The Impact of Inclusion: How Martha Aníbal Defies Limitations


“When my physical disability arose, it was quite a hard time for me and my family. It was difficult for me to accept it, and my family did not understand nor accept my new condition, as they did not know how to deal with it. I was only 19 years old.” – Martha Aníbal, 63-year-old Disability Rights Activist.

In the coastal city of Bilwi, where the threat of natural disasters looms large, Martha Aníbal, a 63-year-old activist and advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities in Nicaragua, has become a trailblazer for persons with disabilities. Having weathered the impact of Hurricane Felix in 2007 and, more recently, Hurricanes Iota and Eta in 2020, Martha’s advocacy has not only persevered but thrived, leading her to become the first person with a physical disability to serve as deputy mayor in her city.

Defying Cultural Barriers

Born into the indigenous Miskito ethnic community, Martha’s upbringing was shaped by parents deeply involved in the Moravian church, her father being a pastor. Unlike many, she didn’t learn Spanish as her first language but embraced the local Miskito language. Nevertheless, Martha was confronted by challenges within her community, where a lack of awareness about persons with disabilities and their rights hindered her ability to explore and cultivate her strengths and interests.

In reflecting on her early experiences, Martha shared, “From his (Martha’s father) point of view, I am a poor person. They referred to me as a ‘handicapped’ who should stay home. My family saw it (Martha’s condition) with regret and sadness, I resented that attitude of theirs and felt excluded from people” she said. “They saw me as a subject of economic assistance and not as a person who could provide for herself.” 

Living in Bilwi proved challenging for Martha as well. She struggled to go to school due to a lack of accessible infrastructure in the city, and she did not speak Spanish fluently. One time, she even fell into an accident going to school–which made her relatives pressure her parents to make her stay at home. But she did not give up.  

“My dad’s friend, another Moravian pastor, told me to not be discouraged. He motivated me to always say how I felt and pushed me to continue studying. I was the first person with a disability to ever graduate from high school in Bilwi.” 

Supported by the pastor, Martha secured a position as a radio operator at the Red Cross headquarters, further fueling her determination to pursue education. Following high school graduation, she initially delved into accounting and later transitioned to political science, laying the groundwork for her eventual role as the deputy mayor of her hometown.

In 2009, Martha received an invitation to serve as the deputy mayor of Bilwi. Despite community skepticism, viewing it as affirmative action based on her disability, Martha perceived this appointment as an opportunity to continue championing the rights of persons with disabilities. Over her three-year tenure, she not only visited various communities but also implemented an enhanced system for identifying and monitoring the conditions of individuals with disabilities in the city. Concurrently, Martha worked diligently to alter the negative perception prevalent in her communities regarding persons with disabilities.

“As deputy mayor, I developed working relationships with all the organizations present in the municipality to strengthen the work in favor of people with disabilities, so they (the organizations) can be educated and included in all public spheres, hence overcoming their lack of awareness towards people with disabilities,” Martha recounted. 

Protecting When Disasters Hit

Recognizing the vulnerability of her community to disasters, Martha stressed the importance of actively involving persons with disabilities in disaster risk reduction efforts. She recounted instances where local authorities consistently overlooked the needs of individuals with disabilities during emergencies, leaving them without proper care, awareness, and suitable shelter.

“At a time of a hurricane, people with disabilities get very stressed: they worry about what is going to happen, as they cannot move, or hear and see as easily as others,” she explained. “People with disabilities are more impacted by uncertainties because they don’t know how to react or how to protect themselves; or how they will be taken care of.” 

During hurricanes Iota and Eta, Martha’s advocacy proved invaluable. Thanks to her prior work as deputy mayor, response efforts were more organized, with better knowledge of the environment and community needs. However, challenges remained, especially regarding the logistics of transporting persons with disabilities to safe shelters.

“We prepared the shelters at schools but they were not prepared for the people who use wheelchairs. This is where the ASB’s program and support has been key to help us properly apply the technical standards to improve the safe shelters for people with disabilities,” she said. 

Martha’s role in coordinating interventions for individuals with disabilities during the disaster left a lasting impact. Actively contributing to the organization and execution of efficient humanitarian responses, she collaborated with local authorities, community leaders, and organizations like ASB.

Highlighting the significance of including persons with disabilities, Martha emphasized its positive outcomes, from influencing government decisions to crafting practical solutions in times of adversity. Reflecting on the progress achieved, she concluded, “We have made progress in all areas: the government, the communities, the people, and their families. I am very relieved that we have saved lives, that there are initiatives that have emerged from many areas and that everyone is open to recognize that people with disabilities are also rights holders,” she concluded.

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