In Brazil, this unstoppable woman is empowering thousands of disabled workers

March 8, 2021 | By Maggie Sieger

In 2008, Carolina Ignarra was a carefree 20-something living in her hometown of São Paulo, Brazil. She’d just graduated from her university with a degree in physical education and was about to embark on a new career. But then a horrific motorcycle accident transformed her life.

Ignarra lost the use of both her legs. After a grueling stint in a specialty rehabilitation hospital, she returned to São Paulo to start again. But Ignarra soon discovered that potential employers paid more attention to her wheelchair than her credentials.

“All the time, people would offer me menial jobs that were not related to my skills,” Ignarra says through an interpreter. "It was my legs, not my brain, that stopped working. I realized companies were not prepared to see people with disabilities as competent." 

"It was my legs, not my brain, that stopped working. I realized companies were not prepared to see people with disabilities as competent."
Carolina Ignarra

So she decided to change that perception by starting Talento Incluir, a consulting firm focused on the inclusion of disabled people in the labor market. She’s since helped more than 6,500 Brazilians find meaningful work through active job placement and training in soft skills, and advised companies on physical and technological accessibility for employees with disabilities and how to create a more inclusive work environment.

Ignarra’s story is part of “FIVE,” a new series of documentary shorts commissioned by Mastercard that throws a spotlight on women entrepreneurs all across the world who are using their businesses to drive social change in their communities. It underscores the company’s pledge to equip 25 million women entrepreneurs with the tools and resources necessary to grow their businesses, as part of 

Societies all over the world have been upended since the pandemic began in 2020. Women are dropping out of the workforce in higher numbers than men, and protests over racial inequality that spread abroad from the U.S. have forced a long-delayed reckoning. Companies are quickly learning that it’s not enough to just say they’re going to commit to a more equitable workplace. They need to do the hard work of making sure that people from marginalized communities are not only given job opportunities, but listened to and treated with respect.

“Inclusion requires much more than just hiring someone,” Ignarra says. 

It means making sure a new employee has the proper tools and any accommodations necessary to work effectively, as well as a clear path to career advancement. It often means adjusting the corporate culture to be more accepting of nontraditional hires. Everyone is entitled to feel comfortable and welcome at work, she says.

Hiring the disabled is not altruistic — it’s sound business, Ignarra says. Almost 24% of Brazilians have some form of disability, she adds. “If you don’t have anyone who is disabled on the staff, you are losing an opportunity to understand the needs of that entire group of people. New ideas and different perspectives bring opportunities for innovation.”

Ignarra decided to be part of the documentary series to bring her message to a broader audience and show that “people in wheelchairs can go anywhere and do anything.”

Her can-do spirit inspired documentary director Renata Sette, who spent 10 days filming Ignarra around São Paulo. “There is a feminine force, a strength, that Carolina has that is essential to make change happen,” Sette says through an interpreter.

Ignarra’s fight isn’t just for the disabled, Sette says. “It’s about human rights for everyone all over the world. These are things we should have started talking about a long time ago.”

Sette, who has spent a decade in the film industry, believes this is the perfect moment for this kind of story. “Inclusion is something that’s necessary for us to progress,” she says. “We must embrace the idea that everyone needs to have equal opportunities if we want to live in a fair and democratic society.”

Ignarra says the message of the finished documentary mirrors her advice to others living with a disability: “Sometimes you have to be tough. But always, you must have faith in yourself.”

Maggie Sieger, Contributor