Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: Dance Helps Disabled Kids Leap Barriers

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Aug 4 2009 (IPS) - Nicolás, a 14-year-old disabled boy, was finally able to open up and begin expressing himself thanks to Open Wings, a project in Paraguay that uses modern dance as a tool to help youngsters with disabilities develop on both the physical and psychological level.

“He was a very introverted boy, withdrawn, who expressed practically no emotions,” Estela Maris Rolón, Nicolás’s mother, told IPS. “But now thanks to dance he is more open, more expressive, and has incorporated that in his life.”

The Open Wings (Alas Abiertas) project emerged in 2007 from workshops carried out with institutions that work with people with disabilities.

“The kids came, and we started to work,” said Mercedes Pacheco, head of Open Wings. “And when the interest grew, along with the number of kids, young people and their families, as well as the number of artists wanting to get involved, we decided to continue, and the project was born.”

Pacheco said dance is an excellent tool for improving motor performance and physical and psychological capacities, while facilitating personal expression and communication among kids with disabilities.

When the young Open Wings dancers performed in July at the Juan de Zalazar Cultural Centre in Asunción, the standing-room only audience was both moved and impressed.

“Before they came on stage, Nicolás was really nervous,” said Rolón. “The whole thing has been very moving because, when he realised that he could overcome his barriers, his limitations, he gained a broader new perspective on his disability.”

The instructors say the young participants have made enormous motor performance and psychological progress, and that their self-esteem has grown.

“The way they are in the world, how they express themselves, talk, walk – their growth in general has been amazing,” said Pacheco.

The dance activities for disabled youngsters are held regularly in eight schools around the country, most of which are located in Asunción. But the project’s promoters want to expand coverage to other towns.

Nearly 300 youngsters of different ages are currently involved in the project, whose workshops are run by a multidisciplinary team made up of dance teachers and schoolteachers with training in special education and psychology.

“The staff is comprised of specially trained choreographers, dancers and teachers,” said Pacheco.

The project also offers a training programme for professional artists and teachers interested in gaining more in-depth knowledge about disabilities and using art as a tool for working with the disabled.

Open Wings advocates accessibility, integration and greater visibility for people with disabilities.

In this South American country of 6.1 million people, there were more than 51,000 people with disabilities in 2002, according to the latest census, carried out that year. Of those aged six to 18, only 36 percent were in school, compared to 82 percent of children and adolescents without disabilities.

The training provided by Open Wings not only focuses on the use of art as an opportunity for personal development, but also on the rights of the disabled.

When Open Wings first approaches a school or institution, the parents of disabled children generally react with scepticism to the idea that their kids could do modern dance.

“At first they aren’t really sure that their children can do what they later go on to do. The trust that the parents place in us is huge,” said Pacheco.

As they see the progress made by their children, the parents turn into the project’s most enthusiastic supporters.

The aim of Open Wings is not only to reach the participating youngsters themselves, but the entire community surrounding them, raising awareness on the challenges faced by those living with disabilities.

The project receives funding and support from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), Spain’s Ministry of Culture, cultural centres, and organisations and institutions that work with the disabled, like the Solidarity Foundation (PENDIF).

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