What's life like in Rio de Janeiro with a disability?

A different perspective for the Paralympic Games
4 Nov

What’s life like in Rio de Janeiro with a disability?

It’s less than a year until the Paralympic Games begin in Rio. I went to investigate what life is like for the disabled people of the city.

It’s the best place in the world for me. You learn to love this city very easily, it’s wonderful.”

It was on my last day in Rio de Janeiro that Carlos Alberto Da Silva, my driver for the ten days I was there, told me just how much he adores his city.

Of course it’s not unusual to be fond of the place you grew up in, but it was a little surprising hearing it from Carlos, because Carlos, like me, has been disabled all his life. And living in Rio, getting around in a wheelchair, means he faces his fair share of obstacles.

Carlos and I had just spent over a week together filming for the BBC, meeting people with a variety of disabilities who face difficulties every day, living and working in Rio.

With the Paralympics just less than a year away, we wanted to look past all the construction work, behind the Olympic stadiums, to see what it is really like to live here with a disability.

Navigating the bumpy streets for those with a visual impairment, like Paralympian Willians Araujo da Silva, can be tough
Image captionNavigating the bumpy streets for those with a visual impairment, like Paralympian Willians Araujo da Silva, can be tough

And, if you’re disabled, it’s not that easy. Visually impaired people trying to cross the road with crossings that have no sound, wheelchair users trying to navigate steep curbs and cracked pavements that are almost impossible.

Samba dancers who, up until a couple of years ago, had not been allowed to perform at the Rio Carnival because they were disabled.

It can be hard living in Rio if you’re disabled – and the problems aren’t just about access. Of the millions of disabled people of working age in Brazil, just 2% are in employment and as few as 7% have completed any form of higher education.

To fulfil your potential in Rio with a disability takes something special. Carlos does not let anything get in his way. He’s always moving forward, pushing himself every day, which is probably why he’s a businessman, a tour guide and driver with an accessible taxi.

My Brazilian producer, Roberta Fortuna, described Rio in one sentence for me: “It’s one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world but also a place where social differences and inequality of opportunity stand out.”

Carlos in his accessible taxi
Image captionIt was a joy to see this face every morning. Carlos, always professional, a brilliant driver and a lot of fun

And that’s exactly what I had noticed. Many of the disabled people I met were middle class, so their situation, while difficult, isn’t quite as desperate as those who live in poverty, like one young sprinter I met, Washington Junior.

Junior lives in the City of God favela with his family, who have very little money. He receives limited funding for training and often relies on the support of charities to help him afford the kit he needs.

Despite this, he’s just become the world champion in his category after winning in the 2015 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) in Sochi during his first trip abroad.

His dream is to compete in the Paralympics in his home city next year and by the looks of it, he’s on his way. He’s on his way because he’s talented and works hard. In spite of his situation, he’s positive; a glass-half-full man.

He has a reason to be optimistic about the Games because Brazil is very good at Paralympic sport. At London 2012 the team did better than their fellow Olympians and they are expected to do even better next year.

The team with Washington
Image captionA group shot after filming with Washington Junior

It’s fair to say that Rio needs the Paralympics. But do disabled people who live in the city think it will miraculously improve access and opportunities overnight? No, they don’t. But it’s a step forward.

I was encouraged by the excitement non-disabled people showed for the Paralympics during my stay, especially at an event marking a year until the start of the Games in the affluent area of Lagoa.

It was a jam-packed day for our team with many live broadcasts and interviews to mark the day. I was exhausted, but it was here I really felt the excitement and pride the people of Rio have at hosting the Games next year.

It was a wonderful mix of parents with their disabled children, non-disabled sport enthusiasts and spectators just wanting to see what it was all about.

The atmosphere was uplifting and very positive.

Embaixadores da Alegria, dancers who make up Rio’s only disabled samba troop, popped down to dance in the afternoon and although the weather was wild, they had a packed audience of people all dancing along, in awe of the exceptional dancing they were witnessing.

Vivi captivating a huge crowd with her Samba moves at the celebrations
Image captionVivi captivating a huge crowd with her Samba moves at the celebrations

My week in Rio was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The warmth of its people was overwhelming. Whenever I was stuck on my mobility scooter (which was so battered by the end of the trip I’m currently looking for a replacement), within seconds a passer-by would lend me a hand and get me out of a tricky situation.

And that attitude is what the disabled people of Rio love about their city.

They may be angry with their government, with the economic and political situation they’re in right now, angry because there’s no denying access is bad and the change that is so desperately needed isn’t happening fast enough.

But they also have so much love for their people and their undeniably stunning city. They embrace the fact that living in Rio forces them to be strong, to cope with everything life throws at them. They love that they’re tough. And so do I. But I love that the people are kind too.

We had lunch one day and as I pulled up alongside the table to get myself into the right position, a lovely waiter spotted me (probably looking quite awkward) and bent down, moved my legs and swivelled my chair to make it easy for me. He followed that with “What fresh juice would you like?”

Well, I had to stop myself from asking him to marry me.

I must mention too that many of the city’s tourist attractions are being made accessible, making the city much more enjoyable for disabled visitors. Carlos in particular is very proud of this. Here’s a picture of all of us at the Sugar Loaf mountain. Which, by the way, is accessible for scooters and wheelchairs.

The team at Sugar Loaf Mountain

Our World: A Bumpy Road to Rio? will be broadcast on the BBC News Channel at 21:30pm on 10 October and again on 11 October.

Leave a Reply