Helping Wheelchair Users Navigate Mexico City's Hectic Streets And Sidewalks : Parallels Mexico City can be unfriendly terrain for those in a wheelchair. But a new program aims to help them better navigate the city's bad traffic, broken pavement and oblivious pedestrians.
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Helping Wheelchair Users Navigate Mexico City's Hectic Streets And Sidewalks

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Helping Wheelchair Users Navigate Mexico City's Hectic Streets And Sidewalks

Helping Wheelchair Users Navigate Mexico City's Hectic Streets And Sidewalks

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To get around Mexico City, you have to deal with broken sidewalks, dangerous intersections and horrible traffic. There are new laws that aim to help the disabled get around, but they can't undo decades of negligence. So for people who have to navigate the city in a wheelchair, it's sometimes a matter of learning specific skills. James Fredrick reports.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: With 5 million cars on the road every day, Mexico City feels hostile to pedestrians, but pedestrians are just another obstacle for Jasson Garcia.

JASSON GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "The hardest thing is the way people behave in the streets," he says. The streets are inaccessible, and on top of that, people can just be rude and unhelpful. This skinny 15-year-old operates his wheelchair deftly through the tricky sidewalks. He was born with the most serious form of spina bifida, which means he only has very limited use of his legs. As he rolls through downtown Mexico City, it seems there's an obstacle every few feet.

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FREDRICK: Street stands block the sidewalk, so he has to go around, which means hopping up a curve. But on the other side, the pavement is broken and warped. Amazingly, Jasson seems totally unfazed by it all. His dad walks with him but never once helps him.

JASSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "It's frustrating the city is unaccessible," he says, "but whatever. You just have to adapt." Jasson may sound nonchalant now, but things weren't always this easy. About three years ago, he started attending this workshop that trains people in wheelchairs to get around the city alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: The course is run by the NGO Vida Independiente, meaning independent life, and is held at the city government's disability services office. A group of about 30 people in wheelchairs split up in the large courtyard. Scattered around are structures they've built to replicate obstacles you'd find in the street. There are metal stairs with a hand railing and platforms that simulate curbs.

RUBEN NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: This is Ruben Navarro, the director of Vida Independiente. He and the other coaches used tough love to push the students.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "Our philosophy is to teach people how to fish, not give them a fish," he says. "Look around. Everyone here is working hard. They're all fighting to become independent and live a totally normal life." In Mexico, the perception of disabilities can be summed up in one word - pobrecito, poor thing. But Navarro believes people with disabilities shouldn't rely on charity or pity to get by on the mean streets of Mexico City.

JASSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Fifteen-year-old Jasson is now a coach at the workshop. He's sitting next to one of the practice curbs as Nayeli Frias rolls up to it hesitantly and slams into the front.

JASSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "You're afraid of falling face first," he tells her, "but you're strapped in. What's the worst that could happen?"

NAYELI FRIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

JASSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I have fallen over," Nayeli pleads. "I fell over in the street. I fell over at Wal-Mart. I fell over in the hospital." Nayeli's been coming to the workshop for four months hoping to get strong enough to start a new job and commute across the city every day.

FRIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "Here, they push us until we lose our fear," she says. "Especially in my case, fear is really what holds me back." She rolls back over to the four-inch practice curb and aggressively hops onto it. The six-inch curb is next. Mastering these little skills is the only way to make it in the city, says Jasson.

JASSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "You have to find your own way around because as things stand, I don't think the city's going to change for us." For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTER BURWELL'S "LOST FUR")

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