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Seeking access to services most people take for granted

An innovative urban transportation system has given international recognition to the Brazilian city of Curitiba. In Latin America and the Caribbean, public transportation is often inefficient and a good example of a transportation system for all users, including those with disabilities, is hard to find.

“Transportation in Curitiba is at the best in Brazil,” says Sara Bentes, a blind young woman who only uses public transportation when she's in that city. There, doors of metropolitan trains and buses lower after stopping for passengers, so there's no need to climb a staircase to get in. She has also used buses in Rio de Janeiro, which has a program to improve access, security and efficiency for people with disabilities.

But these are exceptions, according to what was discussed at a seminar on the subject held at IDB headquarters. In Sara Bentes's hometown in Volta Redonda, there are street-to-sidewalk ramps only on some street corners, and no public transportation system giving access to people with disabilities.

“There is an effort to improve public services (in Latin America and the Caribbean),” Bentes says. But it is not an easy task, seminar participants agreed. People with disabilities tend to be excluded not only from access to basic services, but from labor markets as well. They also have less access to credit, and sometimes find inequity in the judicial system.

Participants agreed that one of the many needs that should be addressed with urgency is universal access design in public services and goods, from transportation to schools. Technical standards should be set, accessibility should be integrated into design schools' academic courses, and social awareness of this issue should be encouraged.

People with disabilities have struggled with poverty resulting from inequality and “lack of sensibility” in the region. According to Gilberto Rincón Gallardo, president of the National Commission Against Discrimination in Mexico, inequality brings poverty and the number of people with disabilities living in poverty is growing.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, between 7 and 10 percent of any country's population suffers from some type of disability, according to United Nations estimates. “It is a shocking number,” says IDB operations manager Miguel Martinez. Other data show that the chances of becoming poor are three times larger for people with disabilities than for the rest of the population in the region.

Latin American governments should adopt universal access design following the few good examples, such as the Curitiba transportation system, as a first step in fighting inequality and opening opportunities. Without access to public services and goods, people with disabilities don't have equal access to education and employment. “Without proactive actions, it is very unlikely that the vicious cycle of disability and poverty will end,” Martinez says.

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