In a Historic Mexican City, Wheelchair Accessibility Is an Uphill Battle

When Ángel Joziel Román moved to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, he found the city difficult to navigate in his wheelchair. Now, he’s working to make the historic city more accessible for all.

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In a Historic Mexican City, Wheelchair Accessibility Is an Uphill Battle

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Ángel Joziel Román leaves home using his handbike, a motorized wheelchair attachment, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — “Nobody wants to feel cars whizzing past their ears,” says Ángel Joziel Román, a 27-year-old activist, as he skillfully assembles his handbike. An attachment turns his wheelchair into a motorized tricycle, allowing him to move independently around San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, in southeast Mexico.

Life has become more complicated for Román since his arrival to the city in 2014, at age 17. Originally from the city of Delicias, Chihuahua, he was used to moving around in wide spaces that were accessible for people with motor disabilities. But in his new city, the traditional architecture, including high curbs, stairs, raised paths and narrow streets, combined with a lack of infrastructure, made it difficult for him to get around.

“When I arrived, I was faced with a different conception of disability. Here it’s ‘the poor thing’ or ‘the incapable one,’” he says. “If you add the lack of infrastructure adapted for people with disabilities, I didn’t have the conditions for development and an independent and autonomous life.”

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Ángel Joziel Román, a clinical psychologist, prepares to give online therapy from his home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico.

Without the infrastructure to get around, he was at first forced to go off the sidewalk and use the space left between parked cars and moving traffic. That experience inspired him to transform San Cristóbal de Las Casas into a more inclusive city, where everyone can move freely and autonomously. His efforts have led to physical changes in some parts of the city, such as the Carlos Jurado Cultural Center, a public space, and a small neighborhood square outside a church called Iglesia de La Merced, where Román pushed to install inclusive playground equipment for children with motor disabilities. His actions have also increased visibility around people with disabilities and their families in the city.

Fighting for an accessible future for all

Román was born with a motor disability that prevents him from controlling the lower part of his body, which is why he has used a wheelchair since he was 2 years old. In his experience, he says, societies rarely think about the future or consider inclusion when planning and building homes, offices and public spaces.

“All of us will be elderly [one day], and it’s very likely that many will have some type of disability in the future. The question is, what are you doing right now to make that future accessible and, to some degree, autonomous and functional?” says Román, who constantly invites people to increase their awareness about the importance of inclusive spaces.

In Mexico, there are nearly 6.2 million people (4.9% of the population) living with some type of disability, according to the 2020 Population and Housing Census. The census revealed that at least 48% of all the people in this group have a motor disability, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

Román collaborates with organizations to promote accessibility. One of the buildings where Román has offered to share his expertise is the Carlos Jurado Cultural Center. The space is managed by the Consejo Estatal para las Culturas y las Artes de Chiapas, a government agency in charge of disseminating, preserving and promoting culture in the state.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Ángel Joziel Román supervises the construction of an access ramp at Carlos Jurado Cultural Center, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. Román leads activities to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the building.

“Ángel approached me and told me he could advise us on building a good functional ramp for the entrance to the center,” says Marco Girón, the center’s director. “Almost without thinking, I told him, ‘Let’s do it.’”

After some coordination with the agency, the ramp was built.

“Thanks to Ángel, we have the city’s first ramp with the proper dimensions and slope,” Girón says.

In December 2023, Román also inaugurated an inclusive playground at La Merced, in the center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where children who use wheelchairs can play on swings and monkey bars. The playground is in a small neighborhood square outside the Iglesia de La Merced, the city’s first convent and church.

Promoting autonomy

Román has spearheaded multiple social projects to allow other people with disabilities to have access to an independent and autonomous life.

Homer Sevilla, who has lived with a disability since he lost his leg in an accident, has been Román’s ally in the process. Sevilla says that ever since they met in 2019, the two have been united by their desire to help others. This is why they started planning fundraisers to buy handbikes to help people who use wheelchairs move around the city.

“We had a really good response, it was a success, and there we realized that we couldn’t stop and we had to keep working for our inclusion and the inclusion of other people with disabilities,” Sevilla says.

Román and Sevilla volunteered to organize camps to help people use active wheelchairs. The lightweight structure of these chairs makes it possible for people to use them without assistance. The camps were sponsored by Vida Independiente México, an association specialized in the inclusion of people with motor disabilities.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Gael Zúñiga Espinosa, center, poses with his mother, Dolores Espinosa; father, Ángel Zúñiga; and sister, Karen Zúñiga, in their home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. Gael has attended active wheelchair camps organized by Ángel Joziel Román. Using an active wheelchair has allowed him to travel to school by himself, play with his friends and dream of practicing track and field.

“I was always [right] behind my son. I wanted to do everything for him,” says Ángel Zúñiga, the father of Gael Zúñiga Espinosa, a 10-year-old boy who has had a motor disability since birth. “Ángel told me, ‘You have to let him be. Let him move on his own, go where he wants. He has to be independent.’”

Gael, who has attended two camps organized by Román in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, acknowledges that he has more independence than he used to. Now he can get around on his own, travel from home to school by himself and play with his friends. He’s even asked his parents to take him to track-and-field classes.

“I want to race with my wheelchair,” he says.

The inclusion work Román has done has made him a leader in his community. In 2022, he received the Chiapas government’s State Youth Award, which recognizes people between the ages of 12 and 29 with outstanding achievements.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Ángel Joziel Román, who was recognized with the Chiapas government’s 2022 State Youth Award, believes there is still a lot of work to do for the inclusion of people with disabilities.

“I never imagined the impact Ángel would have on other people’s lives,” his mother, Sonia Ruth Cuéllar, says. “I feel very proud to see him organizing camps, sharing tips on using chairs, managing the chairs that will be delivered. [I feel proud] that he is a person who’s committed to his life and to the lives of others.”

Meanwhile, Román focuses on the road ahead.

“There’s always something pending,” he says. “Always something new to do in favor of the inclusion of people with disabilities.”

Adriana Alcázar González is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Chiapas, Mexico.


Vanessa Johnson, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.