Travelers' itinerary: Scale pyramids in a wheelchair

Not everyone gets a chance to ascend pyramids as Christa Bucks did during her summer vacation in Mexico. But riding on a Mexican metro-rail lacking wheelchair ramps proved to be an even greater challenge for the 20-year-old Ellicott City resident who has muscular dystrophy.

Miss Bucks was among 12 disabled young adults from the


United States who returned July 15 after five weeks in Mexico.

The trip was sponsored by the Mobility International USA (MIUSA) exchange program, a non-profit organization that sponsors international travel for people with disabilities.


The W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which supplies seed money for youth education and other projects, helped finance the $2,000 trip with scholarships of up to $1,300 for each participant.

"I had been looking for a study-abroad program that would be able to accommodate a person with a disability," said Miss Bucks. After many phone calls, she learned about MIUSA through a friend who had traveled to Russia with the program.

The group seeks applicants with different types of disabilities who are interested in traveling to a particular country and who can work together, said Miss Bucks, a junior majoring in Spanish and International Studies at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. Some members of her group had muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy; others were deaf or blind.

Each participant lived with two host families, one in Oaxaca and the other in Mexico City.

In many ways, her hosts were like their busy American counterparts, said Miss Bucks.

"Every day, the mother [in Oaxaca] would go out and run at 6 a.m., throw me in the shower and say, 'Hurry,' start breakfast, take her own shower and go to work at 9 a.m.," Miss Bucks said.

But on disability issues, she said, Mexico is "a lot further behind than we are. They have a lot to change."

Most disabled persons stay indoors, and it's rare to see a wheelchair ramp, she said.


"Whenever we saw one, we took pictures of it. I went to a mall that had a ramp but then there were stairs that led to the movies. The biggest difference is that Mexico needs to go through a major attitude change," she said.

That's where Miss Bucks believes her group served an important purpose. As members learned about the country's culture and visited the ruins, haciendas, historical cathedrals and other tourist sites, they were breaking stereotypical images of people with disabilities.

"We were in the public eye the whole time. We were always on the move, and the people seemed absolutely stunned by us," she said.

In Mexico City, the program focused on leadership training and included such topics as public speaking and group dynamics. Everyone had a turn at being leader for a day. Miss Buck's day was spent transporting the group on a metro rail that had no easy access for people with disabilities.

"It was a very important day for us because we wanted to remind the people about the need to have an accessible system," she said. "There were no elevators, the train floors were not level with the platform, and there were steps down or up into all the metro stations. There were escalators, and we rode them in the wheelchairs. Those of us with strong upper bodies could hold up."

Because all members of the group at the time were living in Oaxaca, which is about an hour from Mexico City, they devised the most efficient way to get home without having to use steps.


Another challenge was a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. With help from each other and their three delegation leaders, all 12 members of the group made it to the top.

A highlight for Miss Bucks while in Mexico City was a visit to a special education and rehabilitation center.

"They covered all the medical bases," she said. "The problem is they don't have the equipment to be able to carry everything out efficiently. The medical equipment is not practical and is often not the right size, which eliminates some of the mobility."

Homemade wheelchairs in Mexico often are constructed of used wheels and lightweight metal frames that are welded together. Despite the obstacles in Mexico for people with disabilities, "they really want to make

things better," Miss Bucks said. "The head doctors asked us questions for over an hour, and they were extremely interested in what we had to say."

The challenges and learning experiences culminated in one final project, in which the group and about 15 Mexican representatives -- with no aid from interpreters -- worked together to design a banner.


"We got together to figure out what we wanted to say because they will be using the banner in their marches and other advocacy activities," Miss Bucks said.

Using Spanish, English, American Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language, the group worked to create it together. The end product is a colorful banner, approximately 20-by-8 feet on which several symbols and words are painted. In the center is a pyramid with the words, "Champions in Life Challenging the World."

"What we each lacked, someone else had, and we could compensate," Miss Bucks said. "For instance, those who couldn't hear knew sign language; a blind person could push my wheelchair and I could direct. We really worked together as a team."