What We Take for Granted…

By Leila Alfaro

The beautiful Andes, somewhere south of Mendoza

July 22nd, 2019

This is my last week in Mar del Plata. The last month has been tough for my family and me, as we have struggled with maintaining our Argentinian routine, so different from our regular one, and have been feeling homesick, missing our family and friends. I am very excited to head back home, but I am also very thankful for my time here, for the encounters I have had, the things I have learned, the places I have visited and the memories I have made. As the weeks progressed, I often had to fight the disconcerting thought that my presence here would ultimately prove to be useless and that in the end, I would realize just how little I had accomplished this summer.  I partly blame this on the slow pace of life here but these fears, certainly, were also anchored on the notion of just how complex issues pertaining to disability rights are, and that there is no single way of tackling them without eventually uncovering further underlying issues of a more complex nature. Exploring the field of disability rights, namely in a country with a fragile economy, proved to be beyond frustrating at times. A cloud of helplessness and desolation was hanging constantly over my head, as I had to come to terms with the extent to which ableism is embedded in the structures of society and just how limited the impact of rights and laws on paper can be, when there is simply so much that has to change in order to guarantee a dignified life for members of such marginalized group.

While I had no experience whatsoever in the field, especially in the Argentinian context, I found myself learning so much, so quickly. By learning from the situation in this foreign country, I inevitably felt the urge to find out more about the reality back in Canada. One of the most interesting moments in the context of the workshops with people with disabilities was when I was able to present a brief overview of how Canada approaches voting rights for people with disabilities. By communicating the reality of my country, I was able to share interesting links, like how the issue of an aging population has an incidence on the existing efforts of accommodation.

Curiously, when I elaborated on how there is still much to accomplish in Canada as well, I was met with what felt like skepticism. Argentinians certainly hold Canada in high regard, since they see our institutions as well-funded, efficient and “serious”. The irony is not lost in me, that as much as they admire said efficiency, they do not seem interested in a more rapidly-paced lifestyle. Indeed, such tradeoffs are inevitable, and we are not always in a position to be adequately critical of them given our own biases and perspectives which are ultimately limited by our personal realities.

Being abroad, I have mostly been able to reflect on the things I take for granted (like the people who are part of my daily life, the comfort of my home or some of my favourite foods!), but I have also learned about what people here take for granted. As I have become interested in the topic of voting rights for people with disabilities, I have begun working on a research project of my own. As I debated on which topic to present to the Centre for approval, I ultimately felt the strong urge to address the mandatory aspect of Argentinian suffrage. I found it fascinating how the people with whom I interacted could be so comfortable communicating their own frustrations regarding their system yet seemed very willing to justify it when I would question factors such as mandatory voting. I was surprised to find that virtually no literature exists on the subject in relation to disability (I was told there had been some kind of project done in another university that tackled this issue, but I have yet to learn more about it). I quickly became under the impression that, while Argentinians do recognize the particularity of their voting system in this regard (mandatory voting), they are quite satisfied with it. When it comes to discussing and promoting the ability to vote, basically no attention was brought to how the principle of mandatory voting might also impact persons with disabilities. This notion exemplifies the degree of ableism in society in terms of what the State expects from its citizens, seemingly ignoring the existing gap between those who have impairments and those who do not have any.

While I was pleased to hear that my research project relied on a novel outlook of the situation, I expect to gain more insight on the underlying ambiguities of mandatory voting, especially given the historical context of the Argentinian political scene. In elaborating on this topic, I hope to encourage other researchers and clinical workers to become more sensible to how the obstacles people with disabilities face are linked to more complex structural factors of society that we tend to take for granted.

My going-away dinner with members of the Extension Group on Voting Rights for PWD, comprised of graduate students and faculty from multiple fields

 

The last workshop in which I participated, especially tailored for people with visual impairments

Time, Suffrage and Disability

By Leila Alfaro

If I had to choose one aspect for which I am most grateful when travelling, it would be the resilience I am forced to develop as I find myself in new, challenging situations. Beyond my love for visiting new sights, tasting different foods and meeting new people, I appreciate being challenged when facing cultural aspects so different from my own to the point I must undertake a process of deep introspection, contemplating the Other as well as my own reflexes and the things and practices I take for granted. Since arriving to Argentina, I have had plenty of time to experience and, most importantly, to reflect on not only the cultural, but also the geographical, infrastructural and economic gaps between this side of the pole and home, up in the North.

Having had the privilege of knowing Mexico and most of Central America, I knew coming here that I should brace myself for an experience in which time could not be measured the same way as back home. It amazes me that, even with everything I know and have lived, I am still surprised seeing how time can move so slowly here. Through meetings postponed, messages unanswered, workshops cancelled, last-minute schedule changes and strikes, my patience has been tested on several occasions. However, as I learn to expect the unexpected, I grow more comfortable with this kind of difference, knowing I am being confronted to my biggest flaw (impatience) and that at the same time I have the opportunity to build on some very valuable skills, namely autonomy, resourcefulness and, of course, resilience.

While I recognize the slow tempo of the city has kept me from achieving the most of this experience work-wise, I also recognize the good it entails – I appreciate this stress-free lifestyle, which is a nice break from the North American way. I also admire the role of family in Argentina, the importance of making time for those around us and for self-care. More time on my hands also means I can enjoy more walks on the beach and more delicious parillas with my family. It also allows me to be more critical about the experience itself; whenever a situation arises, I can truly take a moment and reflect on the why and the implications of whatever is happening for the Argentinian people and for me as a visitor (strikes related to the weakened economy, classes cancelled due to bad weather affecting infrastructure, unavailability of certain goods are some examples of circumstances which I have faced during my time here).

Work may be slow here, but it still happens. I have had the chance to join an interdisciplinary, graduate clinical group working on promoting voting rights for people with disabilities. So far, this has taken the shape of workshops in schools and community centers for individuals with disabilities, lectures aimed at undergraduate students and inter-faculty discussions. I take this work very seriously as it has taught me a great deal about political perspectives and disability rights in the region. In any democracy, we can reasonably expect people with disabilities to have more difficulty enforcing their right to vote without proper accommodations provided by the State – but, what happens when voting is also a duty? In Argentina, an absence to the polls must be justified in order to avoid sanctions; this certainly entails a new set of complex challenges for anyone, and for citizens with disabilities in particular. Because of the unique nature of suffrage in Argentina, addressing it in light of issues of diversity and inclusivity is of utmost importance. I appreciate this opportunity especially given the precarious situation in the country in the context of the upcoming elections this fall.

As the last half of my internship begins, I am starting to feel a bit homesick, but I look forward to new learnings and to continue discovering what this country has to offer (I am excited to visit Mendoza and Buenos Aires this upcoming week!), and in the end I know it will have seemed like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.