Meet the Match
A Brazilian Storyteller Shows Blindness is No Barrier
Marcos Lima first experienced comfort in the darkness. After 16 surgeries in the first five years of his life to restore his eyesight, glaucoma finally took his vision before his sixth birthday.
“Blindness was a relief,” Marcos says. “The pain, the days I spent in a dark room with my mother holding my hand to keep me from ripping the bandages, they were not worth the little I could see.”
While blindness was a comfort from his earlier pain, Marcos’ true relief came in the form of soccer. “In Brazil, it doesn’t matter whether you are blind or not,” he says, “every boy wants to grow up to be a soccer player.” At his blind school, the boys put plastic bags around the balls so they could hear them and played for hours, racing from their classrooms to the courts at the end of the school day.
Marcos excelled on the field. In 2002, he was called up to represent Brazil at a tournament in South Korea. The next year he was a part of the selection pool for the national team in the lead-up to the Athens Paralympics, the first occasion blind soccer appeared at the Games.
Despite his athletic gifts, Marcos knew he had potential for a brighter future away from the field. He chose university over competing, and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications the from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, one of the country’s top universities, in 2007
Two years prior to graduating, Marcos and his friends had the idea of launching what is now Urece Sport and Culture for the Blind, an NGO that organizes sports activities for people with visual impairments. As he continues with the organization in the role of vice president, Marcos also shows eagerness to get involved in other projects and initiatives that can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
Of these projects, the most newsworthy occurred in 2008 when Marcos became the first blind Brazilian to alpine ski as part of a project called Skiing in the Dark in the Czech Republic. The project was less about winter sports than it was about showing the capabilities of people with disabilities.
“The project carried this message: if I’m blind and I can ski, then I can really do anything,” Marcos says. “The issue is not the task, it is the lack of accessibility. How many other Brazilians who aren’t disabled have alpine skied? Not many of them.”
Whether in the world of sports or not, Marcos’ work has always focused on spreading awareness of disability in Brazil. He regularly visits schools and companies to speak on perceptions of disability and answer questions mainstream society has about it. In 2010, he started the Blind Stories project, which has grown into a YouTube channel where he tackles sports and non-sports issues that affect blind and visually-impaired people. His channel currently has more than 50,000 subscribers and recently reached more than 1 million views.
Unlike other countries where Marco has traveled, people with disabilities in Brazil are “out in the streets” and not hidden away. However, he emphasizes this should not be mistaken for a culture of accessibility or inclusion. And while the government has made movements toward accessibility recently, he says the public’s mentality is often the larger hurdle to overcome.
“I graduated from the best university in Brazil, speak three languages, and have worked for two big companies,” Marcos says, “but if I apply for a job I will receive calls from entry-level employees who don’t even read my CV asking if they’re sure I could do the job because I’m blind. It is the mentality that we have to change—not only for disability, but for pregnant women, children, senior citizens, and many other people, too”
As he spreads this message, Marcos believes that sport has a unique power to open the eyes of the non-disabled community. He explains the way their reactions to sports events, in his experience, has been its own statement for inclusion and equality.
“When I played football as a child, I would invite people to come watch me, and they were shocked when they came to the stadium,” Marcos says. “It was a real sport! At first, people cried, made vows and promises. ‘They can play football and I’m here complaining about my life. What am I doing with myself?’ they’d say. And minutes later, they’re cheering for me and against the other team. What happened? This person stopped thinking about the disability and just started watching the game. It’s the miracle of sports. It shows through sports we are able to do everything.”
As he joined the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Marcos was on a mission to expand the work of Urece to Brazil’s blind community (he is the second Sport for Community delegate selected from Urece, continuing the legacy of Gabriel Mayr, who participated in 2014). To do so, Marcos partnered with mentor Ian Cropp, sport strategy manager for CSM Advisory Group, who supported him to develop strategies for sustaining, financing, and promoting the organization and its programs. With more than 1,000 offices in more than 20 countries—including Brazil—, CSM has specialized in offering strategic advising on global sports business to brands such as Gatorade, North Face, and Liverpool Football Club. In partnering for the GSMP, Marcos and Ian have the opportunity to ignite the work of grassroots blind sport in one of the world’s sporting powerhouses, and there is little doubt they will achieve it.