The Rio Paralympics got started in stunning fashion on Wednesday, with an opening ceremony featuring a robot arm dancing alongside athlete Amy Purdy, and a high-flying wheelchair stuntman doing a backflip through a huge ring.
There was also some political drama, as President Michel Temer was booed (again) by thousands of fans at the Maracana Stadium.
Watching the ceremony from the stands was Leo Barcellos. He's a 23-year-old resident of Rio de Janeiro, who is almost completely paralyzed from the neck down.
Earlier in the day, Barcellos spoke with us about the challenges people with disabilities face in this Brazilian megacity, which spent millions to host the Paralympics. Meanwhile many of its sidewalks are still impassable by folks in wheelchairs.
We also spoke with Maria Isabel Alves-Peixoto, founder of Lar Maria de Lourdes, the home for people with serious physical disabilities where Barcellos lives.
Here's what we learned about what it's like living with disabilities in Rio, and what the government could do better for disabled residents.
1. Rio’s state government is short-changing care homes
Alves-Peixoto and Barcellos both said the Rio de Janeiro state government is months behind on its payments to the Lar Maria de Lourdes homes. The organization is privately run but relies on public funds and private contributions. Its two residences are home to 13 children and 25 adults, and it has been scraping by with donations from the general public.
Homes for disabled people are just the latest government-funded institutions to be affected by Rio’s budget crisis. The state has also failed to pay firefighters, doctors, lifeguards and police officers, leading to a huge strike by public workers earlier this year.
A couple of months ago, Barcellos helped save Lar Maria de Lourdes. He is a singer and a performer who recorded a CD of his songs and has thousands of friends on Facebook. Barcellos used his social media savvy to rally friends and raise donations to keep the home open, for the moment.
“We almost shut down because we didn’t get help from the government,” Barcellos said. “Unfortunately, the government of Brazil wants things, but it doesn’t do anything to really help people.”
2. Rio remains extremely difficult for people with disabilities to access
While Brazil has some of the strongest accessibility laws in South America, it has problems enforcing those laws, said Alves-Peixoto. The historic city, with its crumbling infrastructure, remains a nightmare for people in wheelchairs or who are otherwise limited in their mobility, she said.
“Our city isn’t prepared for people in wheelchairs in any way! Not for them to get into buses, or to get onto sidewalks or traverse the streets or to get on the metro. Nothing,” she said. “There still isn’t any effort that there should have been long ago to figure this stuff out. Really, someone in a wheelchair is completely removed from society in our city.”
He cited a local mall that he likes to frequent in western Rio's Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. The mall doesn’t have accessibility in all areas, he said. And it doesn’t have fundamentals like large bathrooms for people with severe physical disabilities like him. He agreed that people with disabilities remain largely segregated in Brazil.
In its defense, the Rio government says it is working hard to modernize the city and improve access for disabled people.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office emailed a long list of projects the city is involved with, from improving sidewalks to enforcing accessibility laws on city buses. The Paralympics and Olympics have been a catalyst for this work, the statement said.
“The City Council is working to make Rio de Janeiro more accessible, with structural changes that will also leave a legacy of accessibility for residents and visitors,” the statement reads.
3. The Paralympics should help ‘open people’s eyes’
Barcellos is an eternal optimist and philosopher.
From his bed in a crowded, dimly lit room full of adults with similar disabilities, he said everything is possible in a world where human beings care about each other.
The trick, he said, is to bring different segments of society closer together. In Brazil, people with disabilities are too often hidden from people without disabilities, he said. He hopes the Paralympics will help to change that.
“I have hope that the Paralympics and the Olympics open the eyes of the people to the wrongs that are happening,” he said. “I know there are problems everywhere, in every country, but in Brazil we need to open our eyes more to the problems, so that things can change.”
4. All you need is love
Barcellos wasn’t too interested in talking about money, or politics.
He didn’t want to heap blame on the government for neglecting him and his brothers and sisters in the home where he lives. Far more fundamental than money and resources is the way people with or without disabilities view life, he said.
“Look,” he said. “The main thing is doing good with your life. And for me, that means spreading love around the world, showing people that we were created to do good — that the world throws difficult situations at us. But if in our hearts we have the knowledge that doing good is better than doing bad, we can overcome anything.”
He said he will continue to do everything he can to help the children who live in the home with him. His disability makes it hard for him to venture out without the help of volunteers, but he’s recently taken to performing live on Facebook, and he hopes to keep spreading whatever joy he can.
“You give what you can give, and what I can give is love,” he said. “Love is universal.”