state. In five years her goal is to have at least one person trained in the implementation of Friend School in each member organization of CONFE. These teams and alliances between organizations in the CONFE network and public schools will allow the program to expand across the country. 

Freiré is financed through a mix of tuition fees and donations. The center only charges tuition for students of families who can afford it, but none to low-income families. These tuition costs generate 75 percent of the school’s income. The rest comes from an annual conference Marcela organizes in collaboration with the Social Development Secretary of Mexico, Expo Guadalajara, Teletón Foundation, the government of Guadalajara and the Jesuit University of Guadalajara. 


Born with a disability herself, Marcela experienced the negative consequences of social exclusion as a child. However, unlike most disabled children, Marcela studied in mainstream schools and made friends with children without disabilities. Throughout her childhood and youth, she was the only disabled person among a social circle without disabilities.

From a young age, Marcela felt called to work with children and knew she wanted to manage her own school. She studied pedagogy and started her career giving summer courses. Shortly after graduating from college, she founded the Freiré Psychoeducational Center and started working with disabled children from low-income families, providing education and rehabilitation. Later, she expanded her center to accept children from all social classes and developed more areas to fight against discrimination and exclusion of the disabled. 

Marcela served as general director of Freiré, trained teachers, worked directly with disabled students and helped parents of disabled children diagnose their disabilities, and incorporate them into the family’s daily routine. 

Through these experiences, Marcela gained an understanding of the deficiencies in the public education system in Mexico, the challenges of creating a school for the disabled, and the challenges the disabled face even within their families. Additionally, Marcela found it difficult to build her team due to a lack of personnel qualified to work with the disabled. This forced her to train her own team. Marcela also learned that students with disabilities require a great deal of personal attention, which changes the dynamics of the classroom. Despite her disability, Marcela worked long days to give her students personal attention and to create social awareness around disability. 

Working with disabled children and feeling the desire to create a more profound change in society, Marcela created the Friend School in 2008. Since its creation, the program has expanded rapidly and Marcela has received many accolades from the government and private sector, including recognition from the government of Jalisco as an Outstanding Woman of 2009, and selected to participate in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative.