“I am the daughter of a housewife and a car painter” is how the Nicaraguan activist Mesén describes herself, sitting behind her desk in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, where she now lives.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that causes bones to break easily and damages hearing, muscles, teeth and spine, she uses a wheelchair.

“Being born with a disability is complex, not because of the disability itself, but because of all the barriers that society creates,” she said. “Historically and culturally, we have created a model of people. If someone violates that model, we tend to separate them and put up endless barriers because we build society with that model.”

She said that discrimination and a lack of knowledge about the rights of people with disabilities prevented her from attending preschool. In elementary school, she said her mother was ready. An equal opportunities law was already in force, so when her mother contacted the Ministry of Education, she made sure her seven-year-old daughter could go to school.

A young Mesén found staff and students there ready to create an inclusive environment. Her father had created a crib with wheels to accommodate her, as she was unable to sit upright due to her medical condition and the school supported other accessibility efforts.

“It seemed to set a pattern at the school because levels of inclusion had never been established before,” she said.

She did not go to high school due to health reasons, but she never stopped learning, started painting and studying English; she also learned to make crafts and jewelry.

Disability in Costa Rica

More than 670,000 people, or 18 percent of the country’s population, live with a disability – 39 percent men and 61 percent women. Although the vast majority of people with disabilities have access to social security, Costa Rica still faces significant challenges in ensuring full rights to education and employment.

Currently, 56 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed.

At the age of 18, Mesén became an activist to promote the rights of people with disabilities, focusing her efforts on social media rather than campaigning in person.

“My mother gave me all the tools to assert my rights; no one would do that for me,” she said.

When she was 22, she became the first person with a disability to be elected councilor in Goicoechea, a municipality in San José, a position she still holds.

“I saw politics as a platform to make mt activism more visible because I’ve always believed that activism and politics go hand in hand,” she said.

But Mrs. Mesén is never satisfied. She wants to become an activist lawyer to defend human rights.

Mrs. Mesén’s story is an example of struggle and achievement, part of a collection of 20 stories in the book I am a person with a disability in Costa Rica and this is my storynow available online on Spanish.

Part of a series of stories compiled in Costa Rica to raise awareness of the plight of specific people and groups and share their aspirations, struggles, experiences and valuable life lessons, previous editions have amplified the voices of people of African descent and from indigenous communities. The next book in the series will feature stories about migrants.

Promote inclusion

Allegra Baiocchi, UN Habitat Coordinator in Costa Rica, said that people with disabilities, families, communities, institutions and organizations are currently leading a transformation, by taking a people-centered approach to development.

“It is a great challenge for the UN, countries and communities to support groups that have experienced exclusion and have faced extremely complex struggles,” she said. “It’s about listening to them, supporting them and affirming their aspirations for equality and social justice. Every day we learn how to ensure real inclusion and accessibility for all people.”

That includes making sure more people with disabilities have access to employment and leadership positions, she said. The newest This is my story the book recognizes people with disabilities “who inspire us and encourage us to fight for equality, rights and well-being for all people,” she said.

“They teach us that we will not be able to achieve sustainable development unless we close the divides that affect them much more deeply than the rest of the people of Costa Rica,” she said.

When the book was launched, Costa Rica’s Vice President, Mary Munive, said the government is committed to becoming a more inclusive country with more opportunities for all.

“We must ensure that our population with disabilities has access to high-quality education and jobs,” she said.

Ongoing efforts in Costa Rica include implementation of the UN Disability integration strategypromote advocacy and generate evidence and information for decision-making.