From the December 2015 issue of The Rotarian
In Cuernavaca, Mexico, cobblestone streets and sidewalks can wreak havoc on wheels and bearings. For people who get around using a wheelchair, a mechanical breakdown only exacerbates the social isolation they often face. But an enterprising group is training people with disabilities to fix wheelchairs – and even bringing the concept of roadside assistance to wheelchair users in other cities.
Erik Friend, a member of the Rotary Club of Cuernavaca-Juárez, Mexico, had been volunteering with a group called Autonomy, Liberation Through Movement (ALEM) and was intrigued by the simple efficacy of its vision and work. ALEM’s employees design, build, and repair standard and sports wheelchairs, recumbent tricycles, and other custom wheeled devices. They work out of a garage workshop in Cuernavaca and staff mobile units that travel to cities such as Puebla and Veracruz.
Other groups distribute wheelchairs, but ALEM is the only wheelchair repair operation in the state of Morelos. It provides an essential service in a place where new wheelchairs frequently break down within a year – and where people with disabilities are often viewed as unable to work. ALEM’s technicians also offer general welding, upholstery, and painting services.
“ALEM opened new doors for me,” says Gilberto Beltran Montero, who was paralyzed after being shot in a mugging. Fighting depression, he didn’t leave his house for a year. “I thought that because I’m disabled, I would never be able to do anything. But I realized that I could still learn new skills.”
Friend, who has experience as a mechanic, is now the president of ALEM. He says he has seen how learning a skill has made workers like Beltran more confident and self-reliant. He has also seen the impact of their example on the communities where they work. Local auto mechanics, for instance, often bring aluminum-welding projects to ALEM, one of the only places in Cuernavaca equipped to do that type of job. When they see someone like Rosy Roman Sánchez, a young woman who specializes in welding aluminum, Friend says, “it makes them question all the assumptions they have – about not only what a woman can do, but also what someone in a wheelchair can do.
“To see the look on their faces when Rosy starts working, and does a job well, is great,” he says. “That’s how we transform society’s way of thinking.”
In 2013, the Rotary Clubs of Paoli-Malvern-Berwyn, Pa., and Cuernavaca-Juárez used a Rotary Foundation grant to purchase parts and equipment for ALEM’s repair operations. The next year, the two clubs received a Rotary global grant to purchase a trailer and a van for ALEM’s mobile repair service, continue to fund needed parts and supplies, and support training, education, and outreach programs. Rotary clubs in each city visited by the mobile repair unit coordinate permits, electricity, and housing for the technicians.