Rosangela Bieler, a 32-year-old journalist and paraplegic, is the founder and president of the Independent Living Center of Rio de Janeiro, an organization which is spearheading the movement of disabled Brazilians to win full citizenship.
The New Idea
Rosangela is setting out to change the focus of the disabled from seeking care to becoming independent, contributing family members and workers. Although this redefinition of objectives is increasingly accepted in the United States and Europe, the disabled in Latin America are generally still left dependent on their families, at terrible psychological as well as economic cost to everyone involved.
In late 1988 Rosangela founded the Independent Living Center of Rio de Janeiro. Through it she hopes to encourage the independence and participation in life of the disabled living in this pace-setting city. It should become normal for them to have their own families, to work, and to go down the street for a beer. Later, she hopes to set up similar centers throughout Brazil.
Probably the most important single step for a disabled person towards full independence is getting a job. Therefore, ensuring that good jobs open up to the disabled is one of Rosangela's chief goals. She's devised an ingenious way of achieving this goal while also providing her Center a substantial, growing source of revenue: Her Center helps large employers manage disabled employees effectively.
This work is part of a larger plan for the Center. It seeks to make disabled people an organized force pressing for their own rights. The Center provides information about housing, jobs, and educational opportunities and also about specialized services and equipment available for the handicapped. It will work to overcome the barriers that now stand in the way of the disabled participating by encouraging specialized job training, access to specially adapted aids and tools, and investment in ramps and other door-openers.
Behind all these specific changes is the most important area needing change - that of assumptions and perceptions. Rosangela will be working to help the disabled, their families, and the broader public see that life could be very different, to expect the disabled routinely to lead independent, contributing lives.
Although physically disabled Brazilians number 13 million, roughly ten percent of the population, they are a marginalized, rarely independent group. As a country, Brazil has traditionally invested little in health, hygiene, education and other public services for its majority. The lack of public funding and of other government or private institutions for its disabled minority is thus not surprising.
Brazilians with disabilities face a host of obstacles that their counterparts in developed countries have successfully overcome. These include discrimination, scarce job opportunities, and an almost total lack of specialized infrastructure (wheelchair-accessible public transport, ramps, accessible public restrooms, priority parking, etc.) which would allow the disabled to live and work like everyone else.
Another problem is that a lack of information about disabilities has prevented society from building mechanisms of support for disabled individuals, thus isolating them from the productive mainstream. This isolation, often more psychological than physical, has also impeded the interaction between disabled people which is so necessary to the transformation of their situation.
Some advances have been made in recent years. Brazilian government agencies and candidates for public office have begun to voice their commitment to defending disabled rights. Brazil's new national constitution is one of the most progressive in the world in this area. Increasingly, programs for disabled people are losing their protective, paternalistic character, seeking instead to encourage this important minority's full participation and equality.
Even though Rosangela is a journalist and editor who certainly knows the power of communicating ideas, she also believes instinctively that there is nothing more persuasive than early, concrete examples of the new paradigm.
The best way of getting a sense of her entrepreneurial style is to look at how she's going after more jobs for the disabled. Some of the big, highly-visible companies have begun to open up to a few disabled people. If the door is to open more widely, and not to close, Rosangela immediately recognized that these early cases must be successes.
She also recognized that often neither employers nor the disabled were prepared for the encounter at work. Managers haven't dealt with such workers before and don't know some of the simple adjustments that will help integrate them. On the other side, the handicapped need a good deal of special help. After a lifetime of dependency and excuses, a person trapped in a wheelchair must show up promptly at 8:00 every workday, even if it means getting up at 5:00. A blind person must wear matching clothes and wash his or her face.
No one now is set up to provide the sensitive intervention necessary for both sides. And, without such help, too many of the handicapped pioneers now entering the workplace would not succeed. In this situation, Rosangela saw opportunity.
She and her Center have just proposed to ten of Brazil's bigger employers that they would be happy to step in to provide this needed bridging help.
They're offering not only to help these organizations ensure that their disabled workers succeed, but also to assist any workers who have disabled family members help them on the road to independence.
To the degree she succeeds with this approach, her Center will virtually become the de facto policy-maker for many of Brazil's most influential firms vis-a-vis hiring the disabled. It will also be positioned to help make sure that these policies work. It will ensure itself a substantial financial foundation.
The Center will also bring to bear a number of other powerful tools. Rosangela, for example, will make broad use of her journalistic skills to project successes in the workplace or in other dimensions of independent living to the broader public. The Center also will have a number of specialized sections ranging from research to counselling to back up its chief thrusts.
Rio is her testing ground and model. She plans to extend her work to the rest of the country.
Born, raised, and educated in Rio de Janeiro, Rosangela has been an activist since her youth, when she was a student leader at the Catholic University. After an automobile accident left her paraplegic at age 19, she became involved with the cause of the physically disabled. A journalist by training, she has founded a number of publications and groups dedicated to disabled issues; she has also spoken and written extensively on the subject.