"Santiago embodies the Lorraine Matusak award. He does not wait for change. He boldly empowers others to be change agents."
- Susan Sygall, CEO of MIUSA in her presentation of the award to Santiago at the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance Global Summit in December 2018
An Agent of Change
Born in Chapalilla, a small town in Nayarit, Mexico from an indigenous Mexican family, Santiago was in an accident that led to his becoming quadriplegic and a wheelchair rider in 1982. This event was the beginning of an amazing chapter of his life as a Mexican social activist, leader, and entrepreneur.
Santiago boldly designed and implemented programs that focused on the 90% of disabled people in Latin America who are “shut ins" by literally going door to door to their homes, designing and manufacturing wheelchairs, and providing health care items such as cushions and catheters. In doing this, he is not only empowering people with disabilities; he is literally saving their lives.
Santiago focuses on what’s important: he mobilizes thousands of people through his grassroots training courses. In these courses, wheelchair riders learn how to leave their homes, navigate physical barriers such as flights of stairs, and fight for legislation to improve accessibility. He has dedicated his life to these trainings and opened up his home to hundreds of people.
His strategy is brilliant. He has scaled up his training to serve those throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and he expects hard work, dedication, and risk-taking, not only from himself, but from the hundreds of people whom he mentors as part of his leadership team: an army of people with disabilities working tirelessly in the grassroots in rural villages and big cities alike. Hundreds of people have become leaders because of Santiago. They respect him as a man of action and principle.
Santiago is outspoken and persistent, and he is willing to confront authority figures, whether elected officials or royalty, to get across his disability rights message. His achievements in bettering the human condition for persons with disabilities, and his ability to train disabled leaders (or perhaps warriors) is unprecedented in contributing to leadership that emboldens leadership. Santiago has a lifelong commitment to do what's right for people with disabilities - and is fearless in his commitment.
Since 1992, Santiago’s commitment to disability rights has positioned him as the President-Elect of Nayarit’s State Assembly For People With Disabilities, and a year later as the President-Elect of COMELFIRDEM, a Mexican organization that promotes disability rights and opportunities all around the country and internationally. By 1994, Santiago represented Mexico at the Disabled People International and was the leader of developing projects for the United Nations in Latin America.
He has forged a training program that encompasses what no traditional rehabilitation system has been able to achieve: wheelchair training, political action, healthcare, pride, employment, adaptive equipment, and more.
His mantra is “No excuses!” - that is, disabled people cannot wait for society, government officials or health care providers to rescue them; disabled people need to take action for themselves now.
When Fundación Mexicana para la Integración Social (Social Integration Mexican Foundation) was created, the real work began. Santiago designed a unique, functional, light, resistant and cheap training wheelchair that later became the trademark of the organization. He started leading training camps as models against the traditional rehabilitation systems. In doing so, Santiago managed to change lives towards autonomy and healthcare. Recognizing the importance of a daily independent living training, he founded the Vida Independiente (Independent Life) in August 2000 and gave his first training of trainers camp that same year. Santiago has said that the organization and the work that it does is “the love of his life.”
Leadership in Action
Santiago empowers people with disability to believe in themselves, to trust, to travel, to dare, to work in formal employment, to fall in love, to finish school, to live and be the game changers, the leaders they’re supposed to be. His “chuecos” as he likes to call them, are his family of more than 20,000 sons and daughters.
Today, more than 30 years after Santiago’s car accident, Vida Independiente works with Argentina, Cuba, Poland, Panama, Nicaragua, USA, Brazil, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Colombia, Spain, and Guatemala. Each year it coordinates workshops, trainings, and training camps in 90% of Mexico’s states at a rate of 55 to 60 trainings per year as well as a permanent training camp in Mexico City that opens twice per week. He always says that sharing knowledge, experience and passion is the secret to train “an army of leaders”).
30 years in a wheelchair, more than 20 years working in disability and 18 with Vida Independiente, 20,000 lives touched, more than 2000 wheelchairs given away, 260 training camps…these numbers are only a simple way to try to summarize Santiago’s life, the life of a human being that opens his house for people in need; gets scholarships for the ones that prove to him that they want to have their lives back in track after their disability; that without hesitation funds the expenses to pay for any cost that will empower people with disabilities… that's leadership in action.
Santiago was presented with the Matusak Courageous Leadership Award during the Kellogg Fellowship Leadership Alliance Global Summit in Atlanta, Georgia on December 1, 2018. As a recipient of the award, he will receive a cash award of $3,000 to further his work. MIUSA CEO Susan Sygall, a Kellogg Fellow, presented the award.