Doing Things for Ourselves

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I recently traveled to Nogales, Mexico which is about 116 kilometers from my home in Tucson, Arizona.  I went with Dr. Burris “Duke” Duncan a Professor Emeritus of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman School of Public Health at the University of Arizona, and his partner Linda Lou.  We were there to visit the Arizona Sonora Border Project (ARSOBO) NGO which Duke and others had started as a direct result of the first Border Conference on Disabilities (2008).  The purpose of the NGO was to train and hire individuals with disabilities  to construct the medical devices which they needed. The conference was sponsored by the Sonoran UCEDD (University Centers for Excellence in Development Disabilities) at the University of Arizona and DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia) in Nogales, Sonora. 

ARSOBO’s mission is to assist in alleviating the physical, psychological, and economic barriers faced by individuals with disabilities by providing appropriate, adaptive-technology, low-cost, assisted devices that improve access and participation in their communities.” 

Mexico’s population is approximately 123 million.  It is estimated that 1% or 12 million people need wheelchairs.  Like Nepal many live in rugged conditions and need an all-terrain chair.  ARSOBO’s response was to start a wheelchair workshop and construct the Rough Rider All Terrain Wheelchair which had been designed by Ralf Hotchkiss at San Francisco State University.  The employees of the “workshop” are Mexicans with disabilities.  Approximately 786,100 amputees live in northern Mexico and of those 18,600 live in the state of SONORA. Access to prosthetic devices is very limited and cost-prohibitive. ARSOBO’s response was to start a workshop and clinic in collaboration with Hangar Corporation who are helping to train employees of ARSOBA who have had an amputation and use a prosthesis, to make prosthetics.  Approximately 630,000 people in Mexico have serious hearing problems.  Of the 1.8 million children born each year, approximately 1% have a hearing problems.  ARSOBO’s response was to start a Hearing Health Program which trains and employs hearing impaired individuals to assemble solar-powered hearing aid battery recharges packaged with high-quality low-cost hearing aids.

ARSOBO lists 18 government, educational, public and private partners that have helped to make the work successful.  One of these is FESAC (Fundacion del Empresariado Sonorense, AC) whose mission is to generate social welfare by supporting and accompanying civil society organizations in the delivery of sustainable community development.  While at ARSOBO I met Alma Cota from FESAC who was accompanying a group of Americans who were on a tour through the NGO Border Community Alliance (BCA).  Their mission is about bridging the border and fostering community through education, collaboration and cultural exchange. They do this in the Nogales region of Southern Arizona/Sonora Mexico.   BCA is creating more awareness and openness and in the case of ARSOBO was educating Americans about how Mexico is promoting social businesses especially in the border area. 

In thinking about the tremendous number of partnerships in promoting ARSOBO’s mission I couldn’t help but remember the number of NGOs that are operating in Nepal.  In ARSOBO’s case developing wheelchairs that would be sturdy and long lasting came from those in Sonora State living with a disability.  It might have taken an American, Duke Duncan working with a Mexican Kiko Trujillo both with the passion and drive to ensure that the NGO became operational but in the long-term, sustainability will come from the fact that these are Mexicans working to help other Mexicans.  (The building that ARSOBO operates in was given rent free but it took a group of Mexican workers to volunteer their time to actually build the office and workshop space.  Additionally, a number of American health professionals continue to volunteer their time to not only put on clinics but to teach Mexicans how to operate the machinery, conduct check-ups, build medical devices, etc). 

Donald Trump may want to build a wall on the Mexican border to stop so-called “undesirables” from entering the US.  Some may think that there are too many International and national NGOs operating in Nepal.  But ARSOBO provides an exemplary example of how people from different countries working collaboratively through NGOs, government, educational institutions and the private sector can create a sustainable model, in this case, assisting people with disabilities to lead a dignified, accessible life.  When people join hands, appreciate the similarities and respect differences of others which is what BCA is trying to do, amazing things can happen.  Ultimately, it’s not about building walls and creating barriers; it’s more about removing them.


Position: Programme Manager

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