Following the 2016 Paralympic Games, Rio de Janeiro’s disabled citizens saw a new hope for improvement in their daily lives due to new legislation.
Unfortunately, this promise fell short. Despite the greater recognition of disabilities and laws against discrimination based on disability, few disabled citizens have seen improvements.
Traveling throughout Rio de Janeiro with any type of physical disability ranges from difficult to nearly impossible. In a country where twenty-four percent of the population has some form of physical disability, accommodations for Rio’s disabled population are limited. Crumbling sidewalks pitted with holes and tree roots make travel by wheelchair nearly impossible. Additionally, while buses are required by law to have wheelchair lifts, many bus drivers will not stop for wheelchair-bound patrons to board. The city has only “one functional road crossing for the blind.” Even when some areas have been made more wheelchair accessible, lack of maintenance make the improvements virtually useless.
Unable to navigate their cities and without adequate accommodations, much of Brazil’s disabled population remains unemployed, unable to achieve higher education, and nearly invisible in the public sphere. Only two percent of the millions of working-age disabled Rio de Janeiro citizens are employed, and only seven percent have completed higher education. A startling “eighty percent of disabled people in Brazil didn’t feel respected as citizens of the country.” This is due to the inability to find employment and navigate independently.
The 2016 Paralympic Games brought some improvements to the city. However, it was mostly the areas around the Olympic and Paralympic facilities that were made more accessible. Paralympic venues boasted accommodations such as wheelchair rentals, power chair charging stations, and relief areas for guide dogs. The city created new, fully accessible bus lines that served the Olympic and Paralympic arenas. While some roads and sidewalks have been refurbished for wheelchair use, they can be too steep for a disabled person to climb by themselves. Even the access ramp to the new soccer stadium was excessively steep.
Legislatively, Brazil appears to be very inclusive of people with disabilities. On July 6, 2015, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff signed the Disability Inclusion Act. The act provides “priority treatment in public services for people with disabilities, and focuses on public policy in such areas as education, health, work, urban infrastructure, culture, and sports.” The law mandates a stipend paid to people with disabilities entering the job market, and a ten percent quota “for persons with disabilities to study at higher and technical education institutions.” Anyone found guilty of discrimination against persons with disabilities can face one to three years in jail.
While the Disability Inclusion Act appears to increase access for disabled persons throughout Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s citizens have seen limited improvements. Weak monitoring and enforcement of the Act leaves citizens without their promised benefits. The country’s current financial crisis due to low oil prices has slowed its list of future projects.
In failing to enforce its Act, Brazil is violating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it ratified in 2008. The Convention requires all ratifying states to make “[b]uildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces” accessible to persons with disabilities.”
In failing to enforce the Act and ignoring the Convention’s guidelines for accessibility and inclusion, Rio de Janeiro’s government unjustly denies millions of its disabled citizens their legally-mandated benefits. New programs, such as training public bus drivers to serve disabled passengers, or providing incentives for businesses to hire persons with disabilities, could increase independence and visibility. Further, partnering with nonprofit organizations that serve people with disabilities could ensure that the government provides assistance where it is needed the most. Small changes such as repairing sidewalks and improving public transportation access could mean enormous improvements for people throughout Rio de Janeiro. However, if the government continues to flaunt its Olympic and Paralympic achievements at the expense of the disabled population, it is unlikely that meaningful improvements will come quickly.