Saudades.The Portuguese word beautifully epitomizes the vibrancy and emotion that every single native of Rio de Janeiro — every Carioca — has for their home. Saudades does not have a direct English translation, but it’s an expression of total longing and nostalgia for something you once had or felt.
A longing comes easily for the sheer beauty of Rio and its people. However, even on the heels of all of the investments and improvements that led up to Rio hosting the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, I doubt Rio’s disabled locals will ever praise their city for its accessibility. Indeed, the longing or nostalgia of saudades may only apply to those who were fortunate enough to see the inclusion present at the Paralympic competitions as well as their desperation to see this materialize elsewhere in Rio.
Barra da Tijuca, where most of the 2016 games took place, is Rio’s newest, most commercial area, and a great (if somewhat sanitized) example of the city at its best in terms of inclusion. Bilingual signs were at every turn during both the Olympics and Paralympics, as was a military presence and some flipping fit athletes with rucksacks, white canes and wheelchairs. It was, without doubt, an impressive example of accessibility deserving of commendation: Buses were ramped for the first time (a legacy that will undoubtedly last), and staff in restaurants and shops were pleasantly aware of additional needs (a skill that cannot be unlearned). On the other hand, it must be emphasized that the Olympic Park was not “real Rio.” The pastels weren’t as juicy, nor the caipirinhas as sweet, and, most importantly, there was little to liken the area to one that a disabled Brazilian would encounter on a daily basis — an area that, let’s be honest, wouldn’t have “inclusion” as its middle name. However much it tried, Olympic Park was not the authentic, loud, vibrant, dangerous Rio.
Access in Rio has improved drastically since I first visited to consult on the accessibility of the metro system in 2013. Attractions are open and welcoming to disabled visitors, hotels ensure that accessible vehicles are available and tour operators now realize they’ll get more business if they have an awareness of additional needs. The city is finally starting to appreciate that accessibility is profitable as well as the ethical thing to do — hugely important at a time when Rio is finding financial footing again after economic downturn.
While volunteering at the 2016 Paralympics, I was blown away with the accessibility, even with my two-hour journey from Copacabana at 5:30 every morning (due to the Park residing in its own accessible “bubble” outside of the city rather than a lack of quick and easy options for me). Once in the sports arena, I was able to access everything my colleagues could, and was just as impassioned to cut out the biscuits when I saw medals being won.
But once I left that hyper access-conscious environment, when I was at dinner with my friends in another area of the city, my “disabled” status returned when the restaurant where we were dining didn’t have an accessible bathroom, and the security guards had no choice but to help me down 30 steps.
Having been to Rio five times, I can see the city from the eyes of what feels like a semi-local, and this is where the legacy of the games gets more important than ever. For the city to be fully inclusive, not just for our amazing Paralympians, accessibility must continue to flourish as something that is a desired result, rather than a time-pressured “tick-box” exercise. And it’s not there yet.
Rio’s inhabitants are some of the most helpful I have ever met. It is rare that I have waited more than 20 seconds when struggling to get up onto the pavement or off a bus. In fact, dare I say it, the willingness to help, combined with a lack of political correctness and fear of “getting it wrong,” is refreshing for me, a British girl who is more often than not surrounded by reserved helpers who are concerned about being offensive and patronizing more than they are about the issue at hand. I totally understand it, though: I’m fortunate to live in a place where the access is so good for the most part, and that those with disabilities are genuinely being seen as people demanding of respect. Still, at home I don’t need much help with curb cuts or getting on public transit. In Rio I always do.
It isn’t all doom and gloom as some incredible events have been born, with Paralympic and government funding in tow, that I hope will continue as markers of legacy. One funded example is the city’s first “Wheelchair Festival,” which saw cool and quirky models dotted all over the Port Area, banishing the idea that disability and fashion must be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I had never considered the beach an accessible place for me to go, especially alone. Now, the Copacabana sand is done up weekly, with smoothed walkways and accessible bathrooms, whilst excited surfers can be taken down to the sea in an adapted wheelchair with a reclined back and large floating wheels. Once in the water, it’s surf, paddle or body board — all particularly Brazilian and all the choice of the individual.
As a disabled person, watching disability equated with education, interest and greatness continues to bring me great joy, and the Paralympic Games helps push this concept on. But not all Brazilian locals, disabled or not, will agree with this sentiment. It’s worrying that I could watch Ellie Simmonds win a gold, then switch over the channel with a flick of a button and sit in front of a program that focuses on a disabled person fighting for their benefits with 99 pennies to last them for the month. The two extremes exist, but “normalized” representation of those with disabilities still seems to be pretty far behind, and it’s concerning that real understanding and acceptance of disability is unlikely to happen without it, in Rio or elsewhere. We can all cheer for our country winning medals and get on our soapbox when judges don’t vote in our favor, but not all of us can get onto that field, dive off that board or give our all on the basketball court, and that should be OK, too.
Let’s hope that it’s not just the “superhuman” of us that experience an accessible Rio in the future.
Emily Rose Yates recently authored the Lonely Planet guide Accessible Rio de Janeiro.