Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s president-elect, has described being a paraplegic as a blessing. People who walk, he explained a few years ago, keep their gaze trained forward and upward.
“When you don’t have legs, you look down,” he said in 2012, when he was vice president, during a visit to the World Bank. “That’s what I learned: that there’s another life, another existence, that there are other human beings that need a lot from us. For me, this was a novel experience that I thank God for.”
When he assumes office next month, Mr. Moreno will be the only head of state who needs a wheelchair to get around. That will make him among the most powerful and visible champions of people with disabilities, and position Ecuador to continue setting an example on a human rights issue that has lagged as a global priority.
There are reasons to question whether Mr. Moreno, who won a tight runoff contest on Sunday, will be a good president. The way he snapped at journalists during his first news conference does not bode well for Ecuador’s press freedoms, which eroded sharply during the decade-long tenure of President Rafael Correa, who won his first election in 2006 with Mr. Moreno as a running mate. Critics also fear that the incoming president could shield former government officials suspected of corruption from prosecution.
Yet, on disability rights, Mr. Moreno has spoken with tremendous passion, and there is much he can do to make the world easier to navigate for people like himself.
When Mr. Moreno arrived on the national political stage, he was not always taken seriously. An American diplomatic cable in 2006 about Ecuador’s presidential election was headlined, “Correa Selects Unknown Running-Mate,” and described him with a bit of derision. Mr. Moreno, it said, was a “motivational speaker and promoter of ‘laugh therapy’ for the disabled.” The diplomatic dispatch, which was included in the trove revealed by WikiLeaks, added that another disability advocate had told embassy personnel that Mr. Correa had also offered that person the vice-presidential slot because he “was apparently intent on selecting someone from this sector.”
Mr. Moreno was not regarded as a highly influential vice president under Mr. Correa, a fiery left-wing economist who aligned Ecuador with other socialist governments in Latin America. But his sense of humor, his tendency to break into song at political events and his leadership on social services initiatives for marginalized communities made him popular among Ecuadoreans. Among his first priorities was to carry out a detailed census of Ecuador’s population of people with disabilities.
“When we started on this issue 10 years ago, we had three basic questions,” Xavier Torres, the president of the National Council on Disability Equality, said in an interview. “Where are they, how are they and what do they need.”
The conclusions were horrifying, Mr. Moreno told the United Nations General Assembly in a 2010 speech. “We could not have conceived what we would find: human beings abandoned in holes in the ground, in cages, with silence as their companion and death as their only hope.”
Over the past decade, the government ramped up spending to make public facilities accessible and provide people with wheelchairs, prosthetics and caretakers. It also has promoted Ecuador as a hospitable tourist destination for people with physical disabilities. Before Mr. Correa took office, Mr. Torres said, Ecuador spent $900,000 on disability initiatives; it now allocates roughly $200 million per year.
In 2008, Ecuador approved a new Constitution that, at the urging of Mr. Moreno, guaranteed substantial rights for people with disabilities in schools, the workplace and at home. It made “any form of abuse, inhumane or degrading treatment and discrimination on the basis of disability” a crime. That year, Ecuador became the 20th country to ratify the United Nations’ disability rights convention, pushing the pact past the threshold needed to go into effect.
In 2013, Mr. Moreno left government and at the United Nations became Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy on disability and accessibility. He used that role to chide world diplomats for failing to make disability rights a priority.
“People with disabilities must be active militants in the monumental task of definitively breaking the barriers of exclusion and inequality,” he said in a 2015 speech in New York.
The prospect of seeing Mr. Moreno in the presidential palace is joyous for Ecuadoreans with disabilities, said Mr. Torres, who also uses a wheelchair.
“It’s a milestone for the region,” he said. “The period when we were talked about with pity is over.”