Sunday 20 March 2011

Ch1: Many Ways To Access

We've seen that the physical state of physical accessibility in Rio de Janeiro isn't great. But my idea of an imagination is to look at other ways of doing things.

First I should stress that Brazilians really are quite helpful. Or, to put it better, the people that I met (and me too) find that when we needed help from strangers in Rio de Janeiro, they are very good at giving it. In interviews people downplayed the explicit prejudice they would encounter, and emphasized the positive aspects. Rio de Janeiro is a place where if it looks like you need help, people will offer. Brazilians are surprised when they go to Europe and when someone that has an accident on the streets they see that others don't run to help.

When I was asked how the accessibility was at my university, I had to say well, it's pretty rubbish in physical terms (big steps, a massive flight of them down to where we needed to do xerox-ing) but pretty good in human terms (people were helpful, and several helped with my xerox-ing, for example).

Before any of Rio's buses were accessible, chumbados still got about using them. To go to university Matheus would go with a helper. The helper would lift him in, fold up Matheus' chair and then go up himself; and to go out to the same in reverse. I'm not saying that this situation is great; I am saying that there are many ways to deal with and transform physical situations.

My final note is that people have different requirements. A university (UERJ) has ramps and lifts and so forth; I thought it was pretty accessible. To my surprise, Gabriela told me that "they didn't make the university for disabled people. They made it for athletes". With crutches the ramps and walking were difficult for her; and she had to use the service elevator (which she had to shout for, because there wasn't a button) because the normal elevators didn't stop on every floor. Other people who used the university had other issues; the type of desk they needed, for example, and the trouble in arranging that.

What is marked as "accessible", even in purely physical terms -- an entrance, a bathroom, a building, a bus -- might well be far from being so for many people. Accessibility is a complex affair.

Ch1: Rio de Janeiro

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.

People: Filipe

Filipe is about thirty-five and a member of ACADIM, having a Muscular Dystrophy (possibly Becker or Limb Girdle). He worked as a secretary and since retired. He lives with his sister and family.

Filipe uses a skate-board to get about in his home.

Ch1: Background

We've talked about the ways people walk or use wheelchairs and partly I have to explain a little bit better what conditions are like in Rio de Janeiro now and in the recent past, so someone who hasn't been there can get a bit of an idea where these things are taking place. But first I should say that when I talk about "background" I mean something a bit more than just the details of the city...

One example that fascinated me, although sadly I never got to visit, was that of Filipe. Many people altered things in their homes, like the height of light switches or of their bed, or of bathrooms and toilets. But Filipe went further, and redesigned his house and the way he did things.

At home, in "his place" [cantinho] he used a skateboard to get about. He sat down on it and moved himself around with his arms, in his words, "like a crab". The stuff he did at home was all on this level. He slept on a low mattress, and ate meals and used a laptop all on low tables.

It's "very convenient" for him, and everything in the room and house is as he likes it. He remodeled his corporality in the house, and the corporality of the house. He turned a skateboard from something used for fun or sport into something used in routine movements.

I find his example inspiring. Eating food seated at the table wasn't convenient, so he changed the table and chair. This means that when we think about people's difficulties of doing stuff, we should think of Filipe: could someone do something easier if we had a big redesign?

The "background" of one's home can be modifies according to financial capabilities, the right to make changes in the house and one's own imagination. The "background" of a city, and the situations in Rio de Janeiro is much harder to change.

Saturday 19 March 2011

People: Fernando

Fernando is one of the members of ACADIM: he has a Muscular Dystrophy, possibly Duchenne. He is around twenty-five years old, and works in a bank as he studies for his degree. He uses a manual wheelchair since twelve years old and a motorized one since twenty-one. He lives with his mother, Andréa.

Fernando on sidewalks in Rio: "The holes celebrate birthdays."

People: Gabriela

Gabriela is around seventy-five years old. She is one of the members of ACADIM and has a Muscular Dystrophy (possibly limb girdle). She used a walking-stick and crutches for the past twenty or so years. For about eight years she uses a manual wheelchair and then a motorized buggy. She lives alone.

Remembering when she fell over in the road.

People: Clara

Clara, about fifty-five years old, is one of the friends who swam together. She receives her father's military pension. She walks without supports. She self-diagnosed with cerebral palsy. For the past five or so years, she has lived by herself.

Falling over, in "fast-forward".