Obstacles for the sight-impaired

Most Athenians still don’t seem to be aware of the reason for the strips of textured tiles laid along sidewalks that serve as guides for people of limited vision. Drivers who park their vehicles over them, restaurant and cafe owners who place tables on them or kiosk owners who spread their stands and refrigerators on top of them are all doing their best to ensure the blind cannot find their way through the city of Athens. Kathimerini’s ECO magazine found dozens of examples of these obstacles and received almost the same reply from everyone they asked: «Guide strips for the blind? That’s the first I’ve heard of them. I thought the tiles were decorative.» Or else they give the following response: «But no blind people come by here.» Stratis Hadziharalambous, head of the Panhellenic Union of Retinopathy Patients and former representative of the Health Ministry on the committees for accessibility, said that he had even seen municipal police vehicles parked across the strips. «These guide strips are now part of the specifications for the construction of sidewalks and pedestrian precincts, but people don’t know what they are, so they are virtually useless. In Ermou Street, the owner of a shop has positioned his display window across the strip. When I told him it wasn’t allowed, he replied: ‘Don’t worry, I’m here and I can see them (the blind) coming. If someone goes near the window, I’ll warn them.’» Another major problem are cars parked on sidewalks; the blind are suddenly faced with a huge obstacle that often forces them onto the road surface. Although beepers have been installed at many traffic lights in the city center, many do not work. «Nearby residents or shopkeepers have dismantled them because the sound irritated them. But even where they do work, they are of no use. They either have to be everywhere or nowhere at all. And even where they exist, they are no guarantee of a safe crossing. Blind people wait until they hear no cars approaching before trying to cross. Otherwise, they wait,» said Hadziharalambous. Another hazard for the blind are the little rails placed along kerbs to prevent cars mounting the sidewalks. Even in the metro there are problems. Hadziharalambous points to the difficulty in discerning where the escalator begins as it is the same color as the floor around it. The white light does not permit the sight-impaired to distinguish columns or corners. The signs are also too high and the black letters on a white background create further problems. «They should have orange-yellow letters on a blue background,» he explained. «Nevertheless, the metro is one of the best means of transport,» he added, although he himself cannot use it at the moment as he has broken his leg. «It happened as I was leaving Athens University where I had been attending a conference for the blind. I stepped off the kerb but didn’t know the road sloped there down into a parking station and I fell and broke my ankle.» However, Hadziharalambous does not appear to be as upset about his leg as he is about the idea that the end of the Olympic Games might mean the end of any further measures that are scheduled. «The Olympics created a deadline that had to be met. Now I am afraid that we will go back to the time before 1995 when we were lagging far behind. The biggest problem is the splitting up of responsibility for these issues between different ministries and the lack of a coordinating body. A committee set up by the ministries for Transport, Health and the Interior did a very good job as it comprised people who knew the problem better than anyone, but it has now been dissolved. I am afraid that if it is re-established, it will consist of people who have little knowledge of the problem and much time will be wasted regarding educating the public, which is the main issue.»

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