Rio de Janeiro, cidade maravilhosa, the marvelous city. Rio has plenty of hills, on many of which are favelas, but most of the people I researched with lived and did everything on the flat bits and belonged, more-or-less, to the middle class. We were mostly in Zona Norte, which isn't the most accessible part of the city, but in relative terms of the city as a whole is pretty decent.
This is the background of my research. In this post we're gonna talk about sidewalks, buses, the metro and taxis. But we should note that physical accessibility isn't the only way to think about these things.
It's pretty hard to describe this. Sidewalks are high and not always lowered. Awesome. This is by no means as bad as some other Brazilian cities (I'm looking at you Belém de Pará -- they have higher sidewalks because they get more rain, perhaps). The sidewalks aren't exactly flat or properly maintained. "The holes," Fernando tells me, "celebrate birthdays".
Some sidewalks have had work done and ramps installed. Matheus called the principal ones his "highways". But just to give you an idea: the area where I lived, Vila Isabel, had two main roads going through it. Of the two, only one had reasonable-ish ramps on the sidewalk.
What this means is that if you use a chair in Rio it means having to use other ramps (like for garages), going the long way round, or, in many cases, taking your chair onto the road for small patches or for whole blocks.
Those are just the pavements! This list is going to start turning into cliches of problems with accessibility, if it isn't already.
There are loads of buses in Rio, and probably the principal way people get about. The normal buses have three or four big steps to get in and out; and they often don't stop near any official stopping point, or the sidewalk. There are buses that have the little accessibility sticker on them and they use the scheme of an elevator on the steps on the way out.
What goes wrong? Sometimes they don't stop for someone in a wheelchair. Sometimes the driver will refuse to use the lift because he doesn't want to, or doesn't know how, the lift is broken or (it's hard to know when these are the truth or not) that he doesn't have the key. If the driver does decide to try, it can take 5-10 minutes even at the best of time. (No wonder he wouldn't stop during rush-hour).
Three different people told me about accidents they had going up and down these, although they didn't hurt themselves (two were caught by someone who was there.) The general idea is that you have to teach the driver how to use the lift, and that things'll be much easier if you catch the bus at it's start/end stops rather than on its route.
The underground. This is better, but depends a bit on what stations you use. Some have lifts and everything's fine and dandy; others have flights of stairs. But the staff are trained, and most of the time helpful. They'll help you up and down an escalator in your wheelchair; and when they don't have that, or a stair-lift or the "robocob" (a machine that goes up and down steps), then they'll carry even motorized wheelchairs up and down steps. They'll call people from other stations to help, if need be.
Taxis. There are adapted taxis in Rio, with space for a chair. They don't have that many cars, though, and they stop work at 10pm, so you'd better book ahead and get home early!
Many of these things could and should be changed. But it's more complicated than just inaccessibility.