Social Issues

Skateboard park helping disabled adapt to wheelchair-unfriendly Brazil

By Carlos Meneses Sanchez

Sao Paulo, Mar 12 (efe-epa).- Young disabled Brazilians roll up and down steep ramps, bump their way down stairs and launch themselves from heights without thinking twice at a skateboard park in this metropolis.

Despite living in a country whose public spaces often are inaccessible to handicapped individuals, they have learned to move about thanks to the skills developed in the extreme sport of wheelchair motocross (WCMX).

Diego Antonio Soares said his experience at Sao Paulo’s Extreme Sports Center has given him the confidence to tackle the unfriendly conditions of Brazil’s streets, only 4.7 percent of which are adapted for people with physical disabilities, according to official figures.

He spoke to Efe about the serious motorcycle accident that profoundly changed his life nearly four years ago.

“To be more exact, on Sept. 25, 2016. I woke up 46 days later in the Intensive Care Unit and four months later I left the hospital in a wheelchair,” Soares said.

He said he sank into a deep depression and was “totally dependent” on his mother until discovering the “Faca na Cadeira” Institute.

“It was a light at the end of the tunnel,” the 28-year-old said.

Wearing helmets, knee and elbow pads and neck and spine protectors, Soares and other athletes perform a variety of risky maneuvers at the different bowls of the Extreme Sports Center.

Highly experienced athletes like 31-year-old Valdir Sousa, who became disabled in a workplace accident, can reach speeds of 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour.

“I’m free, I’m flying,” he said. Sousa has no qualms about placing himself on the top of a ramp and, after taking a few seconds to focus, hurling himself downward.

He loses his balance, falls, tumbles several times on the ground, but then quickly has his wheels under him and fist-bumps the person nearest to him.

With the help of volunteer instructors, the students learn to get their wheelchair upright after a fall, go down stairs, manage uneven walkways and, in general, live without fear.

“It was love at first ramp. I didn’t know how to lift up my chair and they showed me with all the patience in the world,” 23-year-old Fernanda Alves, the first woman to take part in the institute’s programs, told Efe.

The “Faca na Cadeira” (Knife in the Chair) Institute was founded in 2018 by attorney Leandro Badi Taouil and Jose Ricardo Auricchio, a doctor in human movement sciences, and has the backing of the Sao Paulo mayor’s office.

“Our goal here is to use sports as a means of assisting with rehabilitation and social inclusion,” Badi Taouil, who has used a wheelchair since 2010, told Efe.

He was vacationing in Amsterdam when a man fell from the third story of a building, landed on top of him and fractured his spine.

Years later, he discovered the sport of WCMX, purchased a chair with special wheels and set a goal of popularizing this discipline in Brazil, along with Auricchio.

“You clearly see how their self-esteem (and) strength improve and how they learn to be more autonomous … People still have that image of ‘poor baby,’ they pat them on the head out of pity, and this sport shatters that paradigm. People really are transformed,” he said.

Launching the project was a challenge because the wheelchairs used for this extreme sport have a special design and are individually manufactured by special order.

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