The Ionian island of Corfu is shaping up to be a leading destination in Greece for people of limited mobility, including seniors, thanks to efforts to improve access at beaches.
The driving force behind all this is Andreas Skoupouras, the island’s deputy mayor for welfare and social policy and chairman of the Corfu Prefecture Association of People with Special Needs.
“When I was a child my parents would help me into the water but as I grew up this was no longer possible,” says Skoupouras, citing the main reasons why thousands of people with physical disabilities around the country have been forced to rule out swimming in the sea, not to mention the fun and therapeutic benefits.
The association launched the campaign in 2015 and the municipal authority took over in the summer of that same year, introducing the first floating wheelchairs that allowed people who hadn’t been into the water for 25 or 30 years to finally do so. Last summer there were nine floating wheelchairs on the island that are intended for people with serious physical disabilities that otherwise would prevent them not only from getting in the water but also sunbathing on the beach.
“The person’s caregiver simply places them in the seat, which has a safety belt, and then they can be left alone in the sea,” says Skoupouras.
“We have distributed the wheelchairs as fairly as we could all over Corfu, assigning at each beach a businessman or community leader the responsibility of storing, maintaining and distributing them,” says the official, adding that four more wheelchairs will be added every summer for the next three years.
“In cooperation with the ‘All Together for Corfu’ group, we have also installed eight ramps at parts of beaches where swimming is easy, though this presupposes a certain degree of autonomy,” explains Skoupouras.
In addition, the municipal authority has installed special lifts at its theater and indoor swimming pool, as well as a Seatrac mechanism developed by a Greek startup at one beach that allows people in wheelchairs to get in and out of the water on a track with the help of pulleys.
Other than locals, cruise passengers stopping on the island for a few hours have also shown a lot of interest in learning more about Corfu’s wheelchair-friendly beach facilities.
“We have been contacted by major travel agents in the UK who have special-needs clientele, as well as by agents from France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy,” says Skoupouras.
The deputy mayor’s greatest source of pride, however, is the local community and the backing it has lent the initiative.
“They are proud of the wheelchairs and look after them, and every beach on the island is trying to get one,” he says.