'Life is extremely difficult for persons with disabilities in Rio'
Americas, September 13 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO: For sports fan Heitor Luiz de Menezes, the 2016 Olympics should have been a dream come true. The 44-year-old from Rio had tickets to several events including the opening and closing ceremony at the historic Maracana stadium.
But after difficulties getting to and from the venues in his wheelchair, he gave up.
From the excessively steep access ramps at the football stadium to disability parking spaces that had been reserved for official cars at the beach volleyball arena, the lack of mobility provision was an insult too far.
“I had the option to go to more events but after the difficulties I had, I preferred not to go to any others,” Heitor, a telecommunications technician, said. “During the Olympics, the IOC and Rio’s City Hall simply didn’t think about persons with disabilities.”
Despite major work on Rio 2016 legacy projects including improved public transport, accessibility is still left wanting in the city where almost one in four of the population has a disability. And it does not bode well for those arriving in Rio for the Paralympic Games, which open tomorrow.
Heitor described how it typically took up to 36 minutes to reach the metro platform at Copacabana using the wheelchair lifts – longer than his journey home to Tijuca in the north of the city. “This is the kind of thing we have to cope with,” he said. “The city itself is still horrendous.”
Inadequate accessibility is only one of the ways in which persons with disabilities are discriminated against in Rio. Campaigners said persons with disabilities faced high prices for medicine as well as limited facilities in schools.
“Everything for persons with disabilities is extremely difficult in Rio,” said Teresa Costa d’Amaral, superintendent of the Brazilian Institute for Disabled Rights. “There’s an ignorance about the issue. There’s prejudice, there’s fear. There’s a culture in Brazil that a person with disability is a different person, who isn’t perfect.”
A publicity campaign divided opinion in Brazil after an agency digitally altered photographs of able-bodied actors to give them the disabilities of Brazilian Paralympic athletes, using the tag line: “We Are All Paralympic”.
Although ticket sales have increased thanks to a relentless marketing drive and price-cutting, budgets have been slashed and there are plans to show only a limited schedule on free TV. For some, it led to fears that the Games will do little to challenge perceptions of disability in Brazil in the long term.
“The Paralympics will be well received, Brazilian people are kind people and will welcome it,” D’Amaral added. “But it’s not going to bring any change. An event like the Paralympics, this great demonstration of sports similar to Olympic sports that persons with disabilities can do, appears to me a way of saying, ‘Look, gosh, these people are competent’. It’s as if they’re being shown off for having competencies people didn’t expect.”
New research from the British disability charity Scope suggests that the positive impact of the Paralympics for persons with disabilities is fleeting. While the survey of 1,000 disabled adults found more than three-quarters believed the Paralympics improved attitudes towards disability, only one in five thinks Britain is a better place to be since London 2012 and the success of the Paralympic Games.
Almost 80 per cent believe that accessibility of public transport has not improved and more than 70 per cent say there has been no change in the way people talk to them or in the language people use.
Mark Atkinson, chief executive of the disabled charity Scope, said: “Persons with disabilities overwhelmingly believe in the positive power of the Paralympics to change attitudes for the better. But four years on from London 2012, in their day-to-day lives persons with disabilities continue to face negative attitudes at work, in the playground and in the street. We know you can’t change attitudes in a fortnight.”
For those competing in Brazil, victory in the arenas is their best hope of challenging this.
Despite what the International Paralympic Committee described as an unprecedented funding crisis, morale was said to be high at the athletes’ village at the weekend.
“Sport is a vehicle and the better results they have, the more they will inspire,” said Andrew Parsons, president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. “The Games should be a catalyst for change. Rio is much better than it was but there’s a long way to go.”
Shirlene Santos de Souza Coelho, 34, a Brazilian Paralympic javelin thrower who has cerebral palsy, said attitudes were already changing and there had been growing support for athletes with disabilities, with Team Brazil expected to finish higher in the Paralympics medal table than in the Olympics.
“My disability never limited me. I never felt diminished for it,” she said. “Today, in fact, it’s changing a lot. Today, we already see more encouragement but there are still many things to be done. I think in financial terms, there is little investment.”
She said it was unfair that Brazilian Olympians were funded while their while their Paralympic counterparts were not and relied instead on sponsorship to sustain themselves.
“If a Paralympic athlete wins a medal, it’s a pat on the back, a handshake and a ‘Well done. You went, did your part and your duty, and that’s it’. They should think more about this,” she said.
“The most important role of sport in the life of a person with disability is to show her that she is capable, and that there isn’t any limitation in the world to make her stop.”
As such, the Paralympics bring their own rewards for Shirlene and others. “This is our life. When we like to do something, we dedicate ourselves to it, even if it’s difficult, even if we don’t have much support. We will fight for it.”