Badminton champ serves 'wheelchair challenge' to mayor in Peru

LIMA (Reuters) - It’s not easy getting around Lima, Peru’s traffic-choked capital of 10 million people. But it’s even harder in a wheelchair.

On Tuesday, Lima’s Mayor Jorge Munoz got a taste of life on two wheels in the city he governs, where sidewalks, buses and government offices across the city are not wheelchair-accessible.

Munoz spent the day in a wheelchair after accepting a challenge from Pilar Jauregui, Peru’s three-time champion of badminton for handicapped women.

Jauregui is seeking another gold medal at the Parapan American Games, which Peru will host next week, for physically disabled athletes, part of a regional multisport competition that precedes the Olympics. But she has already seized on excitement ahead of the event to pursue a larger goal.

“Put yourself in my chair,” Juaregui told Munoz in a video she shared on Twitter on Monday, inviting him to spend an entire day as a wheelchair user.

“Day to day I face difficult challenges, but my biggest challenge, and the biggest challenge for all wheelchair users, is getting around the city,” Juaregui said.

The video went viral, and by Tuesday morning Munoz, a 57-year-old former lawyer best known for his stint as mayor of one of Lima’s wealthiest districts, was wheeling around the city with Juaregui and groups of reporters.

Munoz nearly fell out of his chair as he tried to climb up a sidewalk, and complained he could not use a public bathroom because it was not wide enough.

“I accepted her challenge,” Munoz said on the outing. “Let’s see how we can improve the city’s problems.”

According to disability rights activists in Peru, there is a lot of work to be done.

The city’s scant public bus and railway offerings are not wheelchair-accessible, much less the swarms of private buses spewing black fumes that get most people in the city to work every day.

Just last week, a woman fell out of her chair due to deficient installations at a city metro station, said Pamela Smith, the director of local advocacy group Society and Disability - SODIS.

“Most of the city is completely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs,” said Smith. “This is something that affects people’s rights.”

Jauregui, who was born with bilateral hip dislocation, said the dearth of wheelchair-accessible infrastructure has forced some of the city’s most vulnerable people to pay extra for hired services, imposing an unfair financial burden on them and rendering large swaths of the city off-limits.

“You should just be able to move around, have the freedom to go where you want. But there are all these little obstacles you have to overcome,” Jauregui said. “And you learn to overcome them. But there are people who may not be athletes, and it’s a lot harder for them.”

Munoz challenged district mayors in Lima to spend a day in a wheelchair as well, raising the prospect of dozens of mayors in a major global metropolis taking part in the so-called “wheelchair challenge,” in what could become one of the most prominent campaigns for disabled rights in the world.

“That’s what we like to do, break barriers,” said Jauregui.

Reporting by Reuters TV and Mitra Taj; editing by Jonathan Oatis