One minute, Renata Glasner is watching the waves crash on Leblon beach from her wheelchair. The next, she’s plowing through the waters, riding the choppy waves on a specially adapted surfboard.
Glasner, a 35-year-old graphic designer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago, is one of dozens of disabled people on this special strip of Rio de Janeiro beach who are conquering the waves. Men and women with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, people missing a limb, the blind, the deaf and even the paralyzed all hit the waves here.
They all require a different kind of assistance depending on their disabilities and maneuver their boards in different ways — some standing, some on their knees, others like Glasner flat on their bellies and using their body weight to steer the boards, but every one of them emerges from the ocean beaming.
“The taste of salt water has no price,” said Glasner, who began to lose control over her legs shortly after the birth of her first child.
“It’s the taste of freedom. After you’re diagnosed with a disease like mine, you can’t even imagine you’re ever again going to experience that taste,” she said.
Glasner is able to savor that experience thanks to AdaptSurf, a non-governmental organization that aims to make beaches accessible to the disabled and encourage them to practice water sports.
In a country where the lack of ramps and working elevators, the shoddy state of sidewalks make just leaving home risky for many disabled people, lobbying for their beach accessibility may seem like a frivolity.
However, in Brazil the beach is the center of social interactions of all sorts: It’s there that families reunite, friendships are forged and couples come together or dissolve. For the disabled to be deprived of the physical benefits of the beach and all the socializing that goes on there is doubly isolating, says AdaptSurf co-founder Henrique Saraiva.
Saraiva and two friends created the organization in 2007, 10 years after a mugging left him partially paralyzed.
The then-18-year-old Saraiva was cycling near his home in an upscale Rio neighborhood when he was set upon by several young men who were after his bike. One of them pulled a gun.
“I saw it and kind of froze and he fired. A single shot went in through my stomach and lodged in my spinal column,” he said. “Lying there on the street, I felt right away that I wasn’t able to move my legs.”
An extended hospitalization, a series of surgeries and months of uncertainty followed, with doctors unable to predict whether Saraiva would ever walk again. However, the physical therapy sessions paid off and Saraiva eventually traded his wheelchair for the crutches that he still uses to get around.
Despite his badly atrophied right leg, Saraiva pulled out his old board and tried to surf again.
“It was magical. The water is the one place where I can forget about my handicap,” he said.
In a bid to share that experience with others, Saraiva founded AdaptSurf with the help of two friends.
“It was really touch and go at first,” Saraiva said.
The group would show up at a designated spot on Rio’s Leblon beach with one surfboard and a couple of parasols. At first, there were just three participants, but AdaptSurf has steadily grown.
“People who spend their whole lives in a wheelchair get on a board and manage to catch a wave and their self-esteem goes through the roof,” Saraiva said.
Andre Souza, a 33-year-old who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident, had never surfed before he chanced upon AdaptSurf. Now, he hopes to enter Guinness World Records as the disabled surfer who has spent the most time on a wave. While the typical disabled surfer spends an average of about 10 to 15 seconds on any given wave, Souza last year spent slightly more than three minutes riding an apororoca, a giant wave that sweeps up rivers in the Amazon region.
“The first time I caught a wave I can only describe as the happiest moment in my life,” Souza said. “It’s the place where I feel the most freedom I’ve experienced since my accident. All day long, all night long, you are literally a prisoner in your chair, in your bed, in your body. I don’t have words to describe the sensation of liberty I feel on my surfboard.”