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Dialogues on Disability: Mexico City (2017)

Students and staff from King's joined with an active and engaged group of peers from partner institutions to explore the challenges and opportunities surrounding accessibility and inclusion of disabled people in universities as part of the Dialogues on Disability programme in Mexico City

From the 16 to 21 January a group of 6 King's students joined participants from India, Mexico, Germany and Brazil for a global interaction on disability in higher education. The Dialogues on Disability Programme, this year hosted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, explored the challenges and opportunities surrounding accessibility and inclusion of disabled people in universities. The initiative is supported at King's through a collaboration between King's Worldwide and the Disability Advisory Service.

Established in 2013 in partnership with Delhi University as a tool for creating continuous dialogue for improvement, the programme has now grown to include 5 global institutions including King's, University of Delhi (India), Humboldt University (Germany), UNAM (Mexico) and UFABC (Brazil).

Dialogues on Disability
I learnt a lot from the programme with such a diverse group of young individuals all coming together in Mexico to try and increase inclusion for disabled students in higher education. In particular that connectivity and cultural sensitivity are key to implementing change– Jamie Nicholas, 1st year Geography student.

During the week participants from the five participating institutions met with disability advocacy groups such as the Mandala Foundation, which promotes consideration of the issues disabled issues around inclusion and diversity and Inclusion Disability a charitable organisation working to promote inclusion for the visually impaired in Mexico. An interaction with INDEPEDI, a Governmental body promoting access to transport and physical environments provided a contextual insight into the challenges facing disabled people in getting around Mexico City.

During the week students explored provision for disabled students at UNAM. This included an innovative form of motion capture technology developed by UNAM faculty, which enabled web-navigation for students with motor disabilities. Controlled by facial expression and slight movements of the head, eyes and mouth, it allowed these students to browse the information available independently.

Rhys Thorne a participant from King's College London commented: ‘A personal highlight during the week was the time I got to spend speaking to Aldo, a law student at UNAM who, like me, also has Cerebral Palsy. We spoke about growing up with Cerebral Palsy and how we both had to fight for the right to study at our respective primary schools. The fact that we were able to bond over our similar experiences is a demonstration of the success of the Dialogues on disability programme. Although we may come from different backgrounds, with different cultures and live halfway across the world from one another, our disabilities do not divide us, they unite us.'

The week presented an opportunity for staff to share best practise.

Lorraine Ishmael Byers, Head of Student Disability said ‘In addition to the wider aims of the engagement, the participation in these events provides a unique opportunity to reflect on practices to support the engagement of disabled students, not only from the shared experiences the students talk about, but from listening to and understanding the practices and challenges of colleagues working in similar environments. Whilst sharing what works, there are opportunities for refining working practices, accepting that not every initiative is easily transferrable. A positive outcome from the event in 2016 is that a participating student at Humboldt succeeded in securing funding for a three year project to evaluate and recommend enhancements to the support structures for disabled students. King's will continue to work with Humbolt and UNAM whilst they develop their recently in sharing practice, and in doing so, benefit from new ways at looking at issues and reassess what we do here.'


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Bienvenido a UNAM

Alexandra Leigh - Monday 16th January

Monday began with our first visit to the host university, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fundación Mandala

Owen Keating - Tuesday 17th January

Following much needed rest in our lovely hotel, we woke up on Tuesday morning ready to engage with our international peers and Fundacion Mandala - a foundation that supports the transition and reintegration of people with motor dysfunction. But, first came breakfast! We started off the day with a wonderfully diverse buffet that had varieties ranging from traditional European to local Mexican.

After breakfast we travelled, alongside our new German friends, to the UNAM science museum in a cozy little minibus. Once there, we had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by the founder of Fundacion Mandala. The founder, Alexa Castillo Najera Zaliv, is an inspiring woman who had suffered a fall over a decade ago that led to a complete spinal chord injury. Due to that unfortunate experience, Alexa developed a deep motivation to help people with disabilities - to ensure they are well informed, that they do not limit themselves and are able to realise their full potential. Alexa and her colleagues instigated conversations that covered all aspects of a disabled person's life. We learned a great deal from her and her foundation.

The session explored issues around exclusion, segregation, inclusion, affirmative action in the disabled student experience. We worked in global teams with participants from India, Mexico, Germany and Brazil to explore both our own experiences and that of other people in global contexts

Fundacion Mandala's morning workshop was also a great opportunity for us to further get to know our new international friends, as well as ourselves and peers from our home institutions. We discussed our own personal experiences and were inspired to find creative solutions to the complex and unique issues caused by the interaction of our limitations and local environment. It was a truly touching experience that we are all very grateful to the Mandala foundation for.

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Thanks to our hearing impaired peer from Mexico we also learned some sign language. We learned to sign a thank-you and how to express applause. I was surprised to find that sign language differs per country, similarly to other languages. It seems obvious in hindsight but I suppose linguistics was never my speciality!

Leaving the classroom we realized how warm it had become. We had left the frost and sharp chill behind in England and greatly enjoyed socializing in the Mexican sun. For lunch, we headed to the central area and stopped at a military parade ground named Campo Marte.

What was striking about our lunch spot was the 50m by 28m flag that swayed above it. We knew the Mexican people were patriotic, but the sight of this truly massive flag was still stunning. Lunch itself was delicious, with the highlight of the three-course meal being, just about, the most delicious cheesecake any of us had ever tasted!

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After lunch, we continued our drive towards the city centre, driving down Paseo de la Reforma for the first time. This magnificent avenue was adorned by beautiful monuments, including the Angel of Independence - a gold guilded angel atop a tall column in the middle of the avenue. From Paseo de la Reforma we boarded the ‘Turibus Lucha', and enjoyed a guided tour of parts of the city with the tour guide himself being a ‘Luchador' - a Mexican wrestler (mask and all). We were even given our own masks to truly get into the spirit.

Our destination was Arena Mexico - a 17,000 seat arena where we watched our first Lucha Libre event. Mexico's take on American Professional Wrestling is a hugely entertaining and flamboyant event. I am not sure I have ever laughed so much in such a small space of time as I did towards the end of the show whilst watching the likes of El Tigre and La Mascara ‘wrestle'. After our long yet hugely enjoyable day we returned to our hotel to rest and process what we had taken away from our talks with Mandela foundation whilst enjoying each others' company over our evening meal.

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‘Hole mole (Sauce)

Serena Waithe - Wednesday 18th January

Olympic Stadium It was midway through the week and after a late night at the Mexican Wrestling, a lot of us were feeling tired in the morning. The bus journey was more subdued than usual and most of us slept on the short journey to the University Olympic Stadium.

However, once we arrived, we were instantly perked up by the amazing view of the stadium. I'm not particularly interested in watching sports and the idea of looking around a stadium didn't appeal to me at first but the intricate architecture immediately set the stadium apart from the usual sports arena.

The stadium was built in 1952 and was the work of three top Mexican architects: Augusto Perez, Raul Salinas and Jorge Bravo Moro. It has had several uses since its inception including a venue for American Football and the 1968 Olympic Games. As with many buildings in Mexico City, it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is currently the home of the much lauded soccer team, The Pumas. One thing that I have learnt about Mexico City is their love for the Pumas! The Sunday that we arrived, the Pumas had won a game and celebrations of the win were apparent throughout the week. We were fortunate enough to meet the Puma team when we visited, who were nice enough to take a photo with us.

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Despite the extremely hot weather, our group were in high spirits, especially our resident soccer fanatics, Jay and Owen.

On the east side of the stadium is a huge mural designed by Diego Rivera. Murals are a salient feature of Mexican art and every part of its design tells a story. The stones used to create the mural were painstakingly chosen from areas around the city to create the tableau.

The mural shows the UNAM emblem as well as mascots, the condor and the eagle. Underneath this is a family; a mother and father with a child cradling a dove. This section of the mural is supposed to represent the coming together of the pre- and post- Hispanic history of Mexico. I learnt from Adrianna (the UNAM representative who helped organise the week) that the idea of marrying the old and new was important in Mexican culture. They feel that all aspects of their history have helped make Mexico a unique country.

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One of my favourite aspects of Mexico City has been there numerous murals and I was constantly in awe of those impressive scenes dotted throughout the city.

We then took a short bus trip to the Museo de la Luz (Museum of Light). Mexico City has the second most number of museums (after London) and this is one of its more niche ones. Light is an important part of Mexico's Aztec heritage and the museum is a great reflection of this.

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The museum is located in the former San Illdenfonso College and the architecture is visibly Classic Spanish. The building featured more murals, this time with a Catholic overtone.

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Unfortunately, the excitement of the museum visit was interrupted by the accessibility problem. There were no ramps or lifts and this proved a problem for members of our group that were in wheelchairs. I learnt from the UNAM students that this was a major problem in many of the buildings in Mexico City due to their protected status.

Due to time restraints, we were unable to see all of the museum but we visited two exhibitions, one focusing on light as a heat source and the other on light as an Aztec folklore.

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What I loved about the exhibit was the aforementioned marrying of old and new. The museum took Aztec history and presented it in modern, technologically advanced exhibits.

We had lunch in a restaurant in the downtown area of Mexico City. It was set in the middle of a courtyard, surrounded by boutiques. We had a traditional Mexican meal including mole. It is extremely difficult to describe mole as it is incomparable to any other dish. It is a complex sauce made up of over 40 ingredients including chocolate. It gives the sauce a rich and sweet taste with a savoury, spicy undertone.


We returned to the Light Museum after a satisfying lunch for an evening session on inclusion in disability. This session was presented by Michael, who was visually impaired. The session focused on interaction as the key to achieving inclusion for those with disabilities.

He believed that social processes were based around stigma and that barriers could only be broken down by truly interacting on equal ground. This was one of my favourite sessions of the week. It really made me analyse the way in which I interact and react to people in my daily life. Having a disability can make one quite insular which further propagates separation. Apart from the presentation, we took part in two activities. One involved throwing a ball of string around the group and stating our favourite meals. The aim of this activity was to physically (with the entwining of the string) and verbally show how we are all connected to each other. It was a really inspiring moment for many of us and something that resonated through the group throughout the week.

The second activity referred back to the theme of the day; light. We each held a lit candle and reflected on our paths and future relating to our disability. Sharing our disabilities in a safe and welcoming environment felt liberating.

The trip back to the hotel was tiresome as we encountered a lot of traffic. By this point in the week, our group from King's had become a family. This meant that we had become very open and at ease with each other. Despite the long journey back, we joked around and were already dreading our separation at the end of the week.

As I collapsed into bed after a long but rewarding day, I reflected all that I had learnt about myself so far on the trip. I hadn't expected to be so introspective, but it was a welcome and much needed change.

National Auditorium & Centro Histórico

Jamie Nicholas - Thursday 19th January

On Thursday we were up bright and early as usual, with our earliest departure of the week. After breakfast we went to the National Auditorium located on Reforma Avenue- one of the most famous and longest avenues in Mexico City designed by Ferdinand von Rosenzweig. From there we had a guided tour of the most important downtown places on the Turibus Centro Historico, going past historical monuments such as the Independence monument also known as the Angel of Independence a key public monument that commemorates the beginning of Mexico Independence where today the 42m tower becomes a distinctive element in Mexico City and also an area of celebration when national sports team win, they parade around the monument. We also passed key sites of Palacio de Bellas Artes, - a significant Aztec find that is a sacrificial altar and also a statue of Christopher Columbus due to him being the first European to conquer Latin America and it was inaugurated in 1877. The tour was made even better due to the temperature being above 25 degrees, so we got time to squeeze in some sunbathing but departed the bus at the National museum of Anthropology. We then were giving a guided tour of the national museum of Mexico with it being the largest and biggest. The museum was a great experience as its collection includes, giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization, treasures recovered from the Mayan Civilization and ethnographical displays of contemporary rural Mexican life. The provision for access for disabled people was interesting at the Museum, in one section visitors were able to touch ancient Aztec sculptures which was particularly good for visually impaired members of the group. It enabled them to access the experience. Most of the museum was also wheelchair friendly with the majority of spaces on the same level. This meant that members of the group using a wheelchair could access the various exhibition spaces. This is something that gallery and museum spaces in the UK could learn from. It was a very interesting museum outside my particular interests but certainly intrigued me whereby outside we got some time to look around a small market and try crickets- which was an experience, they tasted very salty but are unfortunately not my cup of tea but also original Mexican street food which was incredible. Lunch was held at Chapultec Lake, one of the most beautiful restaurants in this area. We had 4 courses which were soup- like every day, vegetable tacos, fish and then a fruit desert. It was a very posh restaurant made even better by an amazing view over the lake. Our day was done after our lunch which was our earliest finish of the week but still 8pm. From there groups departed for the hotel and it was free time.

Overall, I had an amazing experience attending the ‘Dialogues on Disability'. It was an extremely inspirational week which I won't forget for the rest of my life. I met some amazing people who have motivated me to do better in everyday life and also some great lifelong friends from around the globe. I was extremely inspired by the connectivity of the group, from the moment we met we all seemed to click and bond together and never looked back. I learnt a lot from the trip but in particular took away that connectivity and sensitivity are key to implement change with such a diverse group of young individuals all coming together in Mexico to try and increase inclusion for disabled students in higher education. It will benefit me as it made me take a different outlook on my life and has given me confidence to actively promote and circulate dialogues on disability so that in the future, the initiative only moves forwards and grows whereby I can be a part of this growth and try to implement change.

Last day in Mexico City

Rhys Thorne - Saturday 21st January 2017

Our week in Mexico City for the ‘Dialogues on Disability' conference reached its end today, but not before we got to indulge ourselves in some traditional Mexican cuisine and explore the markets of the city for one final time. Mexico City is a place of such diverse history, so why not begin our day at La Habana Cafe, where Fidel Castro was said to have begun planning the Cuban revolution alongside Che Guevara. I opted for the chilaquiles rojos (a traditional Mexican dish consisting of crispy tortillas or nachos bathed in red salsa and topped with beef, refried beans and some fried eggs). Once we had convinced ourselves to move, it was time to burn off the breakfast calories at ‘la Ciudadela, Mercado de artesanias', the first of its kind having been established in 1968 for the Olympic games, it is one of the largest and most popular craft markets in Mexico City, selling traditional clothing and handmade items from all different regions in Mexico. We had the chance to spend our pesos in this vibrant labyrinth of colour, where I bought some colourful tablecloths to lighten up my drab bedroom, and also a typical shirt from Oaxaca so I could bring some Mexican style back to the streets of London. Once we had wandered around each and every stall and bought every Mexican souvenir possible, it was time to head to the airport for our eleven hour flight back home.

Eleven hours is a long time to spend staring at clouds, but it did give me time to reflect on the truly inspiring week I had had. I've always been slightly apprehensive meeting new people for the fear that they will notice the way I walk and immediately make assumptions about me based solely on my disability. It was incredibly refreshing to realise that I was in the company of people who knew exactly how I felt as we began our journey together. It was an invaluable opportunity to meet such a diverse group of people from all corners of the globe with a variety of disabilities both physical and mental.

A personal highlight during the week was the time I got to spend speaking to Aldo, a law student at UNAM who, like me, also has Cerebral Palsy. We spoke about growing up with Cerebral Palsy and how we both had to fight for the right to study at our respective primary schools, in my case it was due to lack of funding for an assistant and for Aldo, his school simply believed that his Cerebral Palsy impacted on his ability to understand and perform well in his classes. The fact that we were able to bond over our similar experiences is a demonstration of the success of the Dialogues on disability conference. Although we may come from different backgrounds, with different cultures and live halfway across the world from one another, our disabilities do not divide us, they unite us.

What I learnt from this week was to embrace what makes me ‘different' and I realised that my disability is unique to me. It's difficult to explain what being disabled means exactly as everyone copes with theirs in their own unique way. I got to learn how people manage their disabilities in their daily life, and how we all deal with the challenges of life in a variety of different but successful ways that allow us to be our own person. The main message I took from my week surrounded by such wonderful people was that our disabilities do not define us, they are simply a part of us and if you accept that, our disabilities can unite us.

I hope to continue working with the dialogues on disability initiative along with even more global institutions in the future. The lives of disabled people, both physically and mentally is improving as the world is changing. It is vital that we continue this dialogue and keep it at the forefront of people's minds so that one day in the near future everyone is able to be open about who they are without fear of stigma or discrimination and I am honoured to continue playing a small role in this change.

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