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Jeison Aristizábal seated in a chair smiling

Jeison Aristizábal—CNN Hero of the Year 2016 and Nonprofit Founder with Cerebral Palsy

Rockville, Md., Oct. 15 – Jeison Aristizábal was born in one of the most impoverished areas in Cali, Colombia. Now he runs a nonprofit to provide educational and medical support for kids who live in the same conditions that he grew up in.

Aristizábal was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after he was born and doctors said he would not amount to anything more than a shoe shiner. Children in school would call him hurtful nicknames like “torcido,” which translates to “twisted,” referring to how his body moved.

“My son has to succeed and I always told him that ‘you have to make yourself valued for your abilities, you are so worthy,'” Aristizábal’s mother, María Emilia, said in an interview with NBC News Latino.

So Aristizábal did. While he realized he had the support he needed to eventually live an independent life, he also understood there were many children with disabilities in his community who did not. And so he started a nonprofit to change all of that—at no cost to the kids or their families.

“Many families…are misinformed. They think that it’s God’s punishment. There are children who spend years in bed…because their families don’t know how to care for them,” Aristizábal told CNN.

The foundation, ASODISVALLE (Association of Disabled People of the Valley), began when Aristizábal met a young boy who grew up bedridden due to his disability and the lack of care he was provided to mitigate the effects of it. He started collecting and donating wheelchairs so the boy and others like him could at least move. Then he provided physical therapy, a school, a medical clinic, food, and a job-training program for children.

While studies show many people within the Hispanic and other communities hide their invisible disability due to negative stigmas, Aristizábal made a career out of it. He is therefore an important example of RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which features people with disabilities who succeed in their chosen career.

Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and polls show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. There are 4,869,400 Latinx/Hispanics living with a disability in the U.S. Only 37 percent of working-age Latinx/Hispanics with disabilities are employed in the U.S. compared to 73.9 percent of working-age Latinx/Hispanics without disabilities. Aristizábal is proof that this does not have to be the norm.

The economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. People like Aristizábal are making a difference.

In 2016, Aristizábal received the Hero of the Year Award from CNN and was studying law in order to fight for children with disabilities in Colombia.

“Around the world, when families have a kid with a disability, they think that child won’t be capable of much. We have to change that idea completely. We have to tell these families that their child may have a disability, but that doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have talents that will enable them to succeed in life, ” Aristizábal told CNN.

Meet the Author

Theresa Maher

Theresa Maher is a Communications Fellow at RespectAbility and a junior at American University. Her drive to advocate for people with disabilities started young when she realized her mother's students in special education and her uncle with autism were not accurately portrayed in Hollywood.

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