Moving about in a hostile city requires efforts of Olympian proportions for people with disabilities

Nearly 10 percent of the Greek population have some form of disability, but one is not likely to meet many of them on the streets of Athens, a city notoriously hostile to anyone with restricted mobility or vision. «If you want to know why you don’t see disabled people in the streets here, just come out with me some time,» Gerasimos Polis, who is a paraplegic, told Kathimerini. An official at the Health and Social Solidarity Ministry in the Department for People with Special Needs (AMEA), Polis asked us to meet him outside the Health Ministry in the city center. We tried to get to the Metaxourgeio metro station, normally a 10-minute walk for someone who has the use of both legs. For people who need a wheelchair, however, things are a little different. Just a few meters away, we encountered his first obstacle. At the corner of Aristotelous and Stournari streets is a ramp Polis referred to as the «killer.» «If there is no one around to help me, I can’t get down it on my own to cross the street,» he said. Although the access ramps recently installed on Athens streets are indeed a sign of progress, many of them cannot be used because they are too steep and dangerous. On the other side of the road, a car was parked right in front of the ramp, forcing Polis to find a place to maneuver his wheelchair between the parked cars. He had to push his way alongside the traffic. «This is our biggest problem, the cars. The lack of consideration on the part of Athenian drivers is unbelievable. They park across ramps and in parking places reserved for drivers with disabilities; they park on sidewalks, with the result that these costly measures taken for people with disabilities are virtually useless,» he explained. The result is that people in wheelchairs are restricted in their movements, and eventually excluded from having a life outside their own homes. Most stores, banks, hotels and public services are out of bounds to wheelchairs. «To enter a shop, I need the help of a shop assistant,» said Polis. «As for banks and public services, we only choose those that have wheelchair access. We move to less densely populated areas where it is easier to move about. It is hard to bear when you find someone parked in your designated spot every day when you come home from work. Unfortunately, having a disability is an expensive hobby.» he said. It took us 40 minutes to reach our destination, or at least as we thought, since the ramps were nowhere to be found. «Here in Psarron Street is where Athens ends for me. Obviously, they ran out of money, because there are no more ramps after this corner. That is why I never go out alone and why I haven’t bought a mechanized wheelchair. What’s the point of having a Ferrari where there is no road?» Local shopkeepers told us that there had been ramps but when the sidewalks were rebuilt for the Olympics «they obviously forgot to put them back.» The metro station’s elevator for the exclusive use of people of limited mobility (although as usual, everyone uses it) had no ramp near it, necessitating another detour. Once inside the station, it was a different story. Ticket booths are low enough for wheelchair users, elevators to platforms and sidewalks, ramps at the level of the first and last wagons. «It is very easy to use; accessibility in the metro system was a great move. But it doesn’t reach my door. I have to get there myself and as you have seen, that is not an easy matter,» said Polis. Buses create another set of problems. Although nearly all urban buses have a system allowing them to «lean» toward the sidewalk, or at least a ramp that opens out to allow wheelchairs to enter and exit, neither of these methods is used in practice. The bus driver did his best to maneuver close to the sidewalk, but there was no room. If it wasn’t for our help and that of the driver, Polis would not have been able to board the bus. «The sidewalks are too low and the buses can’t get close enough to them,» said the driver. «My bus doesn’t have a ramp, but most of those that are fitted in other buses simply don’t work, or else the drivers don’t want to use them. The bus has to stop 1.5 meters from the sidewalk in order for the ramp to open out. If a motorcyclist decides to pass the bus on the right, there will be an accident. Then there is the problem of delaying the schedule,» he added. Other drivers say pushing wheelchairs isn’t in their «job description.» No doubt a a great deal has been done in recent years toward making the city easier to move around in, such as the ramps, low public telephones and ATMs, guide strips on sidewalks for the blind, changes to construction regulations for public buildings, but just a simple outing in Athens in this Olympic year shows, as Gerasimos Polis put it, that «independence for people with disabilities is still just a theory.»

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