In a pilot center in a small town in northeastern Brazil, Renata Arantes Villela is creating a caring and nurturing environment for the disabled. With strong links to the broader community in which it is based, the pilot center will serve as a model for the development of much-needed services for the disabled and as a vehicle for combating misconceptions about disabled individuals and what they can offer to their communities.
Renata Arantes Villela is drawing on existing capacities within the community to create a center to care for the disabled and to provide related public education programs for the community. Because the center is available to a wide array of community organizations and services, its presence encourages the integration of the disabled into the lives of the community and vice versa. Renata is also helping "mainstream" the disabled into the community through various shared activities and events.
Although more than ten percent of Brazil's population, or some fifteen million individuals, have one or another form of disability, only 600,000 of them currently receive support from public or private agencies. Unfortunately, moreover, the limited assistance that is provided is generally restricted to a few categories of disabilities or age groups, and the sources of help are typically large bureaucratic institutions that are concentrated in the major urban centers of the country's south and southeast regions. In the interior sections of the country, disabled persons very rarely benefit from organized services, and in the northeast only 0.4 percent of the disabled population currently receive assistance in any form.The absence of effective and accessible care forces the disabled to remain at home, behind closed doors and isolated from their communities. And that isolation, in turn, has resulted in deep misunderstandings and biases about disabled individuals and what they have to offer to their communities.
Renata is addressing those shortcomings by providing individualized, multidimensional support at the small town level and helping handicapped citizens to become participating members of their communities. The center that she has created is assisting people of all ages and with all forms of disability. And, rather than relying on outside specialists, it draws on the talent and interest that she has succeeded in mobilizing within the community.One key element of Renata's strategy is a concerted effort to gain the trust of disabled individuals and their families and to establish a warm and open environment for them. Another is the physical space utilized by the center. More than just a center to assist disabled citizens, it is a town resource that draws the community together. In addition to being an inviting environment, the center provides ample space for a variety of courses and therapy for the disabled. There are two swimming pools that can accommodate classes, a garden and several meeting rooms that are utilized by community groups for a wide variety of purposes, including Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sewing club gatherings and university preparatory courses.
While encouraging the community to become involved in the center, Renata is also working to promote the visibility of the disabled in the community. The disabled rejuvenated an Independence Day parade that rallied the town together. They host parties and attend mass and other community events to establish their presence in the town. And in those and other ways, disabled persons who were once hidden away in their homes have become active members of their community.
Renata plans to bring her model to other areas of the country that lack support for their disabled citizens. Once she feels that her pilot center has been fully embraced by the town, she plans to focus her efforts on replicating the approach it embodies in other underserved communities in the northeast of Brazil.
Renata was trained as an educator and is part of a family with a tradition of social service. As a young adult, she was diagnosed with an orthopedic dysfunction (diastematomyelia) that eventually leads to paralysis and usually does not allow those afflicted to have children. Fortunately, in Renata's case the result was an atypically mild disability, and she has produced two healthy children. But her experience with the disease caused her to reflect on the lack of assistance and opportunities for disabled citizens, and it also enhanced her awareness of society's lack of understanding about the disabled and its failure to appreciate the contributions that the disabled can make. Her own good fortune also led her to decide that she had a "debt with life," which she would repay with her work. After being educated in a large city, Renata returned to the small community in which she was raised to address the needs of the disabled at the community level.