Thursday, February 22, 2007

Benefits of Living In the U.S. - Accessibility

This actually has nothing to do with most of our lives, but it matters.

This weekend, while staying at a ranch house in Minas Gerais, I had the chance to talk extensively with one of the other guests, Adalberto. Adalberto is completely blind, having glaucoma so badly in one eye that there is no color at all in his eye. His other eye was rendered useless in a freak accident involving a jump rope when he was 10, leaving him with no vision of any type.

Adalberto is remarkably independent. He works on cases for the prosecutor’s office in Belo Horizonte (the capital of Minas Gerais), going through the reports in Braille. He knows enough English to get by. His house is not adapted to his special needs, and his wife and son help him when he needs it. Generally speaking, he is happy with his life, and has done an outstanding job for himself. However, despite all that he has accomplished here, he really respected the United States for the advances they have made in addressing people with special needs, be they physically or mentally, in ways that Brazil (and many other countries have not).

I could not agree with him strongly enough here. Compared to other countries, the United States has done an outstanding job in creating opportunities for people with special physical and mental needs. Our laws mandate that all buildings be accessible to people in wheelchairs or people who have difficulty walking. Braille marks our elevators, our office numbers, our restrooms, and even our menus in many places in the States. We offer services to the hearing impaired both through technology and translators. Nor does it stop at physical needs. We provide special schooling and work opportunities for those with Down’s syndrome, learning disabilities, and other special needs.

This is not always the case in other countries. For example, Adalberto relies on publications in Braille that come from Cincinnati and New York; there simply aren’t that many publications (or companies publishing matrial) in Braille here in Brazil. And only last year did Brazil finally make it legally mandatory that every public place allow guide-dogs into their establishments, with no exceptions. Indeed, you see no guide dogs here in Rio, because only in the last year or so has it become practical to have one, and the use of guide dogs isn’t going to and hasn’t popped up overnight.

To take another example, while walking to the Subway a few weeks ago, there was a guy in a wheelchair being filmed. The issue? In order to ride the Metro, he would have to go UP two steps, and then go DOWN two flights of steps. There was no elevator there, and while some stations have elevators here in Rio, often they only have elevators at one, very out-of-the-way place, forcing people in wheelchairs to have to go out of their way to ride the Metro. Certainly, there are opportunities – one of my girlfriend’s cousins has been completely deaf since birth, and thus, as a person with special needs, she gets free rides on the Metro, as do the many blind people who get off the subway near my apartment in order to go to the school for the blind. However, Brazil has a very long way to go in treating people with special needs equally and providing them equal opportunities and access in daily life.

Nor is Brazil the only guilty country. A few weeks ago, a program on television ran a story about the mentally disabled in the Middle East. The program made a strong effort at not villifying the Middle East in the current geo-political context (in this case, it was using Lebanon as its example), and showed the ways in which educational opportunities for those with special mental needs are slowly opening up. However, it was clear that those with special mental abilities in Lebanon specifically, and oftentimes in the Muslim culture more generally, are not always treated as citizens. The program offered staggering data relating to the number of people with Down's syndrome or other needs and their treatment, highlighting the number of such people who are barred indoors all day, with no activity or contact with the outside world. One woman cited how relieved she was to know that Down’s syndrome, with which her son was diagnosed, was a common disability, and that he could be educated; she mentioned how her husband and others had culturally used their religion to blame her and to mistreat him. It was clear that ignorance was the master here, and that the opportunities for people with special mental needs were on the one hand fortunately underway, yet on the other hand only (and tragically) in their most incipient phases.

Certainly, things aren’t perfect in the States. We could go much further, for example, in trying even harder to offer less menial jobs to people with special needs, or greater services in broader areas for the visually and hearing-impaired. Likewise, things are not totally abysmal in Brazil or other parts of the world, as many of these citizens are gaining space and access in society at large. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that, in legislating for people with special needs and assuring that these people are regular citizens, the United States provides far more opportunities than many other countries.