An inaccessible city?

Greek disabled groups are warning visitors to Athens that they face a tale of two cities at this year’s Olympic and Paralympics. The shiny new Athens that greets tourists at the airport and metro has been matched by a host of state-of-the-art sports venues offering international standards of disabled access. But beyond the recent additions, charities warn that the same old Athens remains: an everyday obstacle course of narrow streets, parked cars and broken pavements. They complain that a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the city has been missed, leaving people with movement difficulties facing an Olympian struggle just to get around. Mark Brown, the chief physiotherapist at Sydney’s Paralympics, picked up on the access problems during a recent visit. «Access at some points in the city is excellent, in other places it is in real need of improvement,» he said. The August 13-29 Olympics will be followed by the Paralympics for athletes with disabilities, which run from September 17 to 28 and are held in the same venues. After winning the right to host the two sets of Games in 1997, Athens Olympic organizers (ATHOC) promised to address the question of disabled access. Marily Christofis, who manages accessibility matters for the Paralympics, acknowledged the difficulties but said progress was being made. «We are undertaking a huge effort based on careful planning. Good results are beginning to show through,» she said. Christofis pointed to upgrades in public transport and new pavements as signs of improvements beyond the stadiums, but not everyone is convinced. «We are very, very behind,» said Titina Vasileou from the Hellenic Society for Disabled Children. «There’s no accessibility in this city. The pavements are non-existent or broken. The lifts are so out of date in most buildings you can’t even get a wheelchair in them.» Wheelchair-bound Manolis Pigakis is still waiting for the trickle-down effect of the millions spent on sports infrastructure. «The situation is unacceptable, this is a European Union country and it’s a country that will host the Olympics and the Paralympics,» he complained. Pigakis said public transport was bad and the city had no taxis with disabled facilities so he was forced to spend half his salary on a contract cab just to get to work. «Until now I haven’t seen any improvements, it is straightforward social exclusion,» he said. Dimitra Asideri from the Lighthouse for the Blind charity said more comprehensive planning was needed, rather than isolated efforts. «There are wonderful new facilities at the National Theater but how do I get there?» she asked. «What we need are solutions all the way from the house to the theater or venue.» Asideri said that funding needed to focus on raising awareness of access issues as well as new facilities. Even where new pavements have been laid in the city center, Greek attitudes to parking mean they are soon covered with cars. «Wherever new pavements are built people just park all over them,» said Vasileou. Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis admitted in an interview that new pavements were transformed into car parks as quickly as they were built. She has launched a cleanup campaign in the runup to the Games, designed to appeal to Athenians’ municipal spirit, with the slogan: «Are you an ally?» This softly-softly approach contrasts with the Greek police’s stance. An official presentation to a senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) member on combating illegal parking consisted of one word flashing on a computer screen: «Punishment!» ATHOC officials have admitted they will need help from state agencies to make an impact. «We don’t build and we don’t invest, we provide the expertise,» said Christofis. She said the Olympics and Paralympics offered a chance that needed to be taken: «This is the best opportunity to do something for people with special needs.» Under the previous government, the Culture Ministry announced plans to install an escalator in the Acropolis. The new conservative administration has yet to confirm if the project will go ahead.

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