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.

"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.

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.

Work remains

"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.

Inspiration for nonathletes

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."

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