RIO DE JANEIRO — Just a few hundred yards from Rio’s official Olympic and Paralympic megastore on Copacabana Beach, José Silva spins his wheelchair in and out of traffic with the speed and grace of a para-athlete.
Following August’s Olympics, the Paralympics opened here on Sept. 7, but unlike the 4,359 athletes captivating Brazilians with their determination and skill in events such as wheelchair tennis, basketball and rugby, 50-year-old Silva is no sportsman.
“I ask for money at the stoplight,” said Silva, who is one of 46 million Brazilians — 24 percent of the population — with some form of disability.
Like the others, he faces prejudice when it comes to getting anything from jobs to buses in a country ill-equipped to deal with his disability. He hopes the Paralympic Games will change that.
From the steep streets of Rio’s favelas to its world famous beaches, there is little room — or allowances — made for those with disabilities. Buses often don’t stop for the disabled, most restaurants bathrooms can’t accommodate wheelchairs and the crumbling sidewalks might as well be minefields.
The result is that most disabled people simply don’t leave home, making them invisible on Brazilian streets, said Mara Gabrilli, a lawmaker from Sao Paulo, who is also quadriplegic. She added that in some Brazilian states, children have to wait five years just to get a wheelchair.
“There are circles of invisibility that need to be broken. There is no wheelchair, there is no access in the street, there is no transport, so the disabled person does not go outside and it seems they don’t exist,” she said. “That’s why the Paralympic Games are important, because they force a cultural change.”
It has not been an easy road for Rio’s Paralympics in cash-strapped Brazil. Just weeks before they started, the Games faced a funding crisis and needed an emergency government bailout to go ahead.
Organizers blamed slow ticket and sponsorship sales, and the rising costs of the Olympics itself, which siphoned funds from its less glamorous sibling.
While the Paralympic opening ceremonies wowed Brazilians, including a stunning sequence in which snowboarder Amy Purdy danced on prosthetic legs with a huge robot arm, fans had to do some searching to find it on television. Brazil’s biggest network, TV Globo, showed news and soap operas instead, relegating the opening to its cable sports channel. A smaller government channel also showed the ceremony.
It was as if the network was saying, “we don’t care,” said Francisca Mardones, 38, a member of Chile’s wheelchair tennis team, who was shocked when she ventured away from the amenities of the Athletes’ Village in the upscale Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, where most (though not all) apartments have toilet grab bars and wheelchair-accessible showers.
“It’s almost impossible to push a chair up by yourself,” she said about Rio’s steep hillside streets.
Compared with Italy, where, like in a growing number of European resorts, she found beaches with floating wheelchairs and access paths across sand, Mardones said Rio’s famed beaches are practically off limits.
“You go to Rio, to the beach, to swim. It is not accessible,” she said.
There have been some improvements in Rio in recent years, said Silva, the disabled panhandler, but he admitted the city still had a long way to go.
Transport is one example. The metro and train that Silva takes home to the scruffy, outlying town of Belford Roxo are wheelchair-accessible (as are the new rapid transit bus lines serving Olympic venues). But he gave up taking the regular buses that provide the bulk of Rio’s public transport — even though under Brazilian law they are required to have wheelchair lifts.
“They don’t like to stop for disabled people,” said Silva. “When they do stop, sometimes they don’t know how to use the lift . . . or the lift doesn’t work.”
For Geraldo Nogueira, a wheelchair user and president of the Rio Bar Association’s Commission for the Defense of Disabled People’s Rights, it is the sidewalks that are the real menace.
Pitted with holes and cracked by tree roots, they are difficult to navigate. The Portuguese stones used to make the famous mosaic pavements in beach neighborhoods like Copacabana fall out easily.
“It creates these holes that are real traps for anyone passing with a wheelchair,” he said.
For him, the Paralympic Games were a missed opportunity, with improvements only made in the area of the venues themselves. Instead, the city should have done more practical work, like repairing the sidewalks.
A new law — co-authored by Gabrilli, the Sao Paulo lawyer — that builds on previous legislation to enshrine the rights for the disabled in Brazil and makes discriminating against them, whether in matters such as school admissions or restaurant access, a crime.
The Brazilian Law of Inclusion came into force in January — but some disabled say it’s not being enforced.
“If the law was followed, we would be very well off,” said Ricardo Gonzalez, 35, a Rio biologist who has been quadriplegic since 1997.
In the meantime, however, he has set up Beach for Everyone, a nonprofit group that since 2008 has offered free surfing, volleyball, swimming and stand-up paddling for disabled people on two Rio beaches on summer weekends.
Gonzalez relies on volunteers and corporate sponsors to fund and help run the project, which uses specially adapted equipment.
Renata de Freitas, 39, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wore a huge smile after swimming with the help of another project called AdaptSurf on Copacabana Beach on a recent afternoon — just yards from where visually impaired athletes competed in a triathlon event.
After being pushed across the sand on a special canvas wheelchair with giant, fat wheels, de Freitas said Brazil’s disabled people need to come out of hiding.
“It is also our job to go out on the street, without any shame,” she said. “Things are evolving.”