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date: 10 December 2022

Disability in Guatemalalocked

Disability in Guatemalalocked

  • Heather VranaHeather VranaHistory Department, University of Florida


In Guatemala, experiences, meanings, and impacts of disability differed depending on one’s race, ethnicity, gender, social class, education, and location, among other factors. They also changed over time. Pre-Hispanic Mayan art indicates physical disability did not exclude people from the elite. In the colonial period (1521–1821), an important charity hospital system emerged. Some Guatemalans who might be identified as disabled today lived with widows and orphans in charity hospices and asylums. Disabled Guatemalans underwent cutting-edge treatments, for better or worse, owing to avid medical research by the protomedicato and faculty at the University of San Carlos. After independence in the early 19th century, Catholic charity endured and worked in tandem with state-building projects, even as disputes between the Conservative and Liberal parties churned. Guatemala’s growing hospital system relied upon this cooperation. The new century brought explosive growth in infrastructure and an expanded role of the state in everyday life. Reforms in policing, public health, and education transformed the lives of some disabled Guatemalans, often expanding confinement and surveillance alongside medical resources. The period of democratic florescence, known as the “Ten Years Spring” (1944–1954), brought reforms, including the creation of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) in 1946 and work-injury, illness, and maternity-benefits laws. Between 1946 and 1948, the Guatemalan and US governments conducted syphilis experiments on disabled residents of the Insane Asylum (Asilo de Alienados), as well as on soldiers, incarcerated people, orphans, and commercial sex workers. By the mid-20th century, decades—or even centuries—of inequality debilitated poor Guatemalans. Chronic illness, workplace injury, malnutrition, and other endemic conditions created temporary and permanent disabilities. Civil war (1960–1996) erupted and revolutionary groups argued that they fought to end the inequality that caused debilitating conditions. The war itself created new disabled people. Combat, torture, and trauma transformed Guatemalans. Yet the Historical Clarification Commission report neglected this topic and the experiences of disabled people in the war. Unlike their peers in El Salvador, Guatemalan veterans did not form influential advocacy organizations after the war. Since the 1990s, disability has been a serious cause and effect of widespread migration to the United States. Migrants have fled Guatemala because of inadequate access to disability-related healthcare and education. Some people have been disabled by dangerous conditions en route to the United States.


  • History of Central America
  • Social History
  • Science, Technology, and Health

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