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Life for the Disabled in Greece a Constant Struggle

Disabled Greece
The Athens Acropolis is finally more wheelchair-friendly for the disabled. Credit: Ivor Ambrose, European Network for Accessible Tourism.

Disabled people in Greece face the challenge that the country was not designed for people in wheelchairs. Even before uneven streets and steps were created, the topography of the country was rocky and mountainous.

Although the country has made great strides for disabled persons’ ease of movement and access since the 2004 Athens Olympics, how challenged are you if you are disabled in Greece? Is Greece truly accessible for those who are mobility-impaired?

Mobility impairment or being disabled refers to the inability of a person to use one or more of his or her extremities, or a lack of strength to walk, grasp, or lift objects. The use of a wheelchair, crutches, or a walker may be utilized to aid in mobility.

The mobility challenged are not just those who move around in wheelchairs. The mobility challenged can also be men and women who are navigating buildings, streets and sidewalks who are pushing a baby’s carriage, are on crutches temporarily or use a seeing-eye-dog because of vision impairment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes barriers for the disabled as being more than just physical obstacles. The WHO defines barriers as “Factors in a person’s environment that, through their absence or presence, limit functioning and create disability.

These include aspects such as: a physical environment that is not accessible, lack of relevant assistive technology, negative attitudes of people towards disability, services, systems and policies that are either nonexistent or that hinder the involvement of all people with a health condition in all areas of life.”

Architecture in Greece is a challenge for the disabled

The architecture of Greek cities and villages is picturesque with its immaculate flagstone and marble pavements and stone stairways but that also makes it a challenge if you are using a wheelchair or have other mobility issues. Sidewalks are so narrow that they do not accommodate wheelchairs or even baby strollers, especially in large towns.

Cars parked half on the sidewalk or very close to each other leave no space for a wheelchair to pass.

Greece has made great strides for disabled persons’ ease of movement and access since the 2004 Athens Olympics. The implementation of a brand new Metro system, a new international airport and buildings and facilities purposely built with great consideration for the mobility impaired for the Olympic Games made getting around much easier for those in wheelchairs.

But there is still much work to be done for the disabled, even though the government had set a deadline of 2020 for all public buildings to be accessible for the disabled, including ramps, railings, elevators and public bathrooms.

This past year, a broken elevator was replaced and a smooth concrete surface was created around the buildings of the Acropolis to enable easy movement for the disabled who want to visit the iconic venue.

With a greater sensitivity to individuals who can only get around by wheelchair, many private venues in Greece such as hotels and restaurants have upgraded their spaces for the disabled with elevators, ramps, and lifts in pools. This has sometimes even included making  beach access for wheelchairs so that the disabled can also be near the sea.

Disabled Greece
SEATRAC allows the disabled to fully access the sea independently. Image courtesy of SEATRAC.GR

Many municipalities have installed the innovative SEATRAC System to allow just such access. This is a mechanism consisting of rails, on which a specially designed seat moves, transporting the user from the beach directly into the water to a safe depth. Thus, people who are disabled can now enjoy the sea without a great deal of help.

There are also several websites that direct the disabled to specific locales and venues in Greece that accommodate the mobility impaired. Accessible Dream is dedicated to leading clients to more than 50 venues for accessible tourism. Disabled Holidays also directs clients to venues across Greece that can accommodate their needs.

Greek Reporter spoke with three individuals who are disabled who live in Greece about the daily challenges they face in getting around in their wheelchairs.

2004 was the landmark year for the disabled gaining accessibility

The expression has become ubiquitous: “confined to a wheelchair.” Frangiskos Levantis, however, is anything but “confined.” The owner and creator of the firm Sustain.GR, he creates built spaces. The Athens-based property developer has been in a wheelchair since he was 29. An infection affected his spine and he was no longer able to walk from that time onward.

Levantis told Greek Reporter that although inroads in Greece for those who are disabled have been made, the country lags far behind places like New York and Berlin.

“My home and my work environment are easy for me as they have been designed to not challenge my mobility impairment,” Levantis said.

“If I have to meet with a client outside of my office in a public or private space, even a simple journey out of Psychico to Halandri requires a google maps search to predict disabled parking availability, ramps for entry into the venue, etc.,” he added.

The issues that need to be considered are ramps, low door handles, specially-designed public bathrooms with handrails and space for a wheelchair to enter a private stall and elevators. AMEA is the acronym used in Greece for disability designation.

In three decades of getting about in a wheelchair in Greece, Levantis said that 2004 was the landmark year for the disabled gaining accessibility. With public buildings and transportation designed for the disabled because of the Olympics and Paralympics, the challenges disappeared.

According to Levantis, “The Athens Metro is actually better than London’s underground–because there are stops on certain lines in London that do not accommodate wheelchair movement.”

Levantis said, “I am not rich, but I am comfortable and that has helped because I don’t think it is easy if you are disabled here in Greece and rely on public transportation such as buses to get from place to place. Having my own car, designed for my needs, gives me much greater freedom of movement.”

Levantis volunteers at the Chatzipateras Institute. The foundation ensures the right of children with handicaps to acquire equal access to rehabilitation programs, to offer specialized services for physical, mental and social rehabilitation to children with cerebral palsy and similar conditions.

Levantis told Greek Reporter that age makes a difference once you have no alternative but to use a wheelchair to get around.

He said that from older people he usually encounters simple pity and sympathy — they feel badly for him, particularly if they have to step in, in a public place, where he needs assistance negotiating his movement.

A somewhat different attitude is shown by younger people who come to his rescue, however — for example, when there isn’t a ramp at the end of a curb or such similar design malfunction. Young men and women blaspheme against the system and the state for its lack of sensitivity and design failure in accommodating all citizens.

Going anywhere for the disabled in Greece requires planning

Maria, 28, has spent her entire life on a small island in the Cyclades — except for the two years her parents travelled with her, searching desperately in Athens, then Kassel and finally London for the solution to her problem. Maria’s problem was that she could no longer walk. On the playground in grammar school, in grade three, she collapsed while playing with her friends. She never stood up again after that.

She had a slight cold when she went to school that day, but after hundreds of tests and evaluations doctors have never been able to determine why her spine stopped functioning from the waist down that day and she became disabled.

Twenty years have passed since then. She spoke with Greek Reporter about the challenges of getting around a Greek island that is definitely not designed for the mobility impaired.

“I was lucky in many ways because I stopped walking at a very young age and I was still under the protective embrace of my parents and family,” Maria said. “I was a tiny thing and my Mom and Dad and brothers just picked me up and carried me when the wheelchair couldn’t get me through a doorway, up some stairs or into a bathroom.”

Having exhausted all potential medical possibilities to reinstate her independent movement, she returned to school 18 months after she collapsed on the playground. That was when she really became aware of the challenges of being disabled. Until then she had been in and out of facilities that were specifically designed for people on wheels.

“I arrived at school and fortunately the car went right to the entrance of the school grounds. There were plenty of stares. I wheeled across the playground with Mom at my side. When the morning prayer finished and each class was dismissed to their classroom, my mom and I waited for the students to go in as we realized there were three steps to go up to enter my ground-floor classroom. Mom pulled me up those stairs backward but it was too much. A couple of boys came along and they helped out by lifting the chair from each side.”

Maria said “I was already wearing a diaper, something I had gotten accustomed to avoid accidents or difficulty in using a bathroom when I was away from home and in public places. So when the bell rang, for the first break in the school day, I stayed in the classroom, eating my snack and watching my friends through the window as they ran around on the playground.”

Maria said that using the school bathroom was never considered as it was elevated on three steps and back then, the stalls had only “Turkish toilets,” or ceramic holes in the floor. There were no railings, ramps or accessibility for the mobility challenged. And even if you could walk in and walk out, most students were disgusted by the archaic facilities and didn’t use the school bathrooms, most waiting until they got home.

To temporarily solve the challenge of entering the school building, her dad took some planks to school the next day, setting them along the wall of the entryway on top of the stairs. Maria was finally able to roll into and roll out of the building.

That weekend, her father organized with some friends in construction to create a concrete ramp and install a hand railing at the entry, with the permission of the school principal. One of the perks of small town life in Greece and an empathetic educator was being able to sidestep the normal bureaucracy something like that might have required.

In the years ahead Maria’s father visited the Gymnasium and Lyceum on the island and once again went to work with volunteers to make her classroom accessible. The town –Chora — was an entirely different story, however.

Streets of flagstone, offering anything but smooth terrain to negotiate her wheelchair, made for a real challenge when she would be out with her friends. Eventually she got a motorized wheelchair for outdoors so she would not have to exert quite so much effort on the paved stone streets. Most of the little cafes had tables and chairs set right on the street and town squares so she could easily sit and have a Coke or a grilled cheese with her friends if they were in town strolling about.

Indoor spaces were another gauntlet, however, as most ground-floor buildings still had a step or two to cross the threshold. And the spaces were quite tiny anyway so Maria abandoned the notion of shopping or going out with friends to go “in” somewhere. And of course, being disabled was a challenge anytime she needed to use a bathroom. “There was always steps up or down, ad definitely no room for my wheelchair,” she notes.

Going anywhere — both then and today — requires planning, planning and more planning for the disabled in Greece.

But Maria said she has adjusted well overall. Her space at home has been constructed for her needs so that she can function independently. She works in the family business, a seaside taverna, where she is in charge of the till and handles reservations. And unlike most catering venues in Greece, the family taverna has completely accessible facilities starting from the bathroom for the mobility impaired to the ramp leading down to the sunbeds and umbrellas.

A few years back the government began installing solar-operated chairs with a metal ramp that allow the mobility impaired to roll directly into the sea for a refreshing dip. Maria said she has thoroughly taken advantage of that “perk” offered by the government.

She always loved to swim. In the summer her mother would take her down to the beach in the mornings and carry her into and out of the water. Today she drives her car to the beach where accessibility is set up. From the parking area to the ramp, she wheels herself to the chair and gets in and out of the sea independently.

But going into town is still a challenge because of the stone pavement and the uneven terrain. And most places still have bathrooms on a second floor or in a basement without an elevator, let alone enough space for the person and their wheelchair to fit inside.

Maria relates “People react differently to someone in a wheelchair. They think if you can’t walk, you can’t think. When I am out with a friend or a family member people do not talk to me. They direct their question — for me — at my companion!! People also stare. I always smile at them. They either smile back or look away.”

Maria said “I have a large circle of friends that has grown since grammar school and high school. I have been able to expand my friendships using social media like Facebook and Instagram.  And I have been able to find support groups through Facebook. There are some great groups in Greece and outside that help me get through the bad days.” She said she highly recommends the “Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Users Group,” found here.

Maria said that her love life has been challenging. She has had two boyfriends. The long- term commitment of being with someone who would always need some sort of special assistance was too much, she says, especially on a small island.

“Living with paralysis comes with challenges, but most of the limits our community faces have been manufactured and perpetuated by stigmas and stereotypes. Individuals living with paralysis can do anything and be anyone if we offer them the correct support, representation, and inclusion,” Maria said.

The government in Greece does not “see” disabled

George always liked motorcycles. The faster the better. In his sleepy village on Greece’s mainland near Trikala he had a reputation for popping wheelies. At 21, one too many wheelies resulted in a bad fall and his bike landing on top of him, severing his spine. He has been in a wheelchair for the last 13 years. Married for the last four years, he has a daughter who is just one year old. He runs his family’s cotton farm.

“My life was all about physical activity and labor before the accident. I didn’t stop for a minute. I was always doing something. And then for six months I just laid there, wishing I had died as my parents thanked God that I had lived,” George told Greek Reporter.

“At the time I didn’t see the point — I thought ‘legless, lifeless.’ I thought nothing had value any longer,” George says. “Themis, my physical therapist, brought me around to help regain my sense of self-worth. He showed me how to use my upper body and harness my natural strength to make it easy for me to move in a wheelchair. That and my first erection after the accident! When I realized sex was still on the table, I knew I could live even if I couldn’t run or walk.”

George acknowledged, however, that going out of his home and off the farm is a challenge. “If I have to go to a public building I have to plan it out even though we are in the boondocks and there isn’t the traffic and parking issues of major cities,” he says. “I still have to be sure that there are ramps and elevators. Bathrooms I have given up on. I have favorite tavernas and cafes that I frequent because I have ease of access there.”

George said his tractors and other riding equipment have been outfitted so that he can pull himself up onto the seat and they can be switched to hand-operated controls. He added that while he can create the means to serve his needs in his own private environment, the government is still not “seeing” individuals who move around by wheelchair.

He adds that he would like to see every member of Parliament in a wheelchair for one week, because, as he says, the laws would change instantaneously.


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