In Athens, the other Olympics
Friday's start of the Paralympics forces Greece to improve access for the disabled
It was a sight the Greeks had never seen: Beneath the ancient temples of the Acropolis, dozens of international visitors maneuvered their way around the marble columns - in wheelchairs.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's inspiring," says Athens resident Christina Alkousakis. "In Athens, you never even see someone in a wheelchair in the street."
Until a few weeks ago, Greece's most famous site had been infamously inaccessible to people with disabilities, along with most of the nation's streets, museums, hotels, restaurants, and public transportation. But the lead-up to the Paralympic Games, which open here Friday night, has forced a city that is notoriously inaccessible to start making changes.
The most visible of these is the new elevator up the side of the Acropolis. But Greeks and outsiders say the most important - and the most difficult - will be a change of attitude.
Athens defied overwhelming odds to successfully host last month's homecoming Olympics - mostly by pouring billions of euros into new stadiums and overhauling infrastructure. Though these projects bore a massive price tag, Greeks have shown great pride in their newly modernized city.
For Greece, the games present both a greater challenge, and the potential for a greater legacy, observers say.
It's not just because of the difficulty of moving around that Greeks with disabilities are rarely seen. Until recently, "Greek people have considered disability as something to be ashamed of," says Sakis Kostaris, who plays on the Greek Paralympic wheelchair volleyball team. "They would try to hide children with disabilities. In parts of rural Greece, they still do this. Even in cities, some people are afraid to come in contact with people with disabilities."
Likewise, the disabled are often unwilling to come out. "They're confined to their homes, able to rely only on the support of their families," Mr. Kostaris adds. "The Paralympics give an opportunity to start the process of change in Greece."
Some 4,000 athletes with physical disabilities from 140 countries have come to Athens to compete in 19 events over the next 11 days. In terms of scale, the Paralympics is the second biggest sporting event in the world after the summer Olympics, organizers say.
In advance of the event, Athenians made an effort to prepare for the throngs of disabled athletes and spectators now descending on their city.
As required by the International Olympic Committee, all new Olympic construction - mostly stadiums and public transportation, including a new subway system - was made handicap-accessible. Workers installed, among other things, new ramps, elevators, and signs in Braille. Museums, historical sites, and hotels that remodeled for the Games added similar facilities.
About 1,000 stores and businesses, mostly in central Athens, have added wheelchair ramps and widened doorways to gain an "accessible" certification from the Olympic organizing committee.