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In Brazil For The World Cup, Scant Disabled Access, Abundant Good Will

Two brothers, one of them disabled, get by on the kindness of strangers. (Daniel Lobo/flickr)
Two brothers, one of them disabled, get by on the kindness of strangers. (Daniel Lobo/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

I am not in the habit of seeing the world from the vantage of a moving chair, but after a recent trip to Brazil to watch the World Cup with my disabled brother, I do now. What I learned during our recent travels can be summed up in two ways: First, the United States has disability awareness, access and infrastructure that must be without parallel in the world, thanks in great part to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Second, Brazilians have such good will to spare, it almost makes up for how difficult it is to move around that country if your legs don’t work.

My brother, Didier, has FSH Muscular Dystrophy and cannot stand or walk. So we ordered wheelchair accessible tickets to the World Cup online, through the quadrennial contest's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA. Our first stop upon arriving at Galeão-Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio was the FIFA office to pick up our tickets.

...a FIFA representative asked my brother for proof of his disability. We were a little taken aback. That Didier was in a scooter wasn’t proof enough, so my brother offered to fall out of it.

There, a FIFA representative asked my brother for proof of his disability. We were a little taken aback. That Didier was in a scooter wasn’t proof enough, so my brother offered to fall out of it. No, the FIFA rep, said. She needed a document attesting to his disability. I couldn’t imagine having been asked for this in the United States.

“In the U.S., the fact of being in a wheelchair or a scooter is proof enough,” I said to the FIFA representative. She relented and handed us our tickets, but not before saying, “Don’t count on being admitted into the stadiums.” It was not the welcome we might have hoped for.

Two days later, the ticket agent’s parting words still ringing in my head, we hailed a cab to Rio’s Maracaná Stadium only to find it barricaded by a security perimeter that extended for many blocks. Scooter batteries being fickle, we were worried that Didier’s wouldn’t make the distance from the cab to the stadium and back again.

Undaunted, our resourceful driver turned around and drove around Rio from newspaper stand to newspaper stand in search of a handicapped parking sticker that could get us inside the barricade. Finding none, he returned to the cab with a three-by-five-inch index card and a blue magic marker. “What does the handicapped symbol looked like?” he asked. We showed him our tickets with the international wheelchair symbol, and the facsimile that he drew, along with his sweet-talk, got us past the police road-block. He dropped us off just two blocks from the stadium, and he was there waiting for us after the match.

I wondered: Did people with physical challenges in Brazil leave their homes? Given the hurdles Didier and I encountered on our way to and from matches across Brazil, I decided that they could be forgiven for not wanting to submit to the indignities of trying.

Belgium won, but our personal victory was proving the FIFA agent’s grim prediction wrong. Not only were Didier and I admitted to the stadium without incident, we were on the receiving end of the kindness of Brazilian volunteers, police officers, ticket takers and ushers who went out of their way to speed us to our seats just above one of the goal lines.

Good will: 1. Uninformed FIFA agent: Zero.

In subsequent days, however, I thought of how that ticket agent’s attitude was reflected in the country’s lack of handicapped-accessible infrastructure, if not in the vast numbers of good Samaritans who came to our aid. It wasn’t just tricky access to the arenas — did officials not expect fans with disabilities to want to watch the games in person? — it was airports and planes, subway stations and trains that seemed designed for some pre-wheelchair or scooter age. I wondered: Did people with physical challenges in Brazil leave their homes? Given the hurdles Didier and I encountered on our way to and from matches across Brazil, I decided that they could be forgiven for not wanting to submit to the indignities of trying.

For example, we had been counting on the relative ease of boarding our domestic Gol flight from Rio to Recife from a jetway ramp, which meant that Didier could ride his scooter to the aircraft door, slide onto an aisle chair and be wheeled to his seat. But then came word of a gate change and, with it, the news that we would have to board our flight from a staircase on the tarmac. Oh, and the elevator to the tarmac was out of service.

Didier moved into a wheelchair; I carried his scooter; an airline employee wheeled my brother onto and down an escalator; a handicapped-accessible bus drove us to the plane; I delivered the scooter to the cargo bay for loading; we waited — and waited — for a truck bearing a platform to raise us to the plane and deliver us, its two remaining passengers.

...we were astonished to see that the train was several inches below and away from the platform. Before we had reason to worry, however, two strangers lifted my brother and his scooter onto the train.

Once boarded, we discovered that Didier could not slide into the bulkhead first row seats we’d been booked into, because the arm rests don’t lift. This hitch was quickly resolved, thanks to a kind young Brazilian man who offered to switch rows with us.

Three hours later, having landed, we watched as all of our flight’s passengers disembarked, while we waited — and waited — for the airline to locate an aisle chair with which to transport my brother off the plane. It took so long that the passengers for the next flight were boarding our plane before we were off it.

But once again, it was the good will of strangers that made all the difference.

Two days later, it was sad to see the American team fall to Germany at Recife’s Arena Pernambuco, and it was sadder still to be told, upon exiting the arena under torrents of rain, that there were no taxis allowed. This would turn out to be false, but it was too late for us, already making our way on a van to the brand-new subway line a mile-and-a-half away. When we transferred to an old subway line, we were astonished to see that the train was several inches below and away from the platform. Before we had reason to worry, however, two strangers lifted my brother and his scooter onto the train. My brother, nervous, said, “I don’t like this situation.” We were now in a subway car looking up at the platform, wondering how we were going to get out.

“Don’t worry,” the men said. “Someone will help you out.”

And someone did.


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Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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