Can Paralympics advance disability rights in Brazil?

The high expectations for the Brazilian Paralympics team and the attention brought by hosting the Games for athletes with disabilities could raise new awareness about daily challenges many face here.

Reuters/Nacho Doce
Brazil's Paralympic swimmer Daniel Dias jumps into the pool during a training session in Braganca Paulista on June 22, 2016.

Just weeks after the curtain closed on the Olympic Games, it will open again on a second show of sporting prowess: the Paralympics.

Already, fans and broadcasters across the world are anticipating the Games for athletes with disabilities, marveling at their achievements against the odds: blind soccer players, swimmers with missing limbs, archers steadying bows with their toes.

The 15th Paralympics, held from Sept. 7-18, will undoubtedly showcase extraordinary talent and stories of overcoming adversity. But rights campaigners in Brazil are hoping for more. The Brazilian national team’s promise – it’s expected to win more medals than the Olympic team – and the attention brought by hosting the Paralympics could raise new awareness about the daily challenges and discrimination faced by people with disabilities both here and across the country.

From poorly enforced laws to bumpy sidewalks and little regard for access to public transportation or buildings, Brazil – like much of the world – has a long way to go in terms of disability rights.

However, just as there were concerns surrounding the Olympic Games’ legacy here, including missed opportunities to bridge inequalities between Rio’s poor favelas and the formal city, some disability rights advocates question whether the Paralympics can truly serve as the impetus Brazil needs to create lasting change.

“If we want to build a legacy for people with disabilities, we don’t need the Paralympics,” says Teresa Costa d’Amaral, a director at the Brazilian Institute for the Rights of People with Disabilities. “We need sustained public policy.”

A future of possibility

Brazil’s impressive Paralympics record since 2004 and its strong roster this year augur well for those that believe the Games can propel the domestic disability rights movement. 

At the 2012 Paralympics in London, Brazil was the seventh-best performing team, winning a total of 43 medals. It even sent two skiers to the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, a rarity among tropical nations.

And as Brazil celebrated its first gold medal at this summer’s Olympics, a triumph by Rafaela Silva in the women’s judo competition, many were perhaps less aware of another potential local gold-medal winner in the sport.

Wilians Araújo, a 300-pound, world No. 1 judo fighter, trains at a small second-floor gym here in the Copacabana neighborhood. From the sparsely populated municipality of Riachão do Poço, in Brazil’s northeast, Mr. Araújo lost sight in both eyes when he was just 10 years old. He was stretching for his father’s air gun, stored just out of reach, when it fired into his face. He was in a coma for 16 days.

Soon after, Araújo and his family moved to Rio, where his parents were looking for work. He was traveling on the crowded subway here one day when an employee from a public institute for the visually impaired tried to squeeze past him. When she noticed he was blind, she told him to get in touch.

“She said a future was possible,” Araújo recalls, taking a break from a group training session at his gym earlier this summer. The grunts of his peers tussling on the floor and the noise of traffic from the busy street below fill the room. “I told my dad, ‘I can’t believe this woman; she is crazy.’ The image [most Brazilians had] of disabled people was that we were invalids.”

Araújo enrolled in the institute, where he took up judo.

Six years later, at London 2012, he reached the semifinals. And now in Rio, as the top-ranked judo fighter in his heavyweight division, he has a strong chance of winning gold.

'Not a problem of laws'

Over the past two decades, the Brazilian Institute for the Rights of People with Disabilities has lobbied for better policies and helped more than 65,000 Brazilians, most of them in Rio, steer their way through the complications of life with disabilities. Nearly 15 percent of Brazilians have some sort of physical disability, according to data extrapolated by researchers from a census in 2000. That amounts to roughly 30 million people today.

The institute provides vocational training, opens doors to employment, and brings collective lawsuits when buildings and transport networks violate accessibility regulations.

Despite these efforts, the general consensus is that the disabled rights movement has been stifled in many respects because of a deep-seated lack of political and public will. A 1989 law to stave off discrimination, and later court rulings forcing authorities to comply with accessibility provisions, are rarely enforced. Most businesses remain loath to hire staff with disabilities, says Ms. Costa d’Amaral sitting in the institute’s 7th-floor office, where social workers and lawyers pore over paperwork.

“It’s not a problem of laws; we have the best laws in the Americas,” says Gustavo Proença da Silva Mendonça, an attorney and professor focused on minority issues. “But executing them is not a priority,” he says, offering the common view that attitudes toward people with disabilities are still based on mercy and charity, rather than rights.

As an example of this disinterest, wheelchair users say that recent Olympic-related improvements to public transport in Rio have largely overlooked their needs. They say that there are no preference lines at train stops and complain that many sidewalks still use Portuguese-style mosaic paving, making it difficult to maneuver their wheelchairs. And while the stadiums built for the Olympics and Paralympics were constructed with accessibility in mind, campaigners say merely getting to the venues pose serious mobility problems.

Enthusiasm for the Paralympics themselves has been low, with organizers deciding to give away many tickets. With just a tiny percentage of tickets sold, organizers recently announced that they had not raised enough money to fund the Paralympics as planned, leading to some unprecedented downsizing of the Games.

‘The opportunity’

But some see signs that attitudes are shifting, and there’s hope that the Paralympics could swing the pendulum further. There’s the 2009 inauguration of an impressive “inclusion memorial” museum in São Paulo, which charts the history of people with disabilities, for example. And after Rio hosted the Parapan American Games in 2007, some advocates felt more visibility was given to the wider disabled rights movement, not just athletes with disabilities.

“I think things have improved over the past 10 years,” says Antonio Santos, a pharmacy delivery worker in his forties who lost his right arm several years ago. Mr. Santos has lived all over Brazil and makes his deliveries on a skateboard. “Rio is one of the best cities” for people with disabilities, he says, and he expects more progress in the wake of the Paralympic Games.

And despite overall low ticket sales, now that the Olympic Games have wrapped, Brazilians appear to be showing more interest in the Paralympics, perhaps buoyed by the success of local athletes in the Olympics and inspired by human stories of courage and dedication. On the Tuesday following the Olympic closing ceremony, there was a single-day record for Paralympic ticket sales. Roughly 133,000 were snapped up that day alone.

The challenge, campaigners say, is to turn those upbeat feelings into an abiding social consciousness that can influence policymakers and business leaders.

“I hope it opens the minds of Brazilians,” says Thais Rueda, a sports psychologist who has been involved in organizing the Paralympics.

Back in the gym in Copacabana, judo competitor Araújo acknowledges that, yes, “prejudice exists,” in Brazil. “People still don’t believe in the capabilities of people with disabilities,” he says.

Changing such perceptions is difficult, he says, especially as media coverage of the Paralympics remains relatively subdued and sponsors often disregard athletes with disabilities.

But, he insists, “We can accomplish everything we dream. We just need the opportunity.”

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