Sunday, 2nd September 2012 – London’s South Bank
The day of the meeting – I’m wandering round a blustery, overcast spot by the Thames where the ‘Unlimited’ festival is in full swing. Part of the London 2012 Festival, it’s an eleven-day showcase of 29 commissioned works by 200 disabled and deaf artists – the largest ever event of its kind. The area is a hive of activity, with a Victorian funfair providing an antiquated backdrop of rusty pipe organs and groaning metal, punctuated by steam bursts from the ghost trains and occasional screams. Inside the Southbank Centre, a mash-up of dance, visual arts, music, comedy, circus and theatre is taking place. A band works up the diverse crowd with a strange but cohesive blend of Brazilian Maracatú rhythms and céilidh music, which bizarrely compliment each other. A Brazilian barn dance? The energy in the air is electric.
Eventually, I locate Luis Mauch (co-ordinator of Mais Diferenças) and we share a drink by the river with his partner Dani. Our first meeting produces a number of ideas that rapidly multiply. We hit it off immediately and it feels like a key link has been formed: in the right place at the right time. He explains that in Brazil, there is virtually no support for disabled students in mainstream education and a real lack of assistive technology. Many people with access needs become isolated from society, due to a mixture of dated attitudes and stigma attached to disability. To compound this, many cities are urban obstacle courses full of mobility barriers, where people build driveways with huge kerbs and buses have only just begun to be adapted for disabled people. Attitudes are changing now but the move towards accessibility and acceptance is a relatively new direction society is taking.
I had sensed this change during the five years I lived in Brazil, though many of the campaigns for disability equality seemed to assume that the public already felt a mixture of distanced pity and confusion. The national TV networks, though derided by many for spoon-feeding viewers ideas with undercurrents political bias, at least make an effort to promote diversity, the slogan being ‘Brasil: um país de todos’ (a country for everyone). Some question the phrase though: the fact that the federal government needs to publically declare that Brazil is ‘a country for all’ could be considered an indication of doubts that such a claim is actually true.
How far these efforts go to change the public’s consciousness is hard to gauge, but one thing’s for sure – the work that Mais Diferenças has put in motion is opening many people’s eyes. A recent photography project they coordinated took place in several São Paulo schools. Forty disabled students took part in the activity, the aim being to create a communication zone that shared the students’ emotions and experience of their surroundings. I am moved as Dani recounts the story that unfurled at the final exhibition. The mother of one of the exhibitors saw her son’s photos on display and wept at the sight. Dani asked why she was crying – was she moved by the achievement? She explained that it was with remorse. The family had a camera at home but had always kept it out of reach, forbidding her son from using it. Now he had taken control and produced a valuable work of art that spoke volumes.