“Difference is an advantage to learn from others”

Viviana Barrera Amado is General Director of Sinapsis Colombia Foundation, an educational research center dedicated to providing tools for the communicative, cognitive and artistic development of people with disabilities. In this interview for the 3Love Inc. blog, we talked about the Foundation’s mission, its pedagogical model focused on neuropsychology, the facilitating role of art in learning, among other topics.


What is the mission of Sinapsis Colombia Foundation?

Sinapsis Colombia Foundation was born out of a need in the area of care for people who have complex disabilities, who have multiple disabilities due to orphan pathologies or conditions of degenerative disorders and that really in Colombia often do not have optimal care in health and in that specialty that a person in the process of growth needs: a child, a young person or an adult who has a disability condition. And on the other hand, there is also the educational issue, because the learning process of these children has very specific conditions that many times public education or conventional education does not manage to cover completely. From this arose this mission to start providing tools to this population so that they can develop their life project, so that they can generate an active participation in society. We are a team of professionals from different areas that work in therapeutic, neurological, psychological and pedagogical support with this type of population and that is why we joined together to create the Sinapsis Colombia Foundation, to create spaces of participation where children can learn and begin to enter into working life, social life and the undertaking of their life projects.


How do you apply neuroscience to the education of people with disabilities?

The Foundation has its own pedagogical model of intervention, created from the analysis we make from neuropsychology of the learning processes in a person. When we have all our senses and our cognitive capacity, generally we will also have a greater interest in certain types of knowledge, in certain topics in particular, which is the reason why our brain specializes in these types of activities. Those of us who have a profession, in addition to the passion with which we exercise our work when it is what we like, well, we are also very good at the activity, because our whole body and our brain is focused on that activity. And this is the premise of learning, whenever there is an interest or a mastery of a subject, learning becomes naturalized. It is much easier for it to become fixed in our brain structure. And we realized that regardless of whether you have a physical, sensory, cognitive or multiple condition, your brain is still eagerly waiting for knowledge to arrive, for something to stimulate it. So we said: Why not look for that way in the brain to be able to stimulate it and make the things that suddenly do not work at all well, to transform them into other ways of learning so that this knowledge reaches people? And we started to link different theories, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.


What does this theory consist of?

Currently, IQ is not evaluated, as it used to be, only if a person knew how to read, write, add, subtract and multiply and was considered to be someone intelligent or able to solve problems, because it was a closed way of evaluating knowledge and intelligence. Howard Gardner suggests that there are other forms of intelligence that are immersed in the skills and abilities that the person develops. Then we began to realize that there are many children who are born with a strong intellectual capacity for the language of music, but who are not so good in other subjects related to physical education or mathematics or other types of things that we sometimes consider more important than being a musician. And this is what has taken a divergent path in education, the understanding that our brain also learns in different ways and that it is motivated by certain intelligences, because the brain structure is also predesigned to specialize in those differences. And even if that intelligence is suddenly limited by a physical restriction, your brain will be predisposed to be interested in those abilities and to compensate for those things that do not work well. And we must also understand that within the limitations of a diagnosis, those parts of the brain that should be in charge of the activities or functions that are weak in a person with a disability do not mean that the brain says: “Well, this part does not work for me, let’s leave it there”, but, on the contrary, it has the capacity to mobilize itself, to learn new functions and to adapt. This is what neurology has contributed in recent years to the learning process, which is not only a distant organ that we are afraid to touch because we know it is very complex, but it is also the basis of any learning process and of any way in which a person wants to know the world and acquire knowledge.


What kind of artistic or recreational activities do students do to stimulate their intelligence?

This is something very interesting, because in the work with people with disabilities, art has often been present. We always say that children with Down syndrome like to dance, that there are blind children who are very skilled in music, that there are deaf people who develop impressive manual skills. And that is part of the culture that we have had of artistically training people who have a condition because we know that this sense is compensated or there is a generalized interest in this type of diagnosis. That’s where it gets a little more complicated, because there are kids with impressive diagnoses in medical jargon that you would say: “He can’t do many things because his condition doesn’t allow him to do it”, but when you have him in front of you and you put him in an activity you realize that this diagnosis sometimes falls short and sometimes denies many things that this patient or this beneficiary can do. So our model understands that we need to fully stimulate the children’s learning, not only for an artistic skill, but for their daily life. And art is that facilitator, it is the main motivation for the spirit of the artist, it is in his vocation of what he can develop, you may or may not have talent, but the tranquility that art gives you makes your brain predisposed to learn. So it has always been a transversal exercise, here they have a music room with many different musical instruments, percussion, strings, winds, so that they can explore that artistic spirit through music, they have a multisensory classroom where they work on dance, artistic expression, theater, corporality. Some of them really like written expression. The whole environment is designed so that the pedagogical experiences are oriented to this artistic expression, because it also puts you in a zone of comfort and tranquility where you let those emotions flow and you also have to apply neuropsychology, neurology, the management of emotions, especially when there are children who have difficulties in communicating or expressing their emotions. It is the simplest, but also the most natural way for this knowledge and emotion to flow.


How many people with disabilities does the Foundation currently serve and what is their age range?

In the Foundation, we serve more or less 30 families. Here we do not only work with the child with a disability, but also with his or her family, because we have to guarantee a permanent environment where we are all in sync in the life project of our student. In the same way, the Foundation has an impact outside our headquarters and we also work a lot in the municipalities, with children from different schools, we do institutional training in other townships to be able to take this way of educating to another type of population. This is spreading much more in rural areas and in other environments where we have taken the knowledge, we have trained other advisors to work part of the model in their classrooms. So we are talking about one thousand, one thousand two hundred or even more children whom we have impacted in a certain way within the model and the attention that the Foundation provides outside the headquarters. And the age range does not matter, we have worked from children from 3 months old to adults over 80 years old or even older, because this model allows us to work at any stage of life and to understand what is the level of maturation and stimulation that the brain has in order to be able to attend patients in any life cycle.


How can low-income people have access to the Foundation’s educational services? Do you have scholarship programs?

Yes, we seek sponsorship for our students who do not have the economic capacity to be able to finance the tuition or pension of the Foundation, but independently of that, the family always has a participation in that cost because it is not only a work of obtaining the resource, but also of commitment and connection with the activities of the Foundation. So, although there is a symbolic economic contribution, compared to what the full cost of tuition or pension would be, there is also the meaning of being a volunteer in the Foundation, in supporting each other. The scholarships and donors who support the Foundation are generally those who sponsor our children to ensure that there is economic support, in terms of transportation, refreshments or the resources required for them to attend the Foundation. There are also the resources that we generate in projects, in complementary activities that are financed and that go to this common fund to be able to sponsor the children who need it most.


How did the vocation to dedicate yourself to teaching and empowering people with disabilities originate in you?

I think it is a confluence of different factors. I have always had an attitude of service, I have always liked to volunteer and do social activities. I have an ability to be a leader in some projects and lead people to get involved and make social service a way of life and this is something that also allows one to be always focused on service, but also to understand the dynamics of the society in which we live, of the country in which we are. This is also a product of the professional training that one must have to be able to do things well, beyond the vocation. On the other hand, I am a disabled person, I have total visual disability. Living that personal experience yourself, having studied and having a professional career, a master’s degree, having that experience of educating and training yourself as a professional with a disability is also to understand the difficulties that one has to face in order to have access to this type of services and to be able to be autonomous and strong in your knowledge and in your professional experience in a world where many times there are restrictions in the labor world, there is rejection by people towards people with disabilities. So all this is a universe of things that make you form that criterion and say: “I want to prepare myself as a professional to do this, because I know firsthand what is happening, because I know what the difficulties are. And if I prepare myself and make this change in some way, it will be very significant and we will also open the doors to others who come after me wanting to become who they dream of being”. I have a degree in Special Education, so this has connected me with all types of disabilities, not only with visual disabilities, which is the one I live with every day, but with all types of diagnoses, so as not to limit people to their diagnosis, but also to think about what is behind that diagnosis in those people who want to be the protagonists of their lives.


What needs to change for people with disabilities to have greater opportunities for personal and professional growth?

It is a cycle of change. Sometimes we think that we have to completely change the structure of a country in terms of government or policies, so that everything is accessible and easy, but we do not realize that many times this is already done, but there is no practice. A few years ago the law on the rights of persons with disabilities came out. And if you read it, it is perfect, it makes it the ideal world for people with disabilities, because there are infrastructural reforms and all kinds of reforms. Many countries signed it and said, “Yes, we are going to do that.” But to this day many have not done it, while others are doing it a little bit at a time. But the policy is simply one of the parts. Yes, making an inclusive policy is the regulation and it is the path that should be followed in order to be inclusive and to have facilities for people with disabilities, but if that stays only in the policy it doesn’t work. Then there is the second step, which is practices and making this real, making changes, applying it in industry, in education, in health, in social and communicative relations of a society. And these two aspects together give way to the third, which is culture. A culture is not transformed just because I say: “Today we are going to do everything together and we are going to respect others”, but this is something that is produced as a consequence of well done practices, of practicing every day the exercise of having certain customs or certain behaviors that make me respect my neighbor and that I am also free in my exercise of this respect. This is how the culture of a country is transformed, with permanent practice, with very clear policies. And this will really make it as simple as it is in some countries to be a person with a disability, when everyone in their culture and education understands that the difference is an advantage to learn from others. So, I think that’s how it works, it’s pretty easy to pronounce, but hard to do. However, each one of us starts the journey and we walk it as we choose.

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