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Disability Life
Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities
 

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Dr. Carlos Perez Lopez, Director of DIF (above) and Handicapped parking space across from the Unidad de Rehabilitacion(below).

 

Walkways are not exactly accessible. (left)   The ramp at the hospital might warrant a stay after attempting to get up it!

 

 

 

Mexico: New Ideas in an Old Country

by Margi Ness

We had been driving for two days. The trip from Boulder to Guanajuato went by quickly. It had been 30 years since I’d driven to Mexico, and I was pleased with the road improvements. To make time, we paid the price and took the well-maintained toll roads. Zipping along, we arrived in Guanajuato, a beautiful colonial city in the mountains northwest of Mexico City, long before the required arrival time at the Instituto Falcon. The language school had arranged for a family stay and we had to arrive in time to register for classes and get to our family’s home for dinner.

Our elation at arriving in Guanajuato was short-lived. For three hours we drove through the city’s maze of underground tunnels in search of the school. Down we’d go into one tunnel and up we’d pop 10 minutes later — in the same place we had started. We stopped and asked directions again and again. People tried to be helpful, but between our poor Spanish and the confusing streets, the sun was setting by the time we found the Instituto. Now, we had to find a place to park on the narrow, cobblestone street. The closest place was a block away. As we pulled into the rocky parking spot, we noticed a "handicapped only" parking sign. What? In Mexico? I looked around to see if there was a special reason for the sign. Directly across the street was a building proclaiming Unidad de Rehabilitacion, a rehab center. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was hoping staff at the school could help me find people with disabilities or a place I could learn about services for the disability community. Here, before getting out of the car, was just what I was looking for. As we left to find another parking space, I resolved that I would return the next day to see what this organization was all about.

My return led to an appointment with Dr. Carlos Perez Lopez, Director de Asistencia a Personas con Discapacidad (director of assistance to persons with disabilities). Dr. Perez Lopez explained how the program operates. Assistance to Persons with Disabilities is part of DIF, a nationally funded agency similar to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. DIF has offices in every state and in many cities in the country. It provides a wide array of services to poor people. State and local governments can supplement the federal funds, so DIF services vary across the country based on the level of additional support. The state of, and cities in, Guanajuato (Gte), one of the wealthiest areas in Mexico, contribute significantly to DIF. Therefore, the level of service in the area is higher than in most parts of the country. By law, the president of the state DIF is the spouse of the Governor. In Guanajuato, however, the Governor is the president because he is single. At the city level, the spouse of the Mayor is DIF’s president.

Working with DIF is a statewide, non-governmental organization called Union Guanajuantense de Personas con Discapacidad (union of people with disabilities from Guanajuato). Twenty-four of the 48 cities in Gte. have sub-associations that are members of the state union. The president of the union is the Governor. The union advises the government regarding what services are needed.

The main areas DIF and the union are currently focused on are:

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Legislation

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Accessible telecommunication

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Sports, culture and recreation

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Labor and work capacity

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Education

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Health

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Transportation

DIF coordinates services, but many organizations provide the services. The Red Cross, for example, provides transportation, similar to many areas of the United States. The only service DIF provides directly is rehabilitation, the program directed by Dr. Perez Lopez.

There are three levels of rehabilitation clinics across the state: Thirty-two cities have clinics with basic services; three have doctors with some specialties; and one clinic has doctors in most specialties. It is the goal of DIF to add ten additional clinics within one year so that every city in the state will have a basic clinic. Fees are based on income. This is very important because most people have no insurance.

The Gte. DIF has been very successful. In media communication, for example, persons with disabilities are on the radio and television talking about their lives and the problems they face. In education, persons with disabilities are now mainstreamed. Not long ago, even cross-eyed people were sent to a special school. In legislation, persons with disabilities have the support of the state congress. Every two months, there is a meeting with a congressional representative, a staff person from DIF, the president of the union, and a volunteer lawyer. The lawyer helps write needed city and state laws/regulations to help persons with disabilities. Dr. Perez Lopez believes the Gte. DIF is the best in the country because of the direct connection between the government, the union, and the service provider.

Despite their successes, Dr. Perez Lopez says the needs are very great and the funding limited. The two major problems he is currently focusing on are transportation and access to hearing aides. Although there is some transportation available for persons with disabilities, there are no accessible vehicles. I saw handicapped parking signs around the state, but once at a location, maneuvering around could be difficult. Buildings are becoming more accessible, but the narrow streets and sidewalks often cannot be widened to allow a person in a wheelchair to navigate safely. The rolling topography in the city of Gte. is a barrier to accessibility for that city. To get to our family’s home and many other homes in the city, one had to climb up a long, narrow, steep walkway. It would have been impossible in a wheelchair and difficult for people with many other physical disabilities. In addition to the topography, the designation of Gte’s Patrimonio Cultural de la Humanidad (an international cultural heritage sight) makes it difficult to change architectural design necessary to make buildings accessible.

Hearing aides are simply unaffordable. Many children need hearing aides but at a cost of $800 per ear, they are out of reach. Dr. Perez Lopez has been writing grants to the States and received 100 aides from ICARE International, a laboratory in Minneapolis, but many more are needed. Ophthalmology used to be a major need until Dr. Ward Mould, a New York doctor who retired in Guanajuato, procured used equipment from the States and volunteered to set up and operate the ophthalmology department. Dr. Mould recently died but his legacy continues. Dr. Perez Lopez says Dr. Mould was a man with a big heart who he thinks about every day.

Other U.S. agencies have been trying to help throughout Mexico. Access Exchange International (AEI), a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, reported a breakthrough in Latin America in the summer, 1999 issue of Accessible Transportation Around the World." New commitments to "mobility for all" were noted at a March Mexico City workshop led by Tom Rickert, Executive Director of AEI. Sponsored by the Mexico City Metro, more than 80 transportation officials and staff, as well as disability leaders, participated. Projects are underway in Mexico City to make five key subway stations accessible on two existing lines, along with nine stations on a new line under construction. Access features will include elevators and ramps. Guideways and signs for blind persons, with Braille and raised letters, have already been installed at some stations. The planned access to portions of one of the world’s largest subway systems is supplemented by current deployment of 25 lift-equipped buses and trolley buses on three major lines, with 65 more vehicles scheduled to go into accessible service.

Mexico has made enormous strides in the last decade. Much remains. Businesses such as ICARE and AEI are to be commended for assisting our neighbors to the south. Working together, life for persons with disabilities across the globe is improving.

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