(Photo Thomas Lovelock/OIS/IOC via AP)Mauro Pimentel/ AP
Aaron Wheelz, an extreme wheelchair athlete flies through a panel with the number zero, marking the start of the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016.

Rio Paralympians shed perceived limitations at opening ceremony

A change in public perception, some say, could go a long way toward securing rights for people with disabilities – and at the Paralympics, scores of spectators might finally get the memo.

The 2016 Paralympic Games opened Wednesday with a bang – and a somersault.

At the Rio Paralympics, a packed Maracanã Stadium looked on as a sizable cast of athletes rode, danced, and flipped through the opening ceremonies. The evening’s events sought to emphasize the remarkable abilities of its athletes, while shedding the perceived limitations of people with disabilities.

The theme of the evening was: “The heart knows no limits; everybody has a heart.”

The ceremony kicked off with death-defying wheelchair stunt by American athlete Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham. At the end of the countdown, which signaled the opening of the games, Wheelz flew down a six-story ramp amid fireworks and somersaulted through a giant ring on the stadium floor.

Former Paralympic medalist Marcia Malsar was among several winning athletes who bore the ceremonial torch as it neared its final destination, and Brazilian swimmer Clodoaldo Silva lit the cauldron.

Philip Craven, who lost the use of his legs in a rock-climbing accident when he was 16 and eventually became president of the International Paralympic Committee, echoed the evening's theme in his opening remarks, as he also alluded to Brazil's recent political upheaval. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office last week. 

"In a country which has faced major challenges of late, Paralympians will switch your focus from perceived limitations – to a world full of possibility and endless opportunity," Mr. Craven said. "They will surprise you, inspire and excite you, but most of all they will change you."

In Brazil, as in many other countries, people with disabilities face considerable challenges, as The Christian Science Monitor reported on Tuesday. An anti-discrimination law passed in 1989 is rarely enforced in the country, and employers are often reluctant to hire staff with disabilities. There are few attempts to improve the accessibility of buildings and buses.

"It's not a problem of laws; we have the best laws in the Americas," Gustavo Proença da Silva Mendonça, an attorney and professor focused on minority issues, told the Monitor's Jonathan Gilbert. "But executing them is not a priority."

A change in public perception, some say, could go a long way toward securing rights for people with disabilities. And at the Paralympics, scores of spectators might finally get the memo – ticket sales are up from just 200,000 to 1.6 million in the last few weeks.

"I don't want the movement to plateau or become stagnant," US wheelchair basketball player Desiree Miller, who also competed in London, told the Associated Press. "I want it to catch fire after Rio so by the time Tokyo comes around there's not a person in the States or a person in the world that doesn't know who a Paralympian is."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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