This story is part of 30 Under 30.
Emily Yates is an accessibility consultant, travel writer, presenter and freelance disability awareness trainer.
For 30 Under 30, we chatted to her about her involvement in making Rio 2016 more accessible for all, and her hopes for the legacy of the Games.
My passion for travel and accessibility started when I volunteered at the London 2012 Games as a Games Maker. I was invited to a press conference and Seb Coe happened to be sat next to me. I said that the Paralympics had “lifted the cloud of limitation for people with disabilities” and he re-quoted that in his closing ceremony speech. I thought to myself “Wow, if there’s ever been an opportunity this is it!”
So I called his office to ask if he could spare 15 minutes of his time and he very kindly said yes, and gave me so many contacts. I managed to get a meeting with the British Consulate in Rio, and with some Brazilian NGOs. This was back in November of 2013, and Rio was nowhere near ready for the Games at that point, but I so desperately wanted to work towards writing an accessible travel guide to 2016 and beyond.
Being an accessibility consultant for Rio was an amazing experience
Whilst out there, I was invited to a large meeting, run by the organising committee, to give a presentation on my experiences as a volunteer but also as a disabled person. There were members of staff there, volunteers, secretaries of state, ministers for people with disabilities; it was pretty nerve-wracking! A man called Vivaldo Rangel also attended to represent MetroRio – Rio’s equivalent to our Transport for London – and after my presentation he invited me to work as an accessibility consultant for them in the lead up to the Games. He ended up changing my life and I have so much to thank him for.
I worked with MetroRio for nine months, advising on everything from installing and modernising elevators, to equipment for those with visual and hearing impairments, bilingual signage and step-free access for those with disabilities, parents with small children and the elderly. I worked with architects to plan the layout for the new metro stations leading to the Olympic Park, but I don’t know if they’ll be finished in time which is a real shame. Vivaldo and I also trained some of the MetroRio staff in disability awareness (in an interactive and bilingual session!). It was really a truly wonderful job to have, and I have so many fond memories of my time there.
Writing an accessible travel guide with Lonely Planet
After my consultancy work I got in touch with Lonely Planet and asked if they’d thought about writing an accessible travel guide to the Rio 2016 Games. After some crazy email conversations with their accessibility manager, Martin Heng, I’ve just been out to Rio and written it, and it will be out in the next couple of months – how exciting! It’s what you’d expect from a ‘normal’ travel guide, but also has plenty of accessibility advice regarding places to eat, party and sleep, as well as the big tourist hotspots like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf. Fingers crossed it’s really useful to all who use it!
The guide is being distributed free of charge so anybody can download it as an e-book. The International Paralympic Committee have also endorsed it so we’re printing 2,500 copies for them to give to athletes and their families. My ultimate dream would be that it really changes things for disabled locals as well.
Researching for the guide was a real eye-opener
Writing the guide was a really good learning experience for me as both a writer and a wheelchair user, as I slowly felt myself experiencing Rio as a local, rather than a tourist. At MetroRio, I’d got taxis or the underground to work, spent a lot of time in the office or advising in stations with Vivaldo, and then I’d gone to my apartment to sunbathe, go out with friends or sleep! Travel writing is an incredible job, and it was a very different experience to the one I’d had with MetroRio.
Firstly, I was alone, and whilst I was reviewing some amazingly accessible attractions and museums, I was also spending so much time trying to navigate Rio’s layout and districts, some of which are so different to the pretty inclusive Zona Sul, or South Zone, that most tourists stay in and I knew so well. It did open my eyes to how difficult travel can be if you have a disability, especially if you are living in Rio and have to navigate similar things on a daily basis, rather than for a two week holiday.
What’s really special is that my time writing for Lonely Planet has really changed my own perceptions of my own limitations and capabilities. When it comes to large curbs and flights of stairs, I’m pretty useless, but I’m now great at asking a local for help in Portuguese! I feel that I have a duty to make sure whatever I’m doing is always helping to change the perceptions of others, too. It’s really important that disability has positive representation wherever possible, especially as this may be the only experience of disability the new people I meet might have had!
Why representation is so important
The Olympics and the Paralympics are so well publicised on a global scale. The more positive stories and anecdotes about disability and access that surround major events like these, the more likely it is that other businesses and companies at home and abroad will take notice.
I hope that CEOs of businesses watch the Games and start thinking about how many disabled people they’re employing and whether their workplace is accessible. This might be a ‘big ask’, but I’d also like to think that politicians will watch and remind themselves that what they need to be doing is ensuring that disabled people have enough support, equipment and resources to continue reaching their potential, be that in sports or other fields(!)
Advice for anyone with a disability going to Rio and the Games
First and foremost, remember that Rio is not the UK, and that patience will have to be exercised around accessibility, however annoying that may be. Anyone going to the Games will find that Brazilian people are ridiculously warm and friendly; you’ll never be waiting for more than thirty seconds for a bit of assistance!
By reading the Lonely Planet guide, contacting people ‘in the know’ and doing a bit of planning and preparation, you’ll be able to have a really amazing time. Book any flights and accommodation now, as time is running out and prices are soaring!
Emily is sharing her story as part of our 30 Under 30 campaign. We are releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing extraordinary things. Keep up to date with all of our new stories on our 30 under 30 page.