Verdict: Athens is not accessible

Paul DePace looked apprehensive as he tried to maneuver his way across the busy street. Motorcycles were parked along the sidewalk and blocked his path. DePace, a wheelchair user and an official of the International Paralympic Committee, was on an accessibility test of central Athens three days into the Paralympics. He was less than upbeat. «(Athens) still has a way to go to be what I would call a good accessible city,» the 59-year-old American told The Associated Press after a 90-minute journey covering less than half a mile (1 kilometer). Athens was considered an unfriendly city for the disabled, with narrow sidewalks often used as parking spots and almost no ramps enabling wheelchair access. Criticism prompted the government to budget an estimated $255 million to build ramps, repair sidewalks and improve access. But critics say it was too little, too late. Parliament has also mandated new building codes and provisions for the handicapped, but officials say the city is still generally inaccessible for disabled people. The accessibility inspection began at the Parliament building in central Athens. There was no ramp at the changing of the guards so he could not get a closer look at the Athenian tradition. After rolling up the sidewalk to Parliament, DePace had to go through the parking lot entrance because there was no curb cut at the door. DePace decided to try the ramp outside, even though it looked like it was created for another purpose. DePace said just by looking at the ramp it was too steep and did not conform to building codes. «I’d say it was doable, but not ideal,» was DePace’s conclusion for Parliament. «It’s not just the curb cut. Are there doorways wide enough in the building? Bathrooms, are they accessible?» DePace wondered. DePace said that during his weeklong visit he had been to buildings with ramps, but they were inadequate. «It facilitates the person to get in the building, but you need assistance, but assistance takes away independence,» DePace said. Motorcycles illegally parked along the sidewalks made crossing streets very difficult or impossible, except for one driver who came to move his car off the sidewalk. «What I would try to do in this case is to try to find a driveway,» DePace said. There was no other way out. DePace suggested authorities inform Athenians about the use of curbs that are specifically cut for wheelchairs or baby carriages. «One of the legacies is the improvements of infrastructure that helps the population,» DePace said. «Hopefully we upgrade attitudes.» The central Syntagma metro station got a good review as it had an elevator and clearly marked signs for people with disabilities, DePace said. DePace jokingly points to an ancient skeleton left by archaeologists for display at the station. He says, «He died looking for accessibility.» Making Athens accessible will take time and creativity because «you don’t want to destroy the history of this town,» DePace said. Greece in general gets high marks from DePace. «The friendliness, the hospitality and the food have really made me feel welcome, even though some of the place are not easy to get into.»