After founding an art school that seamlessly integrated disabled and non-disabled students, Rodrigo Mendes now helps institutions in private and public sectors reproduce his success in creating environments that accommodate people with disabilities as effectively as they accommodate non-disabled people.
Rodrigo has been a quadriplegic since he was 18, and his disability has exposed him to regular discrimination and exclusion. Though some groups and places in São Paulo are friendly to people with disabilities, there has been no systematic effort to implement the inclusion of disabled people that is required by law.
Using the art school he created in 1994 as a model, Rodrigo helps other organizations and institutions achieve inclusion for disabled people. Working primarily through his Inclusive Action Center, he partners with public and private schools, companies, citizen groups, and cultural institutions to dramatically expand the range of populations they can serve. He and his colleagues instruct their partner organizations on how to prepare their physical space to accommodate heterogeneous groups, and they offer advice to the teachers and co-workers of the disabled. By deepening awareness of and appreciation for disabled participants in these institutions, Rodrigo prepares the way for comprehensive reform. The overriding goal of all their work is the creation of an ethic of diversity in workplaces, schools and communities throughout Brazil.
Exclusion from the labor market and civic life is a major problem for Brazilians with disabilities. Although physically and mentally disabled people make up 14.5 percent of the Brazilian population, they comprise only about 2 percent of active workers in the nation. Those who do work earn comparatively low wages.
The educational system, allegedly the gateway to employment opportunity and advancement for all young people, fails to meet the needs of students with disabilities in Brazil. The failure of the school system shows itself in startlingly low school enrollment figures. While 2.9 million disabled Brazilians are of school age, fewer than half a million are actually enrolled. Furthermore, among disabled youth over 15 years old, nearly one-third have had fewer than two years of education. This is by no means a new trend; 27 percent of adults with disabilities in Brazil have had no formal education at all.
The exclusion of people with disabilities is not limited to education and employment. Disabled people have long faced barriers to exercising their legal rights and participating fully in civic life. This exclusion, in turn, has fed misconceptions and harmful stereotypes about disabled people—that they are lazy, unproductive, only to be pitied or offered charity.
To date, most approaches to integrating disabled people into society have placed the onus on the individuals with disabilities, rather than on the structures that exclude them. Disabled people have had to break barriers and overcome prejudices on their own. Meanwhile, governmental efforts—such as a 1991 law that mandates companies with more than 100 employees dedicate 2 to 5 percent of jobs for disabled workers—have been unsuccessful due to poor compliance. Many companies simply do not know how to implement successful practices of inclusion, and few citizen organizations are prepared to offer concrete strategies to help.
Rodrigo proposes a new approach to integration, creating heterogeneous groups that mix disabled with non-disabled people rather than simply inserting disabled people into existing structures. He believes that interaction on equal terms is essential to the equitable, successful integration of disabled people in any sphere, be it employment, education, or leisure.
To help institutions achieve inclusion, Rodrigo identifies strategies that work and shares them through his new program, the Inclusive Action Center. The center brings together architects, educators and others with experience in the integration of diverse groups to develop strategies for inclusion and disseminate them to art institutions such as museums, galleries, and schools. These art institutions are only the first focus of what will become a comprehensive clearing house for ideas and strategies to push for inclusive spaces throughout Brazil.
The starting point for Rodrigo’s strategy is an art school—the Rodrigo Mendes Association—which he founded in 1994. The school offers professional training for disabled and non-disabled students, and gives all graduates the skills and support they need to become marketable professionals. Students of the association learn technical art skills, but also gain valuable knowledge of the business of art. The curriculum includes modules that help disabled participants manage anxieties, view themselves and their abilities with confidence, and learn skills that aid their development as professionals, such as keeping financial records and managing a client base.
Of the current class of students, 25 percent have physical disabilities, 18 percent have mental disabilities, and 57 percent have no disability. By creating projects that demand close teamwork, the school forces students to overcome prejudices toward each other and recognize their mutual abilities. Graduates often find themselves with lifelong friendships that might never have formed outside the context of the school.
From the successes and struggles of the art school, Rodrigo draws out principles to guide solutions elsewhere. He is currently implementing a training program with 10 public schools and 10 private schools, replicating his school’s model in cultural and educational institutions and citizen organizations that are interested in inclusion. Rodrigo also collaborates with “Faça Parte,” a national program to encourage volunteerism in all of Brazil’s public schools. He is collecting his ideas and methods into a book; once it is complete, he will direct the expansion of his program to cities across Brazil.
Rodrigo was raised in an upper-middle-class family in São Paulo. He attended a German school, played in a band, had a wide circle of friends, and planned to study medicine. All his plans changed when he was shot during a robbery at age 18. Rodrigo permanently lost motor control of his arms and legs. He had to abandon his studies and undergo intensive physical rehabilitation. During his recovery, he learned to paint expertly with a brush held in his mouth. This led to his founding the Rodrigo Mendes Association in 1992.
In the early days of the association, Rodrigo dedicated himself to raising resources and building partnerships. He then studied business administration at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s leading university for business studies. He and his classmates made the association the subject of a major project, earning an award at a national competition of business students.
Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, recruited and hired Rodrigo after he graduated. He worked with Accenture’s Change Management and Supply Chains unit for three years, while serving as the president of the board of directors of his association. In January 2004, he left Accenture to pursue his work on disability inclusion full time.