ERIKA FOUREAUX

Brazil,

Erika Foureaux is driven by the conviction that all children, whether they are “differently-abled” or not, must be given the opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens and community members. She is developing products and services that respect the principles of universal design in order to promote the integration of “diffabled” children in Brazilian society.  

This profile below was prepared when Erika Foureaux was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.

INTRODUCTION

Erika Foureaux is driven by the conviction that all children, whether they are “differently-abled” or not, must be given the opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens and community members. She is developing products and services that respect the principles of universal design in order to promote the integration of “diffabled” children in Brazilian society.  




THE NEW IDEA

After giving birth to a daughter with cerebral palsy, Erika quickly became aware of the pressing need to promote the integration of children with different abilities in Brazilian society. She founded the Noisinho da Silva Institute, whose target audiences are children between the ages of one and six as well as their families, to “normalize” interactions between children of all abilities in schools and in their homes. In order to do so, she is developing a series of products and methodologies that adhere to the concept of universal design. Universal design refers to a broad-spectrum solution that brings about products and environments usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

One of Erika’s flagship products is the Ciranda, a new type of chair that allows children with “diffabilities” to sit on the floor on their own. The Ciranda makes it possible for them to play with their siblings and peers in ways never before possible, and without constant supervision or support from adults. This innovative technology has the merit of responding to two different market needs. On the one hand, Erika has developed an upscale model of the Ciranda to respond to the demand of middle-class parents who seek inclusive solutions for their children. On the other hand, Erika also developed a Ciranda that can be built and assembled by low-income families at no cost to them through Ciranda-making workshops. The workshops are at once therapeutic and educational, and are financed through corporate sponsorships, as well as government and citizen organization (CO) funding. Since 2007, a total of 2,400 people have benefitted from the Ciranda: 600 children and their families now have access to a technology that enables the greater inclusion of diffabled children in Brazilian society.

Through the institute, Erika is also developing other lines of products such as the Socially Inclusive Desk used in classrooms. This product has already benefitted more than 100 children in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais thanks to a partnership with the Ministry of Finance. Both the Ciranda and the Desk are beginning to be sold to the government and to high-income populations in order to contribute to the financial sustainability of the organization and to enable it to serve an increasing number of low-income families. As a result of her work, Erika is also diligently raising awareness about the rights of people with physical disabilities, tackling prejudice and exclusion, intervening in public policy debates, and establishing partnerships with various companies and government entities to expand the reach and range of her products and services in the Brazilian market. She also aims to replicate the Ciranda-making workshops throughout Brazil by developing a distance education course.




THE PROBLEM

Brazil is home to a large number of children with diffabilities. According to Banco do Brasil’s Bank of Social Technology, 12 percent of Brazilian children between the ages of one and six suffer from motor-skill deficiencies. Of these 2.3 million children, it is estimated that nearly one-fifth cannot sit up on their own or experience difficulties in doing so. As a result, children with diffabilities and their families also experience a number of related challenges.

A child’s inability to sit up on his or her own, coupled with the lack of access to appropriate and affordable technologies to assist him or her, generally lead to various physical and developmental issues. For instance, children often suffer from respiratory, gastro-intestinal and orthopedic problems as a result of being confined to their wheelchairs or of remaining in a horizontal position all day. Most diffabled children who cannot sit on the floor with their peers or be marginally mobile have trouble playing and interacting with other children and their surroundings. This is particularly relevant during early childhood since these types of activities are crucial to the social, emotional and physical development of all children. It is through games and interactions with others and their physical environments that children learn how to interpret the world they live in. Moreover, various studies have shown that children who lack such experiences during their early childhood are more likely to face difficulties in the classroom.

The lack of autonomy that these problems entail also has significant consequences for parents. Many feel an extreme sense of guilt and helplessness when confronted with the situations of dependency and, often, suffering endured by their children. Regrettably, guilt and helplessness can easily be transformed into sentiments of shame and low self-esteem, which in turn leave children all the more isolated from the rest of society. Fearful of the way others might react to their presence many parents inadvertently make their children invisible.

In addition, the majority of Brazilian households, schools and hospitals cannot afford furniture and technologies that might facilitate ‘diffabled’ children’s integration. The few products that do exist tend to draw more attention to the differences between people with and without disabilities and are rarely pleasing to the eye, thus perpetuating discrimination and doing little to increase the self-esteem of diffabled people. The concept of universal design—i.e. design solutions that are available to everyone, whether they are differently-abled or not—is only now entering the Brazilian market thanks in significant part to Erika’s work.

Although Brazil recognizes inclusion as a right for people with disabilities, all three levels of government as well as many health and education institutions remain unprepared to respond to the issues people with diffabilities have to face on a daily basis. Families are quite lost and often do not know where to go to get the support they and their children need. 




THE STRATEGY

In an effort to increase the quality of life and inclusion of people with diffabilities, Erika founded the Noisinho da Silva Institute in Belo Horizonte in 2003. She is using the principles of universal design in developing a series of products and services that are equally suited for children with and without disabilities.

The institute’s flagship program is the Ciranda-making workshop. The Ciranda is a seat that rests on the floor and is equipped with two straps that allow children with physical disabilities to sit up and play on the ground with their peers. Low-income families whose children have physical disabilities build these seats with low-cost, environmentally friendly materials in the span of a single weekend. The workshops involve the entire family: While the parents are learning how to build the Ciranda, the diffabled children their friends and siblings are having fun playing “universal” games with trained educators.

Forty chairs can be produced by up to 400 people per workshop. Each family leaves the course with its own Ciranda, an official certificate, and a manual with step-by-step instructions to guide them as they build the seat. Those more entrepreneurial parents also leave with a new income generation opportunity should they decide to start building the Ciranda for other community members. The institute has begun inviting wood-workers from the community to make the affordable technology available in a greater number of localities, even when workshops are not offered. Families are asked during the class and periodically thereafter to report any problems and benefits their children have experienced in using the Ciranda.

Thanks to corporate sponsorships and funding from various government entities and foundations, more than 2,400 people have participated in the Ciranda-making workshops since 2007 and 600 children in the states of Minas Gerias, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro now benefit from using this technology in their homes. Many more children have also used the Ciranda in schools, kindergartens and other institutions that attend to the needs of children with different abilities. Beyond the obvious health benefits (respiratory, gastric, and orthopedic) that come as a result of the use of the Ciranda, children also gain the ability to interact with their environment and their peers in ways previously unimaginable. Their newly found autonomy permits new types of learning opportunities and aspirations, thus increasing diffabled children’s self-esteem. As a result, their families and friends also begin developing new perspectives on the capabilities and potential of people with disabilities. This realization in turn radically transforms group dynamics and relationships between people of varying physical abilities.

It is important to note that the workshops also serve certain therapeutic and healing functions for parents. They become so proud of their craftsmanship and of the new possibilities they have created for their children that their own self-esteem rise and the sense of guilt they may have struggled with for years suddenly begins to dissipate. Their children, who were once invisible to the rest of society—either because they were ashamed to bring them out in public or because they simply did not have the right tools to facilitate their inclusion—suddenly become visible citizens.

To implement the workshops in different cities, the Noisinho da Silva Institute first searches for local partners who share their vision and mission. The institute then contacts city halls, health and education organizations, as well as other institutions that work with people with disabilities. These partners are in charge of reaching out to families with diffabled children between the ages of one and six. The institute then organizes meetings with the partners, parents and children to inform them about the initiative’s goals. It also conducts interviews with the children and their families to determine whether or not the Ciranda would be appropriate for them.

Determined to develop a diverse line of universal design products that contribute to the integration and autonomy of diffabled children in their homes but also in their schools, Erika created Brazil’s first Socially Inclusive Desk. This classroom desk, which is pleasing to the eye, is suited for children of all abilities. By introducing this type of furniture into schools, Erika aims to educate teachers about inclusion, and improve the confidence, self-esteem, autonomy, and level of participation of diffabled children in their classrooms. Thanks to a partnership with the Ministry of Development of Minas Gerais, 150 desks are being used in classrooms in Belo Horizonte and Vale de Jequitinhonha.

With the organization’s growth and sustainability in mind, Erika has also developed an upscale model of the Ciranda, which she aims to sell to middle-class families in Brazil. Not only will the institute thus reach a larger number of children, it will also be able to offer the Ciranda-making workshops to an increasing number of people thanks to the generated revenue. Similarly, Erika plans to sell the Socially Inclusive Desk on the market within the next year or two. She is establishing partnerships with associations of physiotherapists and COs who play an important role in advising institutions working with people with disabilities in their furniture purchases— including schools and large hospitals. In the same vein, Erika is developing a partnership with the Secretary of Education of Minas Gerais to introduce her desks into public schools. Finally, in order to replicate the workshops in more localities, she is creating a distance education course that will be administered through local partners. The institute will make the Ciranda molds available to each partner to also facilitate local production.




THE PERSON

Due in significant part to being exiled in France with her parents at a very young age, Erika developed an early commitment to social justice. In the initial years of her degree in Industrial Design, she created a working group with her colleagues to think of ways they could use their newly acquired abilities to serve the social good. This is when she started promoting the concept of Universal Design.

Erika is the mother or three girls. When Sophie—her middle child—was born with cerebral palsy, Erika began developing home-made solutions to ensure that all three of her children could play and interact in an environment that would enhance Sophie’s development and be friendly for the whole family without making her stand out.

Years earlier, Erika had been offered exclusive franchising rights to bring VIBEL’s upscale children furniture to Brazil. After Sophie’s birth, she quickly realized that people with different abilities could not use these fixtures. Equipped with extensive training as an architect and the experience of designing and distributing VIBEL furniture in Brazil, Erika therefore began developing new types of products and services that adhere to the principles of Universal Design.

Since founding the Noisinho da Silva Institute, Erika has become the recipient of several national and international prizes. In 2005, she won the Top Social Prize and the following year her work was officially recognized for its importance and innovation at the Handitex Fair in Paris. She also received an award from Banco do Brazil in partnership with UNICEF for the impact reached through the Institute’s Ciranda workshops. Most recently, Erika became a finalist of the Social Entrepreneurship Prize presented by Folha de Sao Paulo and the Schwab Foundation.