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lunes, 15 de abril 2024
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A paradigm-shifting audiothesis at UdeA

By Carlos Olimpo Restrepo S, Journalist

Johan Rodríguez, who lost his sight in 1991, is the first graduate of UdeA's PhD program in law. The format of his thesis, presented only in audio, is a novelty at the university and possibly in Colombia. The content, deserving of the magna cum laude (with high honor) distinction, posits that the State, within its social function, must provide a non-contributory pension to people with disabilities.

Johan Rodríguez and his thesis advisor persuaded the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences to include in its doctoral regulations the possibility of doing their work in audio format. Photo: UdeA Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe

There are people with disabilities who get along in our society without major problems and are included in the labor market or who study up to the highest levels of some disciplines. But there are others for whom this condition makes it difficult to progress, and they can barely make ends meet, or then some others who depend entirely on the help of other individuals.

This last group is the target of a bill that Johan Andrés Rodríguez included in his doctoral audiothesis “El Derecho a una pensión: una necesaria reconceptualización para las personas con discapacidad desde la dignidad humana en Colombia (The Right to a Pension: A Necessary Reconceptualization for Individuals with Disabilities through the Lens of Human Dignity in Colombia),” which was awarded magna cum laude, or outstanding, by the jurors of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at UdeA. This work is already available for consultation in the UdeA Library System.

The evaluators, in their qualification report, described the thesis as "a novel and coherent scientific proposal for a non-contributory pension for people with disabilities." The proposal is grounded in philosophical principles that encompass dignity, respect for others, and embracing differences. The legal proposal aims to secure recognition for human beings, particularly those with disabilities, as a responsibility of both State and society.

The text "overcomes cultural and rational barriers around the construction of a thesis that proposes inclusion from moral philosophy and law. In addition, it provides a tangible framework for realizing the implementation of social rights in a State governed by the rule of law," they added.

"The doctoral thesis presents a novel and coherent scientific proposal for a non-contributory pension dedicated to individuals with disabilities. Drawing from philosophical principles such as dignity, respect for others, and the acknowledgment of differences, the thesis culminates in a legal proposal. This legal framework seeks to establish the recognition of human beings, particularly those with disabilities, as an obligation of both State and society." Thesis evaluation report.

The process towards a new format

This novel presentation of an undergraduate or graduate proyect at Universidad de Antioquia, the audiothesis, was accepted in the Law and Society research line of the First Cohort of the PhD program in law. On July 14th, Rodríguez was the first student of the program to graduate.

How was this format accepted? Johan Andrés Rodríguez began his academic journey at UdeA in 2003, initially pursuing Economics. Concurrently, he studied Law at the University of Medellín, where he graduated in 2007. He returned to UdeA to pursue Philosophy, completing his degree in 2013. Continuing his academic objectives, he pursued a master’s degree in law at UdeA, completing it in 2016.

Johan did his undergraduate and master’s degree studies at UdeA like any other student. Despite losing his vision in 1991 at the age of eight, when he was in third grade, due to a bomb explosion near the Olaya Herrera Airport, he submitted his work in the standard written format. He provided a written document, not in braille, along with a CD for the library. He did them that way because he did not consider the written format an obstacle to his professional goals..

"Surely there have been barriers, but I feel that for me they have not been so many, because one thing is that they really exist and another is that, although they exist, I consider them to be barriers," said Rodriguez, who added that his visual impairment has not made him feel excluded or discriminated.

In 2017, after starting his PhD in law, he aimed to bring about a change in the regulations so that theses could be presented in audio format at least ofr the first cohort. This was a new concept at Universidad de Antioquia, but his thesis director, Sandra Patricia Duque Quintero, supported his idea.

"This possibility was embodied in Faculty Agreement 04 of 2020 (...) and by which Johan was allowed to present the first audiothesis at Univerdidad de Antioquia and be the first PhD in law of the University", said the professor, who coordinates the line of research in Labor Law and Social Security.

Johan Rodríguez and Professor Sandra Duque want this to transcend to the whole University. "It's a matter that solely demands political will. A paragraph can be incorporated into Article 34 of the current Superior Agreement 432 of 2014 - governing student regulations for postgraduate degrees - which oversees graduate work. This addition would permit students with disabilities to present their theses using tools adapted to each of their specific needs, ensuring the protection of their rights," explained the professor.

Rodriguez explained that, as he was doing a doctoral thesis focusing on people with disabilities -as he did in the undergraduate program in Philosophy and his Master's in Law-, "with Professor Sandra we considered that what I was doing was not only for me, but for a large population, and therefore we thought that the work should extend beyond just developing thesis content and be a contribution benefiting the broader community of people with disabilities. Since the PhD regulations were just being drafted, we decided to propose, within the framework of the right to accessibility, an article that would allow people with disabilities to present theses in formats adapted to their needs, and this was accepted."

The axis of the audiothesis

In 2017, Johan highlighted that while advancing the process to enter this postgraduate program, he realized the importance of conducting research that could make meaningful contributions to individuals with disabilities, extending beyond those, like himself, who had lost their sight.

“This project brings together two major areas that I have explored as a professor and researcher: constitutional law and legislation on pensions and social security. The concept behind the audiothesis was to advocate for a non-contributory pension for some people with disabilities. Hence, the project’s title emphasizes the need for a reconceptualization of human dignity. Our objective is to ensure that the law provides people with disabilities a life with dignity,” he noted.

Rodriguez explained that the non-contributory pension involves providing a monthly payment to individuals with severe disabilities without requiring any contribution from the beneficiary. “It is an innovative and well-founded scientific proposal, incorporating a robust theoretical framework that integrates philosophical elements such as dignity, respect for others, and embracing differences. This culminates in a legal proposition that seeks to recognize individuals, particularly those with disabilities, as an unresolved obligation that the State and society have,” said Professor Sandra Duque.

She added, “The idea is to generate a meaningful impact with the research and translate it into legislation that enhances the lives of individuals with severe disabilities in Colombia. We must actively collaborate with Antioquia representatives in Congress so that our voices are heard.”

If the bill is approved, Johan’s objective is to prioritize individuals with more severe disabilities, such as cerebral palsy to assist in their development, and then gradually expand this benefit to encompass a wider population.

And to have increasingly inclusive institutions in society, such as UdeA, although Johan is not very fond of these concepts. “I don't need to be included. People with disabilities have always been there. The fact that they haven't wanted to see us is another thing. We need our rights to be respected,” he emphasized.

Figures that show the reality in Colombia

According to the 2018 National Population Census, compiled by the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Dane), 4.3% of the country's inhabitants, equivalent to 1.76 million people aged 5 and above, presented some type and degree of disability.

However, other national studies conducted by the same entity between 2020 and 2021 reveal that between 4.5% to 6.0% of the Colombian population has disabilities. This implies there might be up to 2.65 million individuals aged 5 and above who present some physical or cognitive condition, classifying them as such.

Regarding education, while 16% of people with disabilities have no schooling, 2.6% of the population without disabilities does not attend school. This disparity persists across different levels of education and amplifies as the education level increases. For instance, only 8% of individuals with disabilities enter university, and less than 1% pursue a postgraduate degree.

 In terms of employment, by the end of 2021, approximately 21.9% of people with disabilities were employed. However, 17% of them were in informal positions, with only 4.9% being part of the formal labor market, meaning they are covered by the contributory social security system and pay their share to get a pension, among other benefits.

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