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An innovative project on the Mexican border helps people with disabilities and restores dignity
Pablo Valenzuela checks 6-year-old Jesus Lopez's ears. - photo by Lourdes Medrano
NOGALES, MEXICO In a makeshift audiology center on the southern end of this border town, 6-year-old Jesus Lopez sits in a sound booth wearing headphones and a look of wonderment as a technician checks his hearing acuity.

An audiometer sends a range of sounds to the boys ears, but he hears none. Its the reason he is here to get help from a U.S.-Mexico venture known as Arizona Sonora Border Projects for Inclusion, a program that provides low-cost hearing aids, prosthetics and wheelchairs to poor people with disabilities in a part of the world where such resources are scarce.

"We found that those were the three areas where there were fewer opportunities for people to be able to integrate into society because of the cost involved, said Francisco Trujillo, who runs the program in a warehouse at Nogales Industrial Park.

The nonprofit, which relies on donations and various partnerships on both sides of the border to operate, also trains people with disabilities to make the products they use and then employs them to build wheelchairs, prosthetics and solar-powered battery rechargers for hearing aids.

More than 1 billion of the worlds population lives with some form of disability, with nearly 200 million finding it difficult to function, according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization. In Mexico, people with disabilities total about 14 percent of the population, or 16.5 million.

When it comes to the inclusion of people with disabilities in Mexico, we are light years behind other countries, Trujillo said. Schools, hospitals and government buildings often lack ramps and other special accommodations.

Many of the people who receive assistance through the nonprofit have spent years shut out from society, often homebound because they lacked access to a wheelchair or other means of mobility, Trujillo added.

Through its work the program strives to make people with physical disabilities more visible by giving them tools that enable them to become active participants in their community, particularly in the northern Mexico state of Sonora, which shares a border with Arizona. But the organizations long-term goals reach beyond dispensing medical devices that can help make life easier. By training and then employing people with disabilities, the program also seeks to build a sustainable social enterprise that serves the disadvantaged.

Little by little, we are building our own workforce, Trujillo said.

That was a goal Burris Duncan, a professor of pediatric and public health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who long has cared for children with disabilities, had in mind when he presented the Border Projects concept at a 2008 conference on disabilities in his city.

The idea was to hire the people who build the thing that they need, he said.

Following the Tucson conference, Border Projects gradually began taking shape in Nogales after Duncan enlisted various collaborators, including Trujillo and the designer of an all-terrain wheelchair, Ralf Hotchkiss of San Francisco State University. Nogales, about 65 miles south of Tucson, was a natural fit for the cross-border endeavor, Duncan said.

Gabriel Zepeda, who received training in Hotchkiss program, was recruited to make wheelchairs like his. Paralyzed from the waist down in a 1986 car accident, Zepeda arrived on the border some five years ago and hasnt stopped making wheelchairs since.

He and co-worker Guadalupe Aguilar, a former volunteer who is learning on the job, build three to four wheelchairs every week, each one sturdy enough to withstand rough terrain. Many are for children with cerebral palsy who require one tailored to their special needs. On a recent day, while Valenzuela arranged stacks of boxes containing hearing aids, Zepeda fashioned padded armrests for a wheelchair on the other side of the building.

Meanwhile, Aguilar soldered metal bars to a detachable wheelchair tray. Aguilar first stopped by the shop two years ago after losing both legs to diabetes complications. Id heard about their prosthetics, and I had one but needed another, he recalled. After a prosthesis replaced his left leg, Aguilar stayed on as a volunteer and was hired a year later. As someone with disabilities, Aguilar said he knows the difference that a prosthetic limb or a wheelchair or a hearing aid, can make in someones life. Children with special needs in particular motivate him.

The children may not be able to speak, but when they get their new chairs, their smiles mean a lot, Aguilar said.

For Zepeda, building wheelchairs was initially a way to adapt to life with a physical disability after his accident. Living in San Francisco a few years back and seeing the ubiquitous accommodations for people with disabilities, made him even more aware of the lack of similar support in Mexico. Later, when he moved back to his country, Zepeda learned of the pressing need for affordable wheelchairs and was more than willing to join Border Projects.

Zepeda and Aguilar, both in their mid-40s, say they know of no other work they would rather be doing. They have just finished building four new wheelchairs, all with mountain bike tires, pushed against a hallway wall. A few yards away, two construction workers frame a room with wood. Once finished, hearing aid wearers will assemble solar-powered battery kits inside.

The cost of regular batteries may not sound like much for some people, but for a low-income family, it can be significant, Trujillo said.

While he works to bring more employees into the fold, the program relies on many volunteers like Valenzuela to serve a growing base. Valenzuela is charged with performing basic hearing tests and is receiving training to take on more duties. James Dean, an audiologist with the University of Arizonas speech, language and hearing sciences department, oversees Valenzuelas work and, in monthly visits to Border Projects, provides additional evaluations with help from some of his students.

Cost is a major reason people, including young Jesus mother, seek out the devices. Juana Sanchez said she is grateful that she will be able to make small payments on hearing aids for her boy, who uses sign language to communicate. Lots of people have told me that if he gets the help he needs, he will be able to talk, the young mother said. I think thats true.

People pay no more than 10 percent, and sometimes less, of the retail price for an item, Trujillo said. Depending on the customization, the most a wheelchair costs is $400; a prosthetic leg, $300; and a hearing aid, $100. Families pay what they can afford each month and if they are unable to do so, Border Projects finds a way to subsidize it.

People have been so generous, incredibly generous, with their donations and their time, Duncan added.

Materials, equipment and time make up the bulk of the gifts from public institutions and private companies. For instance, the warehouse space comes rent-free and the city of Nogales recently donated land where Border Projects plans to put up its own building.

Despite struggles with cash flow, Trujillo and Duncan are confident that Border Projects will continue to grow. Both men one north of the border and one south keep working toward a common goal: serving as many people with disabilities as possible. While Duncan devises ways to raise capital, Trujillo hosts fundraisers and seeks a way to get hearing aids and solar-powered battery rechargers to people in remote, rural areas.

The solar-powered batteries are going to come in really handy there because a lot of families dont have transportation to go to the store for batteries every week, he says.
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