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Brazil’s Carnival breaks barriers for special needs kids

March 2, 2019
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In this Feb. 22, 2019 photo, Israel dos Santos, 31, dances samba during a rehearsal of the Portela children samba school, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the first time this year, when Portela's children's group parades on Tuesday, special needs children will be dancing and singing alongside the other children. It follows similar decisions in recent years by at least three other major schools. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rosinea Fagundes couldn’t believe her ears.

With no history of family interest in samba or music, her 17-year-old autistic son, Henrique, decided he would try to become a composer for one of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous and traditional samba schools.

“Mom, I’m going to compose a samba for Portela,” she recounted him telling her last year.

Since he was a small child, Henrique had been watching samba parades on television, and four years ago he began playing in the drumline in Portela’s children’s school.

Last year, Henrique wrote a song, “Samba of Inclusion,” and brought it to leaders of Portela. They liked it so much they invited Henrique to play drums with the main school.

“When I’m inside a samba school, I feel so much joy,” said the teenager during a recent practice session.

Some 16 samba schools have children’s groups that parade during the world-famous bash that kicks off this weekend. However, traditionally those children’s schools have had the estimated 800 kids with disabilities parade in groups by themselves.

For the first time this year, when Portela’s children’s group parades on Tuesday, special needs children will be dancing and singing alongside the other children. It follows similar decisions in recent years by at least three other major schools.

While small changes, advocates for special needs children see signs of increasing inclusion in Latin America’s largest nation. In 2015, Brazil’s Congress passed a law that mandated conventional public schools accept children with special needs.

“When a child composes a song or dances in a parade, he is no longer marked by discrimination,” said Raquel Siqueira da Silva, a professor at the Federal University of South Bahia and an expert in music therapy. “Thanks to the music, he will receive and perceive various emotions and feelings.”

For Igor Gondim, a 38-year-old with special needs, parading with Portela’s school brings out a part of him rarely seen. During a recent practice session, Gondim, who usually sits and stares into the distance, began moving with the group.

“My son has trouble communicating, but when he arrives here he communicates with everybody,” said Adilson Gondim, his father. “It’s like a therapy.”

Beyond just incorporating youth with special needs, Portela’s children’s school, called “Eagles’ Children,” will be including nine girls who have been victims of sexual violence.

“Samba is happiness. It’s what these girls lost and come to take back,” said Valeria Nobre, coordinator of a temporary home for women who have suffered abuse.

For Henrique, samba is also a mode of communicating. While speaking is clearly difficult for him, his pounding of the drum comes both effortlessly and meticulously.

“From the time he was young, he has lacked confidence and had difficulties communicating,” said Henrique’s mother. “But I see him overcoming it. Samba did that.”