Amanda Blackwell standing with Guatemalans

Dr. Amanda Blackwell surrounded by some of her DIGNA “Champions”

Guest blog by RMUoHP Doctor of Speech-Language Pathology alumna Dr. Amanda Blackwell.

If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I would be living and working full-time in Guatemala, I would have laughed. So, much to my surprise was the April 2013 week-long mission trip to Honduras that changed the course of my life: my eyes were opened to the needs of people with disabilities in Central America.

Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH USA) needed a speech-language pathologist at an orphanage in Guatemala and I decided to apply for the volunteer position. My application was accepted and I was asked to report to the orphanage a month later.

I didn’t speak Spanish and I had never been to Guatemala, but I took a leap of faith and seized the opportunity. A one-year commitment ended up turning into living in Guatemala for the last six years.

Developing Career Services for Adults with Disabilities

When I arrived in Guatemala, one thing I noticed was a lack of services for adults with disabilities. After I completed my year commitment to NPH USA, two friends and I hatched the idea to start DIGNA International, a job training program created for adults with disabilities to help them gain employment. We refer to these adults as champions.

The champions’ diagnoses include cerebral palsy, unspecified intellectual disabilities, autism, blindness, and deafness (currently 17 champions are deaf). WeAmanda Blackwell walking with a blind man currently have 70 champions in our job training program and they have learned skills that are valuable in our region, in areas such as restaurant and retail hosting, beautician services, computers, cooking, tourism, and craft making.

Preparing Champions for the Dream Job

We help champions begin their journey toward employment with person-centered planning. With the help of specially-trained therapists and special educators, an interview is conducted to identify the interests and strengths of each champion. A “dream job” is chosen by the champion and then the DIGNA team gets to work designing an individualized vocational training plan.  The plan includes the cognitive, social, emotional, and vocational skills needed in order for that person to be successful in their dream job.

Meanwhile, contact is constantly being made with potential employers that offer the dream job. We also give a free disability sensitivity training to each company’s human resources department and the local employees.

Job Placement & Ongoing Support

When the champion reaches the point in their vocational training in which they have competency and consistency with the skills required for their dream job, interviews are set up with the various companies. If the employer prefers, a trial employment/internship is offered for an agreed upon period of time, and, upon satisfactory completion of the trial period, the champion is officially hired.

Two people happily working in a kitchenOngoing support is provided by DIGNA through consistent communication with the place of employment, continuing education/training for staff and administration, and job coaches to help the champion adapt, if necessary.

The Future

DIGNA plans to hire more therapists and experts in the field, as well as involve volunteers living in the Antigua area to help accompany the champions in their training and jobs. We currently operate out of a small 10’ x 9’ office space.  With the anticipated growth, we will need to find a larger space where champions can participate in the interviewing, planning, training, and follow-up stages of the DIGNA work inclusion program.

One of our goals is to deliver ongoing education and training for local businesses, schools, and organizations who wish to learn more about successful work inclusion programs. While it is a valued gesture to open the company doors for one person with disabilities, it is a game changer to create a quality and sustainable work inclusion program for generations to come.

The Impact of My Education on DIGNA

My Doctor of Speech-Langauge Pathology degree from Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions has given me the tools that I need to continue to dream big and lead DIGNA in positive direction. My courses in ethics, supervision, leadership, and public policy challenged me to think critically about my current situation and come up with innovative strategies to make a genuine and long-lasting impact for people with disabilities in Guatemala.

If you are interested in helping, please visit www.dignaguate.org, find DIGNA on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DIGNAinternational, or contact Amanda Blackwell at [email protected].