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12 September 2016

On the road in Rio: will the Paralympic legacy bring equality for Brazilians with disabilities?

Brazilian people who have disabilities are urging the Games to usher in improved transport and safety. Will the Paralympic legacy live up to their hopes?

By Felipe Araujo

From the fifth floor of a newly-built office building in Rio de Janeiro’s swanky Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood, a taxi firm called Lauratour is running at full speed. It is one of the only car services in this city that caters exclusively for disabled people.

At a time when Brazil’s second biggest city is in the midst of hosting the Paralympic Games, this company has 13 vehicles on the road, transporting an average of 120 passengers daily. Business has never been better.

The firm, named after the founder’s eldest daughter, is the brainchild of 51-year-old Carlos da Silva. The businessman and father-of-two is himself paraplegic, having been diagnosed with infantile paralysis at six months old. 

After spending 22 years making a living in a number of European countries as a street artist – performing freestyle football, of all things – da Silva returned to Brazil in 2011 and founded his company with only one van. The money for the venture came from the years he laboured on the streets of central and northern Europe which, he told me hesitantly, brought in $1,000 a week (in US dollars) sometimes.

While setting up Lauratour, da Silva also entered the history books by reversing a draconian Brazilian law stipulating that people with paraplegia could not work as bus or taxi drivers. 

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“When I bought my first van, I found out to my surprise that there was a law that prohibited paraplegic people from obtaining the licence [to carry other passengers],” he tells me.

“That meant another hurdle I had to overcome, which became a two-year battle against the state’s traffic department, before the law was finally changed in Brasília.”

Carlos da Silva at his desk. Photos: Felipe Araujo

There are an estimated 45 million people living with some kind of physical disability in Brazil. That’s 20 per cent of the population. Over the past decades, the country has made significant strides – albeit slowly – in the social inclusion of those with physical disabilities, while also introducing legislation protecting them from discrimination in the workplace and public institutions.

But if today South America’s biggest economy is playing host to the first ever Paralympic Games in the continent, it wasn’t that long ago that people like da Silva were denied access to even basic education.

“I clearly remember my first day at school, which wasn’t until I was nine years old,” he reveals, pausing to speak to me from behind his desk, from which he runs his company’s operations. “Up until that time I stayed in the house without being able to read or write. My parents were very poor and couldn’t teach me anything.”

Making it to class was his first hurdle in a long journey. As a young man he had a knack for science and an ambition to become a chemical engineer, but society’s prejudices cut those dreams short.

“Someone at the human resources department of a chemical plant once told me: ‘No, you are a cripple. You cannot possibly work in a lab’.”

The Paralympic Games were supposed to represent a new dawn in the treatment and attitudes towards the disabled community in Brazil. However, Globo TV – the country’s most dominant television network, which provided extensive coverage of the Olympics just a few weeks ago – didn’t even bother to broadcast the event’s opening ceremony.

“It was the least they could have done [to broadcast the Paralympics opening ceremony],” says da Silva. “But that just comes to show how disregarded we are in Brazil.”

By most accounts so far, the Paralympics have been a success on and off the arenas. But even before it started, the event was mired in controversy, with the local organising committee reporting a financial black hole that would greatly impact the staging of dozens of competitions. The number of volunteers working on the event – 15,000 people – is also far smaller than those manning the Olympics – some 40,000 volunteers.

It’s not that the country has an inherent disdain for those with disabilities. Far from it. Brazilians, especially those from Rio, are renowned for their hospitality and willingness to help. That, though, is not the same as living in a society that safeguards the rights of people with disabilities.

“Brazilians by nature are very solicitous; people here always want to help,” da Silva muses. “If I leave the office now and try to get on a bus, lots of people will assist me. But that’s not accessibility. That’s solidarity.”

And that’s where the Paralympics come in. Long after the event is gone, cities and towns across the country will remain a nightmare for those with disabilities – their public transport networks barely capable of adequately servicing the population in general.

But what these Games are now doing is giving a voice to 45 million people whose physical conditions were not that long ago considered death sentences.  And if a few years ago being born with a disability in Brazil meant one had to resign to a life of pain and suffering, now there is something else.

“The legacy will be one of hope,” da Silva says. “The hope that now that people can see what we go through everyday, we will be heard from those at the top whenever we scream from down here.”

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