Rio Paralympics: navigating the ‘new, accessible Brazil’

15 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

Dr Cohen getting on one of Rio's new buses in her mobility scooterLeonard Cheshire Disability is in Rio de Janeiro this month, exploring how disability is approached and portrayed during South America’s first Paralympic Games.

Visitors here have been testing the gleaming, disability-friendly new transport infrastructure that has been rolled out here in Brazil.

Much is positive, particularly at the stations around the games venues, which all have ramps and exclusive lifts for disabled people.

The extended metro line is also fully accessible.

Problems with accessibility

Not all that glitters is gold at the Paralympics though, as I have discovered.

Some of the new metro line stair lifts have already started seizing up.  

And although the antiquated turnstiles have been removed from the front of buses to be replaced by accessible doors, there are not enough buses.

This has been causing claustrophobic conditions for the wheelchair users who have lucky enough to squeeze on.   

Dr Cohen's experience

Barney with Dr CohenI was keen to meet a Carioca (a Rio local) who is an expert in the field of accessibility and who will depend on public transport long after the games have left town.

I met up with urban planner Dr Regina Cohen at the Olympic Park, and watched as she patiently waited for an in-built ramp to be fixed to enable her to board the new rapid bus transport system (the BRT). 

‘I do not know why our new buses are reliant on ramps.

‘We have drawn from the designs they use in Argentina, whereas most of the world’s developed nations have designed buses that can be lowered to ground level.’ — Dr Regina Cohen

Regina, from Ipanema, has been a mobility scooter user since a car crash in her twenties left her with a permanent spinal cord injury.

Since then, accessibility has been the main focus of her research.

‘Unfortunately, the drivers here have not been trained to help disabled people board public transport.’

‘The buses often don’t stop for wheelchair users and on the first day of the Paralympics, all the support I was offered at the station was, "mind the gap."’

Regina laughs, but she is rueful because she knows the potential is now here for Rio to become one of the world’s most accessible cities.

‘You see a lot more disabled people on the streets now than you would have done 10 years ago.

‘This is because it has become a lot easier to get around than it was. You will now see disabled people going to work, going to the shops and going to the theatre.

‘We have good legislation too. An inclusion act was brought in last year to further protect the rights of people with disabilities.’

Still much more to do

Brazil’s legislation is in line with standards endorsed by the United Nations.

However, laws need to be enforced in order to carry weight.

An act was passed in Brazil in 2004 that dictated all public buildings had to be made accessible within three to four years.

‘There are over 1,000 public buildings in Rio and we are still waiting for many changes to be made.

‘They have been some changes, but we need many, many more.’ — Dr Regina Cohen

Barney Cullum is an external communications officer for Leonard Cheshire Disability and a freelance journalist.

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