Friday, October 2, 2009

What's in Store in Rio for Paralympians & Other Travelers With Disabilities?

When I profiled Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, I guess I chose the wrong city. Today the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2016 Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Chicago officials had promised the most inclusive games ever, in the most accessible facilities. They even had hoped to equip Chicago Stadium with 50,000 seats that could be converted into wheelchairs for use after the Olympics and Paralympics had ended.

What can Paralympians and other people with disabilities expect during the 2016 Games? A recent travel guide, South America on a Shoestring, advises: "Unfortunately, disabled travelers do not have an easy time in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is probably the most accessible city for disabled travelers. The streets and sidewalks along the main beaches have curb-cuts and are wheelchair-accessible, but most other areas do not have cuts and many restaurants have entrance steps." You have to assume Rio and Brazil will improve accessibility over the next seven years in preparation for the big event, and there are other promising signs.

Official Support for Disability Rights. Brazil has signed and ratified both the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilites (in 2007) and the optional protocol (in 2008). By contrast, the United States just signed the Convention in July and has yet to ratify it or to sign the protocol. I'm not saying the U.S. is not committed to the same principles, but I do give credit to Brazil for officially expressing their support.

Commitment. Not surprisingly, Rio 2016 demonstrated a strong commitment to the Paralympics, but they also demonstrated their support by hosting several recent events. When Rio hosted an International Paralympic meeting and competition in August, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, head of Rio 2016, said, "Rio 2016 positions the Paralympic and Olympic Games at the same level, with the same standards and with full integration between them. It will be an inspiring event, like our athletes."

Transportation. Rio has acquired 500 buses specially adapted for people with disabilities. By 2014, they expect every bus in the city will be accessible. In addition, Rio's bid claims: "Many sports facilities in Rio de Janeiro are already suitable for disabled people. The redevelopment of the Maracanã stadium for the 2007 Pan American and Parapan American Games left a legacy of improved accessibility: access by ramps, with seating space for wheelchairs and adapted bathrooms were all included to provide the best experience for people with disabilities."

A Generally Accepting Culture. Rio 2016 officials love to point out that Forbes recently named Rio "the world's happiest city." Part of that happiness is a general sense of tolerance and acceptance (though there are exceptions, including continuing reports of racism toward black people and others). For a firsthand view from an American with a disability Read this account of a U.S. student who uses a wheelchair and visited Brazil's Universidade de São Paulo to examine the conditions for students with disabilities. The author, Marie Sharp, stayed with another woman who used a wheelchair and had been at the university for 17 years as both a student a professor. Marie describes campus accessibility, student services, and housing and concludes: "Honestly, for some people it will be very difficult because São Paulo is not yet prepared for everyone. As far as cultural attitudes and perspectives are concerned, it is a very open atmosphere. Brazilians in general are willing to help -- sometimes too much -- and everyone in my program was very helpful."

Legal Protections. For information about laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, read this detailed review by International Disability Rights Monitor, which also covers housing, education, health care, employment, and other issues. According to the latest census (2000), 14.5 percent of the Brazilian population, or about 24.5 million people, have some degree of activity or functional limitation. About 48.1 percent had visual impairments, 8.3 percent had mental impairments, 4.1 percent had physical impairments, 22.9 percent had mobility impairments, and 16.7 percent had hearing impairments. People with disabilities have the right to vote, but an estimated 80 percent of polling places are not accessible.

So mark your calendar for Aug. 5-21, 2016 (Olympics) and Sept. 7-18, 2016 (Paralympics). Rio has some time to prepare to accommodate the Paralympians and other travellers with disabilities, and hopefully that will improve conditions for Brazilians for years to come.
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