Antonio Palma, UN Volunteer with a visual disability, serving as Communications Assistant for the Resident Coordinator's Office in Guatemala.
Antonio Palma, UN Volunteer with a visual disability, serving as Communications Assistant for the Resident Coordinator's Office in Guatemala.

Antonio Palma, UN Volunteer with a disability: I found the way to reach my full potential

Antonio Palma is a UN Volunteer with a visual disability serving as Communications Assistant for the UN Resident Coordinator's Office (UNRCO) in Guatemala. He has overcome many challenges in his educational and professional path, and is gratified to now be contributing to the United Nations as a volunteer. Antonio shares his story. 

According to my mother; Miriam Palma, when I was one year old, I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. At the age of four, I completely lost my sight. My family was in shock by my situation, they did all that they could, and there was no option for surgery. I have had to deal with my condition my entire life. "Today, I can say that I found the way to reach my full potential," says Antonio Palma, UN Volunteer serving for the UN Resident Coordinator's Office.

“I started school in Santa Lucía when I was five years old. At the school, they offered programmes to accommodate my visual impairment, so I was able to advance in my studies. Moving to a regular school is when I began to face challenges.” The way I was treated by classmates, teachers and other students' families was full of misunderstanding, it was a learning process,” Antonio explains calmly.

He studied music in school, learned to play the violin, piano and the guitar, and he was able to adapt at the music school because the teachers already had experience in teaching those with visual disabilities.

The experience of discrimination that Antonio remembers the most was when his mother went to enroll him in school, and they informed him that there was room, but when the institution realized his disability, they told him that there was no longer space. Discrimination is a reality that affects societies in general. Guatemala is no exception.

People often use inappropriate expressions, which reduce people with disabilities to their limitations without seeing their capabilities, that they are people with human rights, just like the rest.

Antonio is a multi-faceted young man. When starting his career in Communication Sciences at the University of San Carlos Guatemala, he had to experience many instances of exclusion. Starting with the infrastructure itself that had many barriers to mobility, he had to endure the attitudes of those who do not understand the condition of a person with a disability. "I felt challenged to overcome those barriers.” 

“I have fought for the rights of people with disabilities and those from vulnerable groups, which has encouraged me to pursue another educational opportunity in legal and social sciences, as lawyer and notary, allowing me to be in a better position to reach my goals,” says Antonio. He no longer hears the voices that told him this career was not right for him because of his disability.

Today, now that I am in this UN office, I think I have done many things well. Life has allowed me to educate many people on the principles of the SDGs, and I am beginning to deeply understand and live its motto, leave no one behind. --Antonio Palma, UN Volunteer in Guatemala

In this regard, after sighing, he expresses, "Those expressions contain ignorance and are part of a culture of exclusion. We must work on raising awareness and on generating inclusive knowledge." He has in mind to generate processes that will modify regulations such as the Notarial Code, which states that people with visual disabilities cannot practice law.

There are legal professionals who agree with him on the need to modify these regulations, and they will surely be his allies. Antonio says that technology is currently becoming a good ally, as he uses a program called NVDA (Non-visual Desktop Access, access to the desktop for the blind) on his computer.

In November 2021, he arrived at the UN building for a guided tour, with intention to get to know the place and improve his mobility within the offices. He had been hired. He was very excited. “I met my supervisor and was surprised when they said that they were going to learn from me. That was a moment that made me see how far I had come,” he says with great satisfaction.

The Resident Coordinator, Miguel Barreto, spoke in a public meeting about the inclusion of people with disabilities and the honour that it brings for his office to have Antonio's professionalism and commitment. He appreciates that the contributions of his knowledge are taken into account within the UN System and that he is working in the branch that he likes the most and in which he feels comfortable.

He has medium and long-term plans to finish his university degree in Communication Sciences, of which he has little left to complete, to continue contributing to the UN, and in the long term, to complete his law degree and to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

Antonio's hiring is part of the Secretary General's policy of inclusion of persons with disabilities within the UN staff. He brings his experience and knowledge to the Resident Coordinator Office as part of the projects of the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), funded by the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF).

This article was originally published by Noticias Green here and has been slightly edited from the original.

This article was translated with the kind support of Online Volunteer Bryan Parrish.