The daily odyssey of people with reduced mobility in Puerto Rico
By Esther Alaejos
San Juan, Feb 21 (EFE).- Thirty-two years ago, a stray bullet struck Angel Gabriel Roman, seriously inhibiting his mobility. Since then, each day he faces the challenge of moving in his wheelchair through the streets of Puerto Rico, which are not configured for the handicapped and are filled with parked vehicles that block his passage.
“At age nine I was the victim of a stray bullet that hit me in the spine. It left me a paraplegic, I lost my ability to move from the chest down,” Roman, a musician born in Aguadilla, in western Puerto Rico, told EFE.
Every year, this type of incident is reported multiple times on the Caribbean island despite numerous warnings and campaigns launched by various institutions to put an end to the practice of “celebratory gunfire,” or firing bullets into the air.
Authorities “forget” about the members of the public with reduced mobility, the musician said, adding that “many people don’t leave their homes because they have no way to get anywhere or it’s very difficult.”
“What we really want is an accessible country, a country where the sidewalks are for pedestrians and not for parking,” said Roman as he moved in his wheelchair along the road, working to avoid all sorts of obstacles that hinder him on the sidewalks of San Juan.
His case is just one example of how people with reduced mobility are challenged each day by all sorts of obstacles to being able to live on an island where there are more vehicles than residents and where the infrastructure is not created for pedestrians.
Ruben Rodriguez, a resident of the town of Cayey, in central Puerto Rico, lost his mobility after a fateful rappelling accident when he was 15, and he said that “every day is a challenge” for him because of the authorities “do not control” parking to favor people with limited mobility.
The American Disabilities Act protects the civil rights of disabled people on US territory.
However, Rodriguez said that the ADA “is not on the books any longer,” since the authorities don’t enforce it and “don’t levy fines” on people who violate it.
“Puerto Rico is not accessible. It’s not an option for us who use wheelchairs to go out on the street because suddenly there’s going to be a place where we can’t get through,” said David Figueroa, the president of Cadfi, an organization for people with disabilities in Puerto Rico.
The total percentage of people of all ages with disabilities in Puerto Rico in 2020 was 21.6 percent, according to US Census data.
Figueroa had to start using a wheelchair when he was 21 after a diving accident on the beach and he complained that there are fewer and fewer support services available for people with disabilities in Puerto Rico.
The university professor of social work said that the Vocational Rehabilitation Center in Rio Piedras, the largest such center in the Caribbean and which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary, “has been eliminating services.”
At age 53, he said that “what remains now are ambulatory services, they’re no longer working with people with reduced mobility” and the authorities already tried in 2005 to shut down the center.
“The rehabilitation services are vital for our community, but regrettably the government doesn’t see it that way,” he criticized.
In Puerto Rico, there are seven beaches set up to accommodate people with disabilities: Escambron in San Juan, Monserrate in Luquillo (in the northeast), the Isla Verde resort in Carolina (north), Puerto Nuevo in Vega Baja (north), Boqueron in Cabo Rojo (west), Crash Boat in Aguadilla (west) and Guancha in Ponce (south).
Thanks to the “Beaches without Barriers” project, people with physical handicaps can access the water in an amphibious chair, a wheeled seat specially designed for people with reduced or no mobility, and access ramps and other necessary facilities have been set up.
The eastern municipality of Ceiba wants to become a town that is completely accessible for people with disabilities by 2025 using federal funds for reconstruction after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“We have a big opportunity to be able to rebuild things to accommodate people with impediments,” said Samuel Rivera, the mayor of Ceiba and a special education teacher, regarding the project that authorities hope to establish as a model for the island.