Like many children with congenital disabilities in rural Mexico, Juan Antonio—or “Tonio” for short—was given to and raised by his grandparents, who live in a small village called Tablón #2, south of Mazatlan. From around three years old, Tonio began to show signs of increasing physical weakness, especially in his legs. He tripped and fell frequently, and had increasing difficulty getting up off the floor, and climbing steps.

This unusual weakness was especially troublesome at the home of his grandparents, which is perched on a steep hillside overlooking the village. And it became an even bigger problem when Tonio started school.

The tiny one-room schoolhouse is located on a facing hillside, and has two sets of stairs, one with 8 steps, the other with 4. The steps are steep, of irregular height and depth, and are without handrails.

During his first years of schooling, Tonio could climb these steps by himself, be it with difficulty and occasional falls. But now, at age nine and in the 5th grade, to go up these steps safely he needed help—for which he feels ashamed to ask.

This year the small village school has only 11 pupils—from 1st to the 5th grade—and a single teacher, who instructs them all.

During his first three or four years at school, Tonio was miserable. Some of the older children teased him for the odd way he walked, and called him a wimp. Tonio became very withdrawn. He would sit by himself in the far corner of the classroom and was too shy to speak. The teacher scolded him for not participating.

Now, in his 5th year, things had become somewhat better. The new teacher, a young man named Alfonso, has done his best to include Tonio and to encourage his classmates to befriend him. But, by now, Tonio had become so timid and withdrawn that there was almost no interaction between him and the other children. The teacher, over time, gradually won the boy’s trust to the point where Tonio sometimes spoke to him when they were alone. But when other children were present, he rarely said anything beyond a muffled “Si” or “No.” Regardless of what is going on around him, his face always had the same, quiet, far-off look that made it difficult to read his emotions.

Recess brought another problem. Despite the teacher encouraging him to go out and play with the others, Tonio would sit placidly at his desk, reading his schoolbooks. Once again, the sets of stairs were an obstacle; they separated the schoolhouse from the spacious playground, which is located on a lower level. At recess, the flock of children would dash out of the school and bound down the steps to the playground—leaving Tonio behind. And even when the teacher would shepherd him outside and help him down both flight of steps, the boy would just stand at the edge of the playground, silently watching.