Monday began with our first visit to the host university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (also known as UNAM). The short drive over confirmed my first impressions of the scale of Mexico City: big city, big mountains, big sky. Noticeable among the traffic were a number of pink and white taxis; we later learnt that 300 of these are funded by INDEPEDI, the government department dedicated to improving life for people with disabilities in Mexico. Besides being specially adapted for wheelchair users, these drivers also had a greater awareness of disabilities in general. This fact became more significant as we learnt that one of the UNAM students, Mariana, had in the past been refused access to public transport when she had her guide dog with her.
After an enthusiastic welcome from the directors of the university, we were given a tour of the main campus, Ciudad Universitaria. An enormous site – its name translates as University City – the campus is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a status awarded in June 2007. Although this status recognises the historical and cultural significance of the university campus, it became immediately apparent that this was a barrier for disabled students. As a World Heritage Site, nothing about the campus can be altered – including providing permanent access for students with mobility issues.
Whilst on the tour, we waited 45 minutes whilst participants using wheelchairs took an alternative route around what was a single, short flight of stairs for able-bodied students. Talking to the students from UNAM, we learnt that this was a common problem with many of the buildings in Ciudad Universitaria. Lectures were held in the tower blocks dotted around the campus, very few of which had lift access. While temporary ramps could be installed for external steps around campus – which would be in keeping with UNESCO’s rules – there is not enough space within the buildings to add these. Naturally, as an obstacle to inclusion this is not limited to Mexico, but highlights the conflict between preservation of culture and accessibility at many historic sites worldwide.
During the tour, we also learned about the different technologies currently available to students. Within the library – the ground floor of which is accessible – a suite of facilities is available to help students with disabilities. For example, the librarians informed us that twelve students with visual impairments currently make use of these technologies. The staff were evidently dedicated to improving access to learning materials, and proud of the close relations they had with the students using these services. However, it will be interesting to see whether this level of engagement can be sustained. With the creation of UNAPDI this year – UNAM’s new department for the inclusion of disabled students – there will likely be an increase in the number of disabled students at UNAM, and therefore accessing these services.
Further adaptive technology was available in the Centro de Orientacion Educativa, (Centre for Educational Orientation). The computer stations for student guidance were accessible to students with a variety of disabilities. Text and background colours could be changed; text could be enlarged; pictures removed; and audio description options were available. However, most exciting was a form of motion capture technology, which enabled navigation of menus and web-surfing for students with motor disabilities. Controlled by facial expression and slight movements of the eyes and head, it allowed these students to browse the information available with no need for assistance. Developed by UNAM itself, they hope to make it available across the university. Tools like this provide real opportunities for students’ independence, enabling the same level of access that non-disabled students enjoy.
Our tour of the campus also highlighted Mexico’s pride in its cultural heritage. Both the indigenous and colonial history was celebrated, as in the mural by Juan O’Gorman on the Central Library on campus. As such, the talk provided by the British Council – and their involvement in Mexico, generally – seemed at odds with such a fiercely independent culture, especially given the many inspirational Mexican-led initiatives we learnt of later in the week. However clearly, the British Council has played an important role in working in partnership to improve accessibility in Mexico.
On the whole, our first day in Mexico City provoked an interesting mix of reflections. It encouraged an awareness of how some policies – in this case designed to protect heritage – can be a barrier to those with physical disabilities. The variety of technological measures UNAM students could use to access content on a par with their peers was inspiring, and something which could be more widely implemented in the UK. Finally, my experiences caused me to questioned the role of British organisations, in a country which is clearly dedicated to improving accessibility for people with disabilities.