For 20 years, Katharina Pförtner (recently retired CBM Global and Regional Advisor for Latin America) campaigned for inclusion in Latin America on behalf of CBM. She has seen and experienced a lot in the past 20 years – some sad experiences as well as hopeful ones. She is now freshly retired - but boredom is a long way off.
CBM: You have worked with so many people. Anything that has stayed with you all these years?
Katharina: Yes, a boy from Salvador - he was born with an open back. He was very intelligent but lived in poverty in a small hut. But thanks to CBM, his development, along with that of his family and local community, has been inspiring to watch! When you see that - it truly convinces you about the importance of inclusion.
CBM: What attracts you the most about inclusion?
Katharina: Social justice! Even as a child, social justice was important to me – my mother says that I always tried to help weaker students. (laughs)
CBM: Why did you go to South America?
Katharina: When my husband Gene and I went to Nicaragua to volunteer for a year in 1989, I was introduced to the concept of involving an entire community in inclusion work. I thought that was great! And I really wanted to change local perceptions of people with disabilities in these villages.
CBM: What was the problem there?
Katharina: Most people had no idea how to help people with disabilities. I have seen the most insane things, like people with disabilities being hidden or tied up like animals. Once you address this ignorance, you can see a very noticeable evolution in mindsets.
CBM: How have things improved in the past 20 years?
Katharina: Legislation has made a big difference – giving people with disabilities the same rights as everyone else. And a lot is happening at grassroot levels. For example, in a project in Nicaragua, young people with intellectual disabilities are now working as assistants of community workers. This is such a huge achievement that has also benefitted their families. Because when a person changes, his environment changes as well.
CBM: Have you also experienced setbacks?
Katharina: Yes, due to the many natural disasters. I have seen several hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, now the Corona pandemic. The effects are terrible in Nicaragua - the people are desperate; the health system is overwhelmed and so many are dying.
CBM: Are you having a hard time leaving right now?
Katharina: Yes. So, I'm going to go on a little longer. The government of Honduras has requested me to train 700 teachers in inclusive homeschooling because of the ongoing pandemic. I must be careful not to work too much during my retirement! (laughs)
CBM: So, you're staying in Nicaragua?
Katherina: In the future I would like to live in Germany for a few months a year. I am helping build a multigenerational house in Bremen, where I could grow old one day. But most of the year I stay in Nicaragua in my finca (farm) on the edge of the jungle with monkeys and parrots. It is a little paradise and of course I don't want to give it up.