The Good Fight

Giving Mexico New Wheels and Limbs

In Arizona, a group of paraplegics and amputees work to provide affordable wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to those south of the border.

It’s a sad but true fact that incidents of disability and chronic illness are higher amongst those who can least afford to not be healthy. This is as true in Mexico as it is in the United States, where as many as 2% of the population – or over 2 million people – live with a disability, most of them well below the poverty line. And how much help does the government of the 11th most populated country on Earth provide?

To answer that question, William Neubauer, a retired surgeon living in an old cowboy ranch near the Arizona-Mexico border, likes to tell a gruesome story. Running up the waist of Central America from Venezuela, there is an ad hoc network of trains used by migrants to cheaply and quickly reach the U.S. where work is more plentiful. But it’s not a safe trip. Colloquially, this network is known as El tren de la muerte, or The Death Train, and travelers don’t buy tickets. They ride on top, where they often fall off, plummeting beneath the wheels of the train.

Recently, Neubauer met a man who had lost his legs on the Death Train, 30 years prior. Yet in these three decades, this man had never once been helped by the Mexican government. “Here’s this guy, sitting there in this terrible rickety wheelchair,” remembers Neubauer. “He’s unable to work, Mexico didn’t provide him with anything.”

A worker in ARSOBO's wheelchair workchops creates the frame for a new chair.

A worker in ARSOBO’s wheelchair workchops creates the frame for a new chair.

So Neubauer did what he’s done dozens of times before. He gave the man new legs. Prosthetic legs, to be more precise. Along with wheelchairs and hearing aids, Neubauer distributes affordable prosthetics as part of ARSOBO, an American non-profit that crosses the Arizona-Sonora border to help underprivileged Mexicans living with disabilities.

The problem is huge. According to ARSOBO, while 2% of all Mexicans are disabled, a full half of that number – or 11 million people – are in need of a wheelchair. An additional 786,100 amputees need costly prosthetics, and 630,000 more live with serious hearing loss. But getting impoverished Mexicans the devices they need is Herculean.

Take wheelchairs, for example. In America, an entry-level wheelchair costs around $2,000. For those living on the bottom rung of Mexican society, that might as well be $200,000, and even if they could afford it, the wheelchair design is completely unsuited for the realities of day-to-day life. Their tiny front wheels get stuck in the cracks and drainage grates that are ubiquitous through Mexican cities. The wheels, meanwhile, can not easily traverse Mexico’s ubiquitous unpaved roads.

Another ARSOBO worker helps craft a colorful prosthetic leg.

Another ARSOBO worker helps craft a colorful prosthetic leg.

ARSOBO’s answer to this problem? Design a better wheelchair. Instead of distributing off-the-shelf wheelchairs, they pair those in need with a specially designed wheelchair created by Ralf Hotchkiss. A wheelchair-rider himself, Hotchkiss’s design is called the RoughRider, a super-durable chair with a 2mm steel frame that uses mountain biking wheels and extra-wide front wheels to allow riders to easily traverse rugged conditions. “They’re basically unbreakable,” Neubauer brags, but if they do break? They use simple bicycle wheels, meaning they can be repaired in any small town bike shop for cheap.

Instead of costing $2,000 to make, ARSOBO can produce a RoughRider wheelchair for less than $300. Even that, though, is subsidized by ARSOBO’s state-side donors. The end cost to the rider-in-need, Neubauer says, is whatever they can afford to pay, even if it’s as little as a few dollars. (“My job is to make this very bad business plan work,” laughs Neubauer.) But they have to pay something. “Buy-in is important. If you just give someone something, they don’t value it as much. They can’t take pride in it the same way.”

This concept of buy-in is one that’s important to ARSOBO all around. Like their wheelchairs, ARSOBO expects the people who need their prosthetics (which are even more expensive to manufacture and custom-fit) and hearing aids to pay what they can. But ARSOBO itself also buys into the community of paraplegics and amputees it supports. All ARSOBO chairs and prosthetics are manufactured by native Mexicans who are in wheelchairs or amputees themselves. Asked why ARSOBO makes a point of hiring these employees, Neubauer says that it’s only in part because the best person to mod a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb is someone with the experience of living one. It’s also a simple issue of humanitarianism. “In Mexico, if you have a disability, it’s incredibly hard to find employment,” he says. “If we didn’t employ our workers, they just wouldn’t be employed.”

One of the many people ARSOBO has helped.

One of the many people ARSOBO has helped.

Asked if he finds being surrounded by such poverty and disability depressing, Neubauer sounds like he thinks I must be crazy. “Are you kidding?” he scoffs. “Before I did this, I was a surgeon. I did over 25,000 operations, and I was proud of everyone, but right now, on a one-by-one basis, this is easily the best thing I’ve ever done.” The chance to make a positive impact on a beautiful but disenfranchised person, to help them reclaim their life, is simply without parallel.

Listening to Neubauer’s stories about the people he’s helped, it’s easy to see what he means. He talks about a little girl who was put into an orphanage because of her debilitating cerebral palsy; it was only after ARSOBO provided her with a wheelchair that she was able to be adopted, and now lives in a loving household with her grandparents, who couldn’t previously care for her because of her extreme mobility issues. He talks about a little boy born without arms and legs, whose biggest complaint about his ARSOBO-provided prosthetics was that he wasn’t growing along with his friends… until ARSOBO made that happen too. And he speaks about a gorgeous young 20-year-old woman who, after being bitten by a tick, lost both arms and legs to sepsis. Today, she walks around on computer-controlled prosthetics worth a quarter-million dollars, thanks to ARSOBO.

“Who would be depressed to take part in that?”