CLAUDIA COTES

Brazil,

It is impossible to think about the full practice of citizenship without access to information. Today, millions of Brazilians with disabilities lead marginalized lives due to the inexistence of shows, newspapers, and radios that use accessible technology. Realizing this, Claudia Cotes founded the Vez da Voz, or Time for a Voice program to democratize access to information and create opportunities for people with disabilities to actively participate in society. 

This profile below was prepared when Claudia Cotes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

It is impossible to think about the full practice of citizenship without access to information. Today, millions of Brazilians with disabilities lead marginalized lives due to the inexistence of shows, newspapers, and radios that use accessible technology. Realizing this, Claudia Cotes founded the Vez da Voz, or Time for a Voice program to democratize access to information and create opportunities for people with disabilities to actively participate in society. 




THE NEW IDEA

With a Ph.D. in linguistics and over fifteen years of experience as a speech therapist for TV, Claudia understands the difficulties of the blind and deaf to access and understand daily information. Through her work she seeks to transform the media landscape to ensure they too can become prime producers and consumers of information. Claudia founded Vez da Voz in an effort to truly democratize access to information. With a team comprised of individuals who are blind, deaf, physically disabled, or have Down syndrome, Claudia created Telelibras: An inclusive and democratic model for media that combines Brazilian Sign Language, subtitles, audio descriptions, sound, and images. All materials are designed to make information accessible to all. Some of the information is also produced and presented by her team, working with disabled reporters as the central subjects. Claudia is thus introducing a new approach to media where information is produced by and for everyone. 

Having consolidated her model, Claudia is beginning to widely disseminate her shows, with the goal of incorporating the full approach in the mainstream media, either by teaching them how to produce “universal” shows from the get-go or by adapting previously aired programs using inclusive technologies and publishing them online. Claudia’s work is already influencing the Brazilian media in considerable ways. She is producing the first Brazilian radio program in sign language, through a partnership with a major radio station (CNB—from the Globo Group). In addition, Claudia is disseminating sign language content for TV Minuto programs, aired in all of Sao Paulo’s metro trains. She also recently founded Inclusive Films Productions and is the author of many books in Braille. With an eye toward the future, Claudia is developing partnerships with major media outlets to expand access to free, high-quality and inclusive information on TV, radio, and the Internet throughout Brazil. 




THE PROBLEM

According to the World Health Organization, although 10 percent of the world’s population has some sort of disability, it is still hard to find universal models for the production and dissemination of information that facilitates accessible content and reaches everyone. In 2000, for the first time in its history, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics incorporated specific questions about disabilities in its demographic census. This census revealed that 14.5 percent of the Brazilian population has some sort of disability, a rate higher than the global average as a result of the country’s socioeconomic inequalities. In a developing country like Brazil, people with disabilities lack of access to information increases social exclusion dramatically, thus exacerbating prejudice and increasing social vulnerability. 

In 2000, a federal law was approved, establishing general norms and basic criteria for the promotion of accessible urban public spaces, including the transportation system as well as communication systems. More than ten years later, the results are still far from ideal. While physical accessibility has improved slightly in some cities, the law has fallen short of affecting communication systems in any significant way. Those working in this sector do not appear to have any knowledge of this law. 

For example, to this day, sign language is only used in political and religious programs. As a result, deaf people who have learned sign language have access to political and religious information, but do not have access to opinions and facts that would help them form their own opinion about the subjects at hand. In addition, of the six million deaf people in Brazil, only 30 percent know how to read Portuguese. Predictably, this segregation is largely economic: those who are literate in Portuguese have had the financial means to attend private schools and to pay for specialized professionals. Further, even the few TV shows that use closed captioning are not truly accessible for the majority of their intended public. News programming, for example, is not at all inclusive of blind audiences. As a consequence of not being able to distinguish images from subtitles, legally blind people are incapable of identifying which subjects are speaking, become confused with abrupt stops in narrations, and do not interact with shows, commercials, and movies that use visual language. 

As of today there is no communication system or model that uses an accessible approach to broadcast content to deaf and blind people. Without access to a significant quantity of diverse and high-quality information, people with disabilities are limited in the ways they can participate in transformative processes that make for a more inclusive society. This, in turn, increases their social and financial vulnerability. 

Evidently, the Brazilian audio-visual media industry is not the only one to contribute to the marginalization of people with disabilities. For example, there exist few incentives to publish books in Braille, the autonomous mobility of people in wheelchairs is highly restricted by public infrastructure, and there is an evident lack of public support for speech therapists, teachers, and other specialized professionals. However, the media, more than any other area, is the greatest force that influences Brazilian public opinion. The national communication system, particularly television, is organized to serve a society that is not diverse: people without disabilities, with stereotypical beauty and preferably, white. This manufactured image of the country does not contribute to the promotion of diversity. Therefore, working to ensure that the dissemination of information through the media is accessible to everyone means helping Brazilian society understand the value of its diversity and integrate, on equal terms, people with disabilities. 




THE STRATEGY

Claudia created Vez da Voz to enable people with disabilities to exercise their full citizenship. To do so, she focuses on removing the barriers that keep the Brazilian media from inclusivity. She believes that this is the foremost challenge to tackle: changing the media not only guarantees access to information for people with disabilities, but it influences Brazilian society to develop a more diverse understanding of itself, thus breaking a number of structural barriers throughout the country. 

To reach this goal, Claudia knows that there are many intermediate phases; especially since communication corporations represent a parallel power, which government and the citizen sector have had little influence over since the 1960s, when Brazil entered a twenty-year long military dictatorship. The first step, already successfully implemented by Vez da Voz, was the creation and consolidation of an accessible model for news broadcasting called Telelibras. With Telelibras, Claudia has proven that the production and airing of a TV show that is accessible to everyone and includes people with disabilities in the production and presentation of the news coverage is possible. 

Telelibras brings together many technologies to guarantee its universality: there is always a sign language interpreter appearing in the left side of the video for deaf people that understand sign language, audio description (which translates aloud everything on the screen for blind people), subtitles in Portuguese for deaf people literate in Portuguese, and iconographic images that better translate narrated content rather than quick or chopped scenes. Beyond the technological approach, the model mixes existing relevant content with the production of new content, including the direct participation of people with disabilities and its viral dissemination on the Internet. This approach covers all of the stages of the information value chain, and may be adapted and used in existing TV shows. 

Currently, Telelibras runs weekly bulletins of about 10 minutes each. The shows discuss various subjects in politics, sports, economics, current affairs and other areas. The team, comprised of twenty-seven paid staff and an employee from the Justice Department in Brasilia, meets periodically to define its editorial plans. The production, comprised of shoots both within and outside the studio, works with reporters in wheelchairs, with Down syndrome, and with visual and hearing impairments. Claudia believes that the quality of the shows produced is essential to their success. She has therefore developed a thorough methodology to enhance her team’s communication abilities, using both body language and phonetic expression. 

The second step in Claudia’s plan—the recognition and the dissemination of the model, whether through the increase of hits to the Vez da Voz website or by cross posting its content on other websites—is expanding quickly. In December 2010 the videos available on the website attracted more than 35,000 monthly views. Claudia has managed to make the shows available to the public through social networks and Sao Paulo’s municipal website. In two years, Vez da Voz has produced more than 250 videos and the program has received considerable coverage by major media stations. Teachers from public schools (obligated by law to integrate people with disabilities in their classrooms) use the shows as a tool for inclusion. The dissemination has gone way beyond its content. Today, for example, employees from the Caixa Federal Reserve are learning sign language by accessing the Vez da Voz website. 

The third step of Claudia’s vision involves transforming the Brazilian media into an inclusive industry by incorporating her model within established communication systems. She aims to do so through two complementary means: by transforming the way programs are produced and broadcasted on major TV stations to make them inclusive, and by translating live programs into the universal language she has developed to subsequently make them available to all on the company’s website.

To put these ideas into practice, Claudia has been working on strengthening relationships between Vez da Voz and major media outlets—from the communication sector and other areas. With Itaú Bank, the largest private bank in Brazil, Vez da Voz offers sign language interpreters at events and meetings for their deaf employees; the program offers a sign language course for the employees of the Abril Publishing House—the largest publisher in the country. By establishing partnerships with these companies, the network and support of the organization continues to grow and gain legitimacy. These initiatives also generate income for the organization and its employees. 

As a result of these strategic partnerships, opportunities have emerged with the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, the CBN radio station and Sao Paulo’s Metro TV. With Folha de Sao Paulo, Vez da Voz transformed several institutional videos into accessible formats and is currently studying ways to expand the partnership. CBN radio station helped launch a unique program globally, a radio for deaf people, by publishing the full content of one radio show in sign language on their website. Following the huge success of the initiative, CBN is studying the possibility of putting all of its content in sign language format and online. Finally, in partnership with Sao Paulo’s Metro television system—seen by millions of people everyday—Vez da Voz has produced video poems in sign language. 

With the goal of transforming the entire communication industry into an inclusive one that fosters the democratization of information, Claudia wants to use all of her experience as a speech therapist within Globo TV. However, she believes it is still important to have some evidence of the model’s adoption in a communications outlet that is not a direct competitor with Globo TV. Within this vision, Vez da Voz is negotiating the possibility of conducting joint programs with TV Cultura, a popular channel recognized for its cultural and educational content. For this, the organization is seeking public funding from the Ministry of Culture to produce new programs. In the future, Claudia wants to use Telelibras to broadcast media from people with disabilities during the World Cup and the Olympics, and produce new educational materials to be distributed at schools and libraries free of charge. 

Vez da Voz operates as a not-for-profit organization and ensures its financial sustainability partly through a fee-for-service model. The organization offers sign language courses, sign language interpretation for events, and inclusive video recordings. It also funds its operations through lectures and copyright royalties from the children’s books it publishes as well as fundraising with private companies. Recently, Claudia created Inclusivo, an inclusive audio-visual production company that will be funded partly through donation incentive laws specific to this type of organization in Brazil, and will also sell—in a more direct way—products and services to businesses. Everything produced (content and programs for the Internet, television, mobile phones, and so on) will have information with subtitles, sign language, and audio description. 




THE PERSON

Claudia learned to play differently because her youngest brother had Down syndrome. She has experienced the dynamics of exclusion since childhood and saw the prejudice suffered by her brother and her family. Claudia even heard that the right thing to do was to let her brother live “in his world,” separated from reality, as if he were not able to exercise his own citizenship. Exclusion and chronic health problems led to her brother’s premature death. 

Even before he died, Claudia created some initiatives that promoted inclusion, as a way to channel her anger and desire to end the exclusion of people with disabilities. With her experience as a speech therapist for Globo TV and her recognition for pioneering techniques and training methods for television reporters, she developed the ability to unite people, attract talent and coordinate others for collective action. In 2003, Claudia began her project by developing the Vez da Voz kit, which consisted of a book in Braille, sign language, and a CD with stories and songs. It eventually became a social project that drew in the participation of hundreds of volunteers across the country. She put on a number of public events where short films were shown, like The Sound of Silence, which she wrote. After one year, Claudia had organized more than eleven events in shopping malls (Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Paraná, Sao Paulo and rural areas). Seeing an increased demand for this type of product and experience, she attracted institutional support from UNESCO to create a website that would allow her to expand her audience and provide her materials for free to those interested. 

Claudia’s experience in television and constant contact with the reality of disabled people led her to increasingly question the barriers of access to information. It was from this questioning that in February 2005 she founded Vez da Voz “to give voice to those who do not have a turn.” With Claudia’s extensive experience in the training of reporters, she produced a vehicle that could effectively reach people with disabilities, with content created for them and by them. This is how her flagship project, Telelibras, was founded in 2007.

Though the project started only six years ago, Claudia’s degree of commitment to the cause is visceral. The methodology of producing Telelibras has already been implemented for documentaries, informational videos, and newspapers. The organization, although young, has a history of successful partnerships and has accumulated several awards. Claudia’s organization was a finalist in the Schwab—Folha de Sao Paulo Social Entrepreneur Prize (2009), and most recently, was awarded the A Rede Digital Inclusion Award in the Accessibility category for the Third Sector. 




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