Do You Have a Wheelchair? 

Have you ever stopped to consider if people in developing countries have access to wheelchairs or other mobility aids? I hadn’t until nine years after my injury when I asked David and Magda, two friends from Poland, what accessibility was like in their country. Their answer stunned me: Many people didn’t even have wheelchairs.

Two years later, in March 2000, I traveled to Mexico to help distribute wheelchairs. What I saw and experienced that week rocked my world. The following year, I began working for the organization by collecting wheelchairs, raising funding, doing administration and going on distributions and sports camps in various countries. During those eight years, I saw a mother carrying her 17-year-old son who had cerebral palsy. I've seen a woman – hidden by blankets to cover the shame of having a disability – being brought in by wheelbarrow to the distribution site in Afghanistan. In Cost Rica, I listened to Maribel – 43 years old and a quad due to polio – tell me that she scooted on her bottom to get around her house.

In April 2017, I took a week off from my current job and traveled down to the state of Jalisco in western Mexico to volunteer at a wheelchair distribution with World Access Project. Richard St. Denis, a former coworker of mine, lives and works in central Mexico and is the president of World Access Project. The purpose of the organization is to “provide mobility and better quality of life to disabled and neglected youth of Mexico.”

Why is it called World Access Project if they only work in Mexico? Because a wheelchair opens up the world to a person with a disability. Richard understands the need for a wheelchair since he has a T10 spinal cord injury.

Working in conjunction with DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia) – the social services branch of the government – our team distributed 47 wheelchairs, 11 walkers, 5 canes, and 4 pairs of crutches at a local church. The equipment is fitted by experienced volunteers for the person receiving it. On Thursday, a recreation camp was held to teach the recipients how to use their chairs and on Friday, they were invited to attend a dolphin show.

Each person I met has a story.

  • Luisa is 10 years old and has a form of dwarfism. She cannot walk independently. Her mother, Leticia, cried as she watched her daughter walking by herself with a walker.
  • Carlos exuberantly declared his new wheelchair a “Cadillac.” He and his son joined us during the outing for all of the recipients the next day – still with a grin from ear to ear brimming over from his newfound freedom.
  • Andres is 84; his wife’s death three years ago left him heartbroken. His children said he just hasn’t been the same since.

How can you help? 

Don’t keep “the backup to your backup chair” sitting in the garage collecting dust. Donate it. The organizations listed below collect, refurbish and distribute wheelchairs and other mobility aids around the globe. Oftentimes these organizations have volunteers throughout the U.S., so see if there is someone near you. For donations that stay in the U.S., contact the Disabled American Veterans or other disability agencies or independent living centers in your area. 

Meeting each person has made me grateful for the health care, however imperfect, we have access to. I have a wheelchair. Millions of people around the world cannot say that.


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