Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous

Athens News -"Disabling mechanisms"

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People with disabilities have to conquer both physical and psychological barriers that block integration process. The Paralympic Games serve to highlight what can be accomplished
By Kathryn Lukey-Coutsocostas

Article from newspaper Athens News about Eleftheria Bernidaki - AldousEDUCATION can open up doors for people with disabilities, but it is not enough to educate and train those with handicaps: society at large needs to become better informed and make the world more accessible to all.
According to Greek Paralympic athlete Sakis Kostaris, ignorance is the biggest problem.
"I don't think that there are many people in Greece who are very positive towards people with a disability," he told the Athens News on the sidelines of the Disability Awareness conference run by the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) on May 7.
Kostaris, who is also the section manager of communication for the ATHENS 2004 Paralympic Games, told conference-goers that the Paralympic Games, which run from September 17 to 28, will give top-notch athletes the chance to achieve great heights, and the spectators the chance to see them do so.
"The Paralympic Games are very important, not only for Greece but for the whole world," George Papandreou, the president of Pasok, told the Athens News, "in order to sensitise public opinion about the needs - but also the possibilities - of the disabled." Papandreou was attending a conference on sports in Thessaloniki entitled new approaches to VET (Vocational education and training) through Sport, held at the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Codefop) on May 10-11.

Educating the enabled

The more contact the public has with the disabled (and vice versa), the more natural their relation becomes. Janet Chester is senior project manager with the Athens Planning Project, managed by TAFE Global, an Australian company providing consulting services in the area of training and development in Athens and Greece.
Through the company's "disability awareness" programmes, members of the Olympic workforce will be trained to deal with spectators and athletes who have disabilities. Chester told the Athens News on the sidelines of the Cedefop conference that participants in the programme are informed that one in ten Greeks are disabled, and that participants are "very keen to know how they can improve the situation for people with a disability".
The best way to remove any embarrassment, she says, is to get people used to seeing and working with people with disabilities. This can be done through showing a training film featuring the disabled or by using presenters who are disabled. Volunteers are asked to access their own views and behaviour regarding the rights of those with disabilities, for example, if they personally park in spots reserved for the disabled or if they block footpaths that may be used by the disabled. Practical communication tips, like physically crouching down to the same level as someone who is sitting in a wheel chair are also given.
People with disabilities are people first and foremost with no special needs required because of their disability other than the things that they might ask for," Chester points out.
"I've already seen improvements in the situation in Greece," she says, referring to the run-up to the Olympic Games. "The increased level of awareness and accessibility will be a great legacy for Athens and Greece."
According to Kostaris, Greek schools, a good source of young minds still at a formative stage, have given the "adopt a sport" programme a warm reception. And through the ERMIS project, businesses are being encouraged to become more user-friendly by employing simple means like providing entrance ramps, making larger corridors and placing stickers on glass doors. This not only helps those with permanent disabilities: at any one time, up to fifty percent of the Greek population can be movement-impaired if one includes mothers with strollers, the elderly, the pregnant and those with temporary injuries.


While an aware public helps, it is not enough.
"Good laws and informed citizens will help reduce prejudice," Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous said at the ACT conference. She has been blind since the age of three and is now a member of the Greek parliament for the New Democracy party.
Bernidaki-Aldous told the Athens News that she was hand-picked by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to be number three on the list of nationwide parliament representatives who are guaranteed a position in parliament without running.
When asked if any Greek legislation is currently pending that will affect those who are disabled, she said: "Right as of this moment, I'm not aware of any, because we're just beginning, of course. But I'm sure there will be."
"Obviously I'll try to back and initiate legislation that will offer handicapped people equal opportunities."
She specifically mentioned opening the public sector. "I'd like to see the eventual abolishment of the law that prohibits handicapped people from participating in the exams that would allow them to claim a job in the public sector." While recognising that some jobs would be unsuitable, she argues that some jobs, like teaching, are manageable.
"If we put a name to things, we can resolve them," Bernidaki-Aldous told the conference at ACT. But this is easier said than done: when this reporter asked the floor what to call the disabled, there was a barrage of answers. People with "special needs" was in fashion for a time, but now people have "special abilities".
One speaker, Iliana Konstantinou, a sociologist, thought that phrase was patronising. Kostaris said that official material referring to the Paralympic Games does not refer to "disabled people" because that puts the disability ahead of the individual, but refer to "people with a disability".
Nikos Voulgaropoulos, a volunteer of the NGO Disability Now, used the conference to speak out for the right to more information on disabilities, for both those with disabilities and the public. In 1999 he started the first accessible digital library with disability-related publications.

Empowering those with disabilities

Controversial issues include how and where people with handicaps should be educated, and to what end.
MP Bernidaki-Aldous believes that attending a 'mainstream' public school should be an option, but not an obligation. "I'd like to work towards resolving the issue of accessibility to schools, to keep special schools open and functioning, and to give public schools that receive these children what they really need to function properly."
She and others stressed the importance of providing both a good education and vocational training.
During a break at the Cedefop conference, Johan Van Rens, Cedefop director, said: "Most theories are moving in the direction of integration as much as possible in the normal school system. Of course, then the schools and facilities should be accessible for people with handicaps."
"The best would he to integrate those with a disability as far as possible into the normal school system and also make sure that later they will be able to integrate into society and employment in the same way"
He felt that the vocational system was highly suited to the needs of those with disabilities because specific skills developed could be pinpointed and developed that would later help with integration into workforce.
"For Greece this would be of special importance because the level of education is better developed than the vocational sector," he said referring to the strong tendency here for students to pursue academic route.
When asked about the added cost of integration, Van Rens, whose sister has disabilities, replied: "Not integrating these people and not giving them opportunities also has costs. There is not only the [financial] cost to society, but also the [social] cost of not treating them equally"
Turning back to sport - the year 2003 was the European Year for People with Disabilities and 2004 is the European Year of Education through Sport - Van Rens pointed out that people who are disabled need to acquire self-confidence, something that can be achieved through sport.
Sport car also provide other social and behavioural competencies directly required for integration into the labour market, like team spirit, perseverance, concentration, capacity for self-directed learning, tolerance, acceptance of others, loyalty, punctuality, honesty and respect for the rules.

Like anyone else

The kind of disability that a person has along with its severity, affects an individual's needs and the way in which he or she can participate in society. But we are all part of the human race.
"A person with a disability is like anyone else. Like somebody who is older, younger, overweight - people can have a lot of different impairments," said Kostaris. "It is just that some of us live under different circumstances. We are witnessing our life through disability. This should not be something that confines us, but something that takes us further.


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