In Athens, the other Olympics
Friday's start of the Paralympics forces Greece to improve access for the disabled
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Greek officials concede that in many ways, Athens and the rest of Greece still fall far short of being fully accessible. Sidewalks, if they exist, are narrow, twisted, and often torn up. In the centuries-old tavernas (small restaurants), restrooms can be found at the bottom of creaky stairs. Even in modern office buildings, elevators are usually too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs.Skip to next paragraph
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"We have done whatever was possible to do with the money we had, but we still of course have a lot of work to do," says Athens Mayor Dora Bakyianni. "It will be very, very difficult."
For Mayor Bakyianni, the problem of disability awareness is especially close to her heart, because her mother is wheelchair-bound.
"I can see what is accessible or not," she says. "But most people in Athens still don't see. I hope it will change, the attitude. But Greek society as a whole must also go through this procedure."
In the suburbs of Athens, the family of 11-year-old Kostas Alexakis, who uses a wheelchair, is skeptical that the flurry of quick changes to stadiums and big stores will make a difference in their lives.
"They may change the stores in downtown Athens, but I don't see any wheelchair ramps in my neighborhood," says his mother, Barbara Alexakis. "We still have to carry Kostas in our arms, almost everywhere we go."
Though the family lives in a ground-floor apartment, there are steps leading from its entrance to the street. "If we want a ramp put in for him to get in and out of the house, we have to pay for it ourselves, but we can't afford it," she says.
Kostas says he's embarrassed to go places with his parents carrying him all the time. He spends most of his time at home.
"I know people think I'm strange when they see me - especially because, most places we go, my wheelchair won't go," he says. "My mother has to carry me. That's why I don't always like to go outside."
Members of the Greek Paralympic committee say they believe the biggest potential for a change in Greek attitudes toward disabilities will come from focusing on children Kostas's age. The committee has spent the past two years making presentations in Greek schools about the Paralympic Games and sending Greek Paralympic athletes to demonstrate their sports. During the Games, blocks of tickets will be given out to Greek schoolchildren.
Seeing world-class athletes with disabilities competing not only may help Greeks become more aware of a largely hidden populace, but it may also help change the attitudes of Greeks with disabilities themselves, says Nikos Voulgaropoulos, spokesman for Disability Now, a Greek advocacy group for people with disabilities. "Greek people with disabilities frequently have a passive, negative view of themselves, and keep themselves isolated. Now they will see a positive image of disability. An image that is active and competitive, not passive."
Kostas Alexakis's family is hoping for that and plans to attend many Paralympic events featuring athletes in wheelchairs. "We definitely want to see the basketball and volleyball," says Kostas' father, Spiro. "We want to see things that he can do."