Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous

Interview at The National Herald - "Classical Attitudes Shaped Modern Outlooks on Disabilities"

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By Zoe Tsine
Special to the National Herald

NEW YORK - Dr. Eleftheria A Bernidaki-Aldous, Member of Hel lenic Parliament and former professor of Classical Culture and History in the United States and Greece, gave an interview to The National Herald while she was visiting the U.S. in mid-January.
As a result of an accident she suffered at the age of three, Dr. Bernidaki-Aldous is blind. The MP has been an ardent spokesperson for the rights of people with disabilities, as well as the promotion of classical studies in American institutions of higher learning.
The Cretan-born politician lived and studied in the United States for 22 years. She received her master's and doctorate in Classics from Johns Hopkins University, and has taught in both Greece and the U.S. She was professor of Classics at the American College of Greece, Deree; as well as at Creighton University in Nebraska, Oberlin College in Ohio and Johns Hopkins. She was awarded a Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship and a fellowship from the Alexander S. Onassis Institute for Scholarship & Research, which resulted in her book, Blindness in a Culture of Light: Especially the Case of "Oedipus at Colonus" of Sophocles. In 1997, she was honored with the prestigious Academy of Athens Award, the top scientific institution of Greece.
A member of New Democracy, Dr. Bernidaki-Aldous was elected to the Hellenic Parliament in March 2004 and currently chairs its Special Intra-Party Committee on Issues Concerning the Handicapped, which was initiated by Prime Minister Costas Karamanhs. During her recent visit stateside, she lectured at the American University Washington College of Law and the American Hellenic Institute in Washington, and met with leaders of the Greek American community, including Senator Paul Sarbanes, Ambassador George Sawaides and Onassis Foundation Executive Director Ambassador Loucas Tsilas.
In the interview, the MP discussed the importance of promoting the study of classical culture, history and language in America and issues pertaining to people with disabilities. Dr. Bernidaki-Aldous is married and has three children.

Interview of Eleftheria Bernidaki - Aldous in the newspaper National HeraldTNH: Dr. Bernidaki, how would you rate the Modern Greek people's attitude towards handicapped citizens?
BERNIDAKI: Attitudes towards the handicapped are more or less the same all over the world. Greeks have always had a good sentiment and disposition, although there has been some shyness towards people with disabilities. But little by little, the attitude, as well as our legislation, has been improving, and disabled people are becoming active in our society. During the Para-Olympic Games, Greeks cheered all the handicapped athletes. I was amazed by our youth's reaction, which had nothing to do with pity. On the night of the closing ceremonies, even though the festive part had been cancelled, people showed up to declare their sense of respect for the athletes, in the spirit of the classics.

TNH: You have clearly accomplished a lot in your life, in spite of your disability. How would you advise young people with disabilities to over come any difficulties in life?
BERNIDAKI: An important factor influencing my outlook in life vas the attitude of my parents, who were not overprotective. I grew up with independence and played with other children. I left home to enter tie Elementary School for the Blind
in Athens. An enlightened blind teacher of mine there, Kyriaki Nikolaidou, recognized my abilities and asked then President of the American College of Greece, Dr. Margaret Stewart to consider accepting a smart blind girl to study at their junior high school. I was the first and only blind child to attend this very fine school. So it was the initiative of inspired people that made a difference for me. But I should point out that, even when others think you can not do something, you should find out for yourself. There is always a way to achieve something, if you really want to do it. I studied French, German, Spanish, ancient Greek and Latin, even though there were no books available in Braille. I had to find volunteers to transcribe things for me, or find the few classicists cited who knew Braille, or take it by dictation. People tend to focus on the good results, but there are always moments of crying and despair, falling down and getting up again.

TNH: Have you come to terms with your disability?
BERNIDAKI: I accepted the fact that I was blind very early without feeling ashamed of it. I never overestimated myself, nor did I quit because somebody else thought I couldn't go on. I never tried to do things that I knew I couldn't do. or pretend to not need to learn Braille. But I also knew that there was nothing wrong with my mind; nothing that would prevent me from analyzing the meaning of life according to Homer or Plato; and that there was nothing wrong with my body to stop me from giving birth to my children. Your disability is all the more reason for you to be proud when you manage things in spite of it.

TNH: In the first of your two recent lectures in Washington, you discussed the attitudes towards the handicapped from Ancient Greece to Modern America. What has prompted you to connect the classics to modern attitudes towards people with disabilities?

BERNIDAKI: In my book, Blindness in a Culture of Lights, I wanted to show that the Ancient Greeks experienced a sense of awe towards people with disabilities, viewing them as people who suffered as a result of divine intervention. They felt pity and fear towards them, but they also knew that what was happening to somebody else today could happen to them tomorrow. This awareness of the unknown future, and of the change of fate, was the source of their respect to people with disabilities.

TNH: In your lecture at AHI, you discussed, among other issues, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. How has the U.S. Government's legislation influenced Greek legislation?

BERNIDAKI: The Act took effect in 1992 and guaranteed equal civil rights for the handicapped, making it illegal to discriminate against them. It has now been taken up by the European Union. We now go full circle: the Greek humanitarian perspective has inspired U.S. legislation which has, in turn, inspired European legislation. Ancient Greek culture mandated that a State be humane. In Greek rhetoric and philosophy, there is an awareness of a common fate, the characteristic of a sofron, or wise man, who knows that, above all, he is a human being, and that he place special value and priority on human relationships. When inspired by the higher theories of life, a state was expected to legislate accordingly, which benefited the weak in society. Athens, for example, gave pensions to handicapped Athenians at the end of the Fifth Century BC. The orator Lysias, in his Peri Adynatou speech ("On the Refusal of a Pension"), defended one disabled Athenian accused of taking a pension though he had sufficient income. Lysias appealed to the judges' sentiments and rational in language appropriate to a play by Sophocles, saying that "you should continue this pension because an unknown future is there for us all," this thus invoking the higher ideals of the dramatists and philosophers.

TNH: Thank you, Dr. Bernidaki.
BERNIDAKI: Thank you.


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