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Mexico And U.S. Team Up To Create Low-Cost Wheelchairs

Gabriel Zepeda (right) makes an all-terrain wheelchair. He's been making wheelchairs for low-income Mexicans for 27 years.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe for NPR
Gabriel Zepeda (right) makes an all-terrain wheelchair. He's been making wheelchairs for low-income Mexicans for 27 years.

Political tension between the United States and Mexico is making headlines with talk of disrupting longstanding trade deals and constructing a border wall.

And then there's the story of Antonio Garcia.

A mechanic from southern Sonora, he had been limping around on crutches for three years. His right leg was amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident and buying a prosthetic leg was beyond his financial reach.

But he got the prosthesis just this January from a nonprofit that's a collaboration between Mexico and the U.S. It's called ARSOBO and it's working to transform the lives of low-income Mexicans with disabilities. The organization, whose name is an acronym that stands for Arizona/Sonora border, provides affordable prosthetics, specialized wheelchairs and hearing aids.

"It's changing people's lives," said Duke Duncan, an 84-year-old American pediatrician who grew impatient with retirement after just three days. He co-founded ARSOBO seven years ago.

"It's really an emotional experience to see someone who's been sitting in a chair for 10 years get up and ... begin to take a few steps and they go out to the waiting room where ... the crowd breaks into tears and claps," Duncan said.

ARSOBO provides disabled people who were once isolated, depressed or begging on the streets the possibility of getting a job or going to school. Their signature product is an all-terrain wheelchair, originally developed by a nonprofit in California, that can navigate uneven sidewalks and rough roads.

Making these wheelchairs has become something of a fine art for 47-year-old Gabriel Zepeda. He's been in a wheelchair himself since age 18 when a drunk driver smashed into his truck and left him paralyzed from the chest down. Zepeda custom makes each chair to suit the size and needs of its user.

"The concept behind the design is to use locally available materials like steel tubing and mountain bike wheels," Zepeda said. "That way the chair can easily be repaired in Mexico, including at a neighborhood bike shop."

Zepeda was trained by the chair's inventor, an American engineer named Ralf Hotchkiss, who won a MacArthur Genius award for his design which has since spread to dozens of developing countries worldwide. It's one example of the binational spirit that propels the organization.

"From the very beginning this has been a cross-border project," said ARSOBO co-founder Duncan. "It's been cross-border with universities, with government and with private enterprise."

Some examples: ARSOBO makes its own prosthetics thanks to training and material donations from Hanger Incorporated, a major American prosthetics company. In Mexico, engineering students at a Nogales university are helping design rechargeable solar batteries for hearing aids. An association of factories set up by international companies in Nogales recently pledged $75,000 toward the construction of a larger workshop that ARSOBO will build on land donated by the city.

Since 2012 ARSOBO has provided 295 wheelchairs (about a third of them to children with cerebral palsy), 203 prosthetic limbs and 530 hearing aids.

"What we want to do is build confidence between our nations," said Paul McKean, who coordinates humanitarian aid for the U.S. Northern Command, which oversees military operations in North America.

McKean's team has donated roughly $75,000 dollars worth of equipment, including a steel bending machine, that's helped ARSOBO become more self-sufficient.

"There's a tremendous amount of goodwill on the border," he said "I think we have positive and healthy engagements that aren't really newsmakers."

McKean said the U.S. benefits from empowering its southern neighbor. ARSOBO, for example, is addressing a need that goes mostly unmet by Mexico's public health system. The organization not only makes its own gear, it employs people with disabilities to make it.

"We don't have Americans coming and doing everything for us. We're working together and that makes a huge difference," said Kiko Trujillo, ARSOBO's co-founder in Mexico.

U.S. ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson visited ARSOBO in December and called the organization "an important cross-border project."

Despite tremendous progress, ARSOBO's wish list is long and there's a waiting list for most of its products, including 300 people in need of a hearing aid.

For beneficiaries like Antonio Garcia, the mechanic who lost his right leg, patience eventually pays off. Thanks to ARSOBO, he's learning how to walk again. Wearing his new prosthesis, he slid his hands along two parallel bars as he watched himself take baby steps in a full length mirror. A technician gently guided his movements. It will take several months for him to adjust to his new leg. Once he finally ditches his crutches, Garcia knows exactly what he wants to do.

"I want to walk beside my 5-year-old son and hold his hand," he said.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe is a freelance reporter based in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. She frequently writes about the U.S./Mexico border. You can reach her @MOrtizUribe

This story was produced with support from the International Women's Media Foundation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Former Fronteras Senior Field Correspondent Mónica Ortiz Uribe (KRWG, Las Cruces) is a native of El Paso, Texas.