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Doing the wheelchair slalom in a hostile city

By Lina Giannarou

Panayiotis Pitsiniagas drove to Kathimerini’s offices in his car. He parked, went through the entrance and rode the elevator up to the fourth floor. Just before he reached my desk, though, he stopped. A coat stand, a piece of furniture whose presence we had never given much thought to, was in the way and his wheelchair couldn’t fit through the corridor.

A coat stand is the least of your problems when you’re trying to get around any part of Athens in a wheelchair: You have to account for steps at the entrance to almost all apartment buildings and stores, badly constructed ramps where they do exist on sidewalks, and, of course, the bane of illegally parked vehicles.

The hitch at the office was indicative of how differently we navigate the world compared to people with disabilities. A campaign launched by the Association of Social Responsibility for Children and Youths (SKEP), called “Slalom in the Streets,” aims to change that and raise awareness about how people with mobility challenges see the world. An event was held on April 5 at the Municipality Offices of Tavros and Moschato, followed by another one on April 12 in Zografou, at the premises of SKEP, an organization committed to reversing and eliminating the social exclusion experienced by young people with disabilities.

Participants in the initiative, which is aimed at able-bodied children, teens and adults, had to navigate a course in a wheelchair and then blindfolded with the help of a cane.

The first “Slalom” event, held at a central public square in Vrilissia, northern Athens, in 2012, was a resounding success according to organizers.

“You could see how much trouble people were having. They knew the square very well, but suddenly it appeared completely different to them,” Pitsiniagas, coordinator for SKEP’s campaigns and wheelchair-bound since the age of 21 following a traffic accident (he is now 37), told Kathimerini. “For us, who are accustomed to it, it was almost funny to watch them struggling with minor obstacles like a badly constructed ramp.”

There is a lot that disabled people have to contend with that rarely crosses the minds of able-bodied folk.

“We fail to appreciate that someone with a disability like mine cannot really work. In order to do so, I would need to find a job in a building with full wheelchair access, a special toilet and a special parking spot. And the point of working, of course, is not just making money, but also socializing and having a sense of self-worth. The way things are in Greece forces people who are otherwise perfectly capable of doing well in a job to live off social security benefits. They are pushed out of society,” said Pitsiniagas.

He added that children with mobility problems are forced to attend special schools simply because regular schools are to not equipped with the necessary facilities.

“It is a vicious cycle,” said Pitsiniagas. “Disabled people stay home because they simply cannot get around. That means people don’t see them out in the street and therefore believe they do not exist and, therefore, feel free to park their cars on wheelchair ramps. As a result, people with mobility problems become even more hesitant about venturing outdoors. Take me for example. I live in Korydallos [near Piraeus] and it is much easier for me to drive 15 kilometers to a large mall to do my shopping than to move a block in my wheelchair.”

As with most things, the way to bring change is to educate children. Every week, SKEP organizes interactive activities and workshops at schools that bring together pupils at regular schools with those at a special school who have mental, mobility or sensory disabilities. The idea is to familiarize able-bodied students with disability.

“We need to start becoming more aware of the fact that there are people with disabilities out there – if not on our block then certainly two blocks away,” said Pitsiniagas. “We are the biggest invisible minority. And allowing us to be seen is so simple really. A well-made ramp costs exactly the same as a badly made one. It just needs to be built properly. We also need to be aware that having accessible buildings is in everyone’s interest: Those who have been a little unlucky and had an accident that left them with a broken leg, those who have been very unlucky and have become disabled, those who have been lucky, like mothers trying to push their children’s buggies around, and those who have been very, very lucky and who have reached the age of 90 and have trouble walking.”

ekathimerini.com , Thursday April 24, 2014 (09:57)  
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