RIO DE JANEIRO – One minute, Renata Glasner is watching the waves crash on Leblon beach from her wheelchair. The next, she's plowing through the turbulent 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 and now requires a helper to hoist her from her amphibious wheelchair onto the surfboard. "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."
Glasner is able to savor that experience on a weekly basis thanks to AdaptSurf, a Rio-based 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 and the shortage of pedestrian crossings make just leaving home risky for many disabled people, lobbying for their beach accessibility may seem like something of a frivolity.
But in Brazil, with its nearly 4,660 mile-long (7,500 kilometer-long) coastline, the beach is center stage for social interactions of all sorts: It's largely there that families reunite, that friendships are forged, that couples come together or dissolve and deals are struck. For the disabled to be deprived of the physical benefits of the beach and also all the socializing that goes on there is doubly isolating, says AdaptSurf co-founder Henrique Saraiva.
"Imagine, you're in a country that's surrounded by beaches, where the beach is an almost mystical place. But when you're confined to a chair, the farthest you can get is the sidewalk, and you sit there sweating under the sun and watching everyone play in the water," said Saraiva. "It's the most supremely frustrating experience."
He and two friends created the organization in 2007, some 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. But the intense 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," said Saraiva. "It's the one place where I can feel like I'm just one of the guys, just like everybody else."
In a bid to share that experience with others, Saraiva founded AdaptSurf with the help of two friends. Similar organizations already existed in other places with vibrant beach cultures, such as California and Australia, but Saraiva says AdaptSurf was the first of its kind in Brazil. And it convenes every Saturday and Sunday of the year, weather permitting, he added.
"It was really touch and go at first," Saraiva said. The group would show up at a designated spot on Rio's upscale Leblon beach with one used surfboard and a couple of parasols. At first, there were just three participants, but AdaptSurf has steadily grown and recently received a generous donation to buy new mesh ramps and runways to help people cross the fine white sand and a fleet of special wheelchairs made from a fast-drying mesh and all-terrain monster tires.
"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, adding that even for those participants with disabilities so severe they can't do more than be wheeled, knee-deep, into the water, just being on the beach does a world of good.
Now several dozen disabled people come from across this metropolis of 6 million to attend AdaptSurf, some braving hours-long bus rides to be there every weekend. The group has even had people come from as far as the capital, Brasilia, some 725 miles (1,170 kilometers) away.
Though they set up their parasols directly in front of a lifeguard station, AdaptSurf has never required its services — a fact Saraiva attributes to the care the group takes. When the ocean's too choppy or the undertow too threatening, they forgo the water and practice their moves on land. Even when the water's at its calmest, participants generally surf one at a time, with at least one able-bodied helper.
Andre Souza, a 33-year-old who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 motorcycle accident, had never surfed before he chanced upon AdaptSurf. Now, he hopes to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the disabled surfer who's 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 over three minutes riding an "apororoca," a giant wave that sweeps up rivers in the Amazon region at certain times a year. He hopes to surf another "apororoca" later this year.
"The first time I caught a wave I can only describe as the happiest moment in my life," said Souza, a lean, strong man with a quick smile and dark, sparkling eyes. "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."