In much of Mexico those with disabilities have very limited access to the larger world. Entry to the workplace, markets, even community centers and government buildings is often impossible. Mexico’s laws protect the rights of those with physical handicaps but the laws are generally unenforced and there are many areas where there is no “handicapped” access.
In 2011 the Senate did not even have “handicapped” access to its newly designed and constructed building. Zacatecan Deputy Claudia Anaya appeared at the bottom of the Senate stairs in her wheelchair drawing national attention to her plight and that of others. There was no access even to the place where the laws protecting their rights were written.
Seven years ago a non-profit organization was formed to provide freedom and public access for those far too often hidden away by their families. Handicapped, physically challenged, paraplegic, quadriplegic, emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic, autistic, mentally retarded, mentally challenged – ALEM (Autonomia, Libertad en Moviemiento / Autonomy Freedom in Movement) eschews all such descriptions and categories -- instead embracing “people with disabilities.”
ALEM was started by community organizer Eduardo Garduño, himself with muscular dystrophy, professional sociologist Mayra Solano, and U.S. expat-businessman and mechanic Erik Friend. ALEM’s mission statement is embodied in its name – Autonomy, Freedom in Movement.
They set up a manufacturing facility that designs and builds wheelchairs and other means for people to get around. Members of the team design, manufacture, weld, sew, and upholster. From the beginning there was recognition that each individual with disabilities' needs are different and that creativity is required to meet the goal of providing freedom, autonomy and movement within their community.
Initially ALEM focused on building handcycles, thinking they would be user-friendly on Mexico’s rough or unpaved roads and good for those with use of their arms but not their legs. Thanks to the creativity of the team and Erik, handcycles soon morphed into a much wider range of transportation mechanisms.
Last week Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins and I visited ALEM to interview founders Mayra Solano and Erik Friend. Not surprisingly they refused any glory for their own efforts, instead wanting recognition only for the remarkable ALEM team. The team itself proudly showed us their newest prototype – a fold-up “briefcase” wheelchair. Though such wheelchairs exist in other countries they are prohibitively expensive. ALEM has also created economical sports chairs allowing athletic programs for the physically challenged. ALEM now even has a bus designed to transport athletes.
Funding is always problematic. In the planning stages ALEM was developed using local funds, but just as ALEM prepared to open its doors the Mexican source of funding disappeared. Erik’s father Howard, a retired Presbyterian minister with a commitment to social justice issues, came to ALEM’s rescue and raised funds in the US. ALEM opened four years ago and thanks to Howard and Betsy Friend and many others it has been serving ever since.
ALEM makes additional money by mending wheelchairs and even doing neighborhood welding. While visiting we saw a small fleet of wheelchairs belonging to one of the large local shopping malls getting repaired. There was also a much-mended chair being repaired and altered for a cancer patient. Some, like the shopping mall, can afford to pay. Others can’t. Thanks to the generosity of donors and the ingenuity of the team itself, they try to turn no one away.
ALEM is handily sandwiched between a junkyard and an auto repair shop, both operated by Erik. Materials needed by the ALEM team can often be found in one of those two places. Broken down wheelchairs from the U.S. are also welcomed and get a new life in Mexico after being in the hands of ALEM’s capable team. ALEM is a cheerful place with a brightly colored table and chairs for meetings and meals. The office itself is sparse but functional.
Mayra and Erik told us that “Mexico City and states to the north are taking large strides in providing access but the rest of Mexico lags far behind. Getting around in a wheelchair or even with a cane is nearly impossible using local mass transit. Here in Morelos bus drivers are penalized if they fall behind on their route. Stopping a bus to help a wheelchair-bound passenger assures the driver of a docking in pay.”
I suggested that the government could issue reimbursable mass transit vouchers. Those with disabilities would give them directly to the driver to offset the money he lost by picking them up.
ALEM’s informative and inspiring website www.alem.org.mx is available in both Spanish and English. There one can see videos of the ALEM team at work and play. Watching a community of equals, though of disparate abilities, is moving. The work they do with the limited resources they have would be astounding for any small factory, but the work of the ALEM team takes the words “amazing,” “inspiring,” “moving” to an entirely new level.