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Infrastructure for the disabled decades behind

 ‘If the state doesn’t care about its disabled citizens, why should private businesses?’

BUSINESS may be booming in Limassol but a section of its population continues to be marginalised right across the President’s home city where the state should be the one leading the way.

Even now in 2017, much of the infrastructure – or lack thereof – for disabled people in Limassol is still lagging decades behind, the district office for the Pancyprian organisation for the rehabilitation of disabled persons (POAA) said this week.

Even government offices, which should, in theory at least, be the first to offer comprehensive disabled access to people in wheelchairs for instance, do not even show willingness to find a solution, head of Limassol’s POAA, Constantinos Velissarios told the Sunday Mail.

“The district office, for instance, right in the heart of town, has no lift and no parking spots nearby for disabled persons. If someone needs to go to the second floor for something, they can’t.”

According to Velissarios, despite several requests to find a solution, the district office “has a hostile attitude towards us. Their response is that it is a listed building and therefore nothing can be done. That’s it. End of story.”

Head of Limassol’s POAA, Constantinos Velissarios

Municipal councillor for Limassol municipality Aristos Aristidou, acknowledged the problem calling it “unacceptable” but said a letter had been sent to the district office to arrange a meeting and discuss a possible solution, whether it be adding a lift, or moving certain services to the ground floor.

Currently, there are 1,300 members in POAA’s Limassol branch, out of over 5,000 nationwide. Many similar organisations exist across the country for specific disabilities such as paraplegics, deaf, blind and people with multiple sclerosis.

Head of Limassol’s Association for Friends of the Disabled, Christos Papachristodoulou, told the Sunday Mail their own aim is to provide immediate support oftentimes to cover the lag between the time someone makes an application for state help and the time they receive it.

“A few days ago, there was a young man, 27-years-old whose leg was amputated. We rushed to find him a wheelchair.”

Often times, disabled people face a lot of problems the general public may not be aware of simply because it’s not something they’ve experienced.

“It’s impossible for someone in a wheelchair to go watch a football match anywhere across the country except for the GSP stadium in Nicosia,” Papachristodoulou said.

“These people don’t want pity. They want to be treated like everyone else.”

With about 70 members under their watch, Papachristodoulou said the numbers keep going up.

Across Limassol, a woman on a wheelchair who did not wish to share her name says pedestrian crossings are next to impossible unless there’s someone to help her.

“You push the button, for it to go green – that’s if you can reach the button – but then the road is not level with the pavement and the wheels get stuck in the gap. And then you get to the other side of the road but if there’s no one there to help you up, you’re literally left in the street looking for a level road.”

“Don’t even get me started on parking. When friends tell me to go for coffee, do you know what my first question is? Does it have wheelchair access?”

Additionally, people park on pavements blocking the way for disabled people to go through. Complaints over the years go unheeded, she told the Sunday Mail. Kiosks put their ice cream freezers outside indifferent to the fact that this blocks access.

“I’ve made complaints to local authorities, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation. But if state buildings don’t have wheelchair access, why would a private business care?”

Problem areas also lie in Limassol’s town centre such as Saripolou and Heroes Square that according to Velissarios lack public restrooms for disabled people.

A woman who can only walk with the aid of crutches is confronted by a large step outside a public building that she can’t possibly hope to climb on her own

Additionally, many bars around Saripolou have high seats and tables which aren’t easy for people on wheelchairs, or people that have dwarfism to use, he added, with around half of them actually being able to seat people with disabilities such as these.

“Owners might not feel the need to do so as not a large part of the population suffers from disabilities however it’s not right to exclude them,” Aristidou said.

What the municipality is currently trying to do is encourage the employment of people with disabilities starting with themselves, but also closely cooperate with POAA on how to combat problems stemming from society, he added.

These include people parking in spots reserved for disabled persons. “We have good cooperation with traffic police and people are fined more,” according to Velissarios.

Yet the problem lies in the mentality of many in the population. “Many think I’ll just park here for five minutes and it’ll be fine,” Papachristodoulou said.

“Even at the hospital, it’s a serious problem. There are parking spots near the entrance for disabled people and other people use them.

“Or even in the town centre, people will park at a disabled parking and say well it’s 10pm no one’s going to come now. Why think that? Maybe a disabled person wants to go out at night as well.”

Particularly over the summer time when people want to go to the beach, across the whole of Limassol’s coast there are only two points where disabled people can actually go in the water, Papachristodoulou said.

“In places like Ayia Napa and Protaras, they’re a lot more popular and it’s accommodating to tourists.”

Although buses within the city can be lowered so a wheelchair can get on board, big tourist buses for trips, lack this access, Velissarios said.

“Even we, as POAA wanted to organise a trip. The big buses have no way to accommodate.”

Throughout his experience in his position over the past two years and hearing complaints day in and day out, Velissarios feels society is not becoming more sensitive towards the needs of the disabled but rather, worse.

The man on the right tries to climb these stairs but has to give up

“I know a lot of things have changed that have made things better but the things I hear every day…There was a disabled child in school that had difficulty going up the stairs and needed to lean on his mother to help him go up to the second floor where he had class.

“His mother spoke to the school and asked them if they could change the classroom so her child wouldn’t need to go up the stairs but the school refused.”

After a formal complaint to POAA and an official letter to the ministry of education, action was taken immediately and the school complied.

“I’ve heard of interviewees tell someone with dwarfism that there’s no point in going along with the interview after seeing her. The woman has filed a complaint to the ombudswoman now.”

“It all begins with education. There should more campaigns, not the odd one every year.”

Aristidou agrees. “We need to break this taboo society has. We are more sensitive now but more effort needs to be undertaken to be on the same level.”

Back in 2004, Velissarios experienced disability for a period of six months which was resolved after undergoing surgery. After joining POAA, he got a glimpse of the strength people within the organisation had that taught him lessons “no school or university can ever teach.”

“The strength these people have, shows you that it doesn’t matter what obstacles come your way. You can overcome them as long as you have the willpower.”

 

 

Crossing the road: one of the biggest nightmares

When a trip to the kiosk becomes more about staying alive

THE problems Maria Efstathiou, not her real name, faces in her day to day life in a wheelchair are less the result of the accident that left her unable to walk six years ago but more a case of indifference from the state, and a blatant rudeness from fellow citizens on basic human rights that she feels are disregarded.

Although it was a sunny Friday afternoon, Efstathiou had resigned herself to staying locked up in her home, cancelling all her plans and frightened to go outside because she had almost been hit by a car, because something as simple as crossing the street proved to be too dangerous for her.

“This is what we do. This is how we have to live. Locked up in our houses unable to do anything.”

While all she had really wanted was to go the kiosk, the first hurdle began when reaching the pedestrian crossing. She presses the button, waits for it to go green but then the pavement is not level with the road. There is a gap in between that means the wheels of her wheelchair get stuck.

She gets by but reaching the other side, she struggles to get back up. Incoming cars are speeding and they can’t see her because cars and trucks loading and unloading products are blocking the view someone might have of her.

Even when she reaches the pavement she then can’t move past.

“One shop will have their flowers outside, you move forward, the kiosks have their ice cream freezers outside. Where am I supposed to go? How am I supposed to move without getting run over?”

The toll, she feels, is not only to her but her friends and family. “We want to go by the seaside in Limassol. There’s nowhere for us to park. There’s not even a place for my sister to stop the car where she can let me out and I can wait until she finds a place.”

Going to pay her taxes, she is told she must go to the first floor – her wheelchair doesn’t fit in the elevator she says, so her son goes upstairs. They say Efstathiou must be there in person. She calls them to inform she is downstairs.

Wanting to go to the citizen’s service by the coast is a gamble. “There are two parking spots. One is a given – it’s being used for the cafes where they unload their products. The second spot is Russian roulette. It might be an arrogant civilian, a taxi driver – anything. We usually park across at molos and then have to cross the street.”

Though she has made numerous complaints – to local authorities, to the Cyprus Tourism Organisation – the answer she gets is “we’ll fix it.” It would’ve been believable had it not been an answer repeated for the past six years she has been hearing it.

“Even if the construction worker was drunk when he was doing the roads and pavements. It’s something so easy to fix.”

Unfortunately, the state is the first to let her down, then the private businesses in the form of cafes and restaurants. Across all the new developments in Limassol, she has, time after time requested bathroom access but found it to be used a stock room – with hoovers, drinks and “anything else you can imagine” piled on there.

“Once at a bathroom at a café in Ayios Tychonas, they had the DIY tools in the bathroom for disabled persons. Do you know what answer I got? ‘Well where else am I supposed to put them.’”

Out of all the restaurants and cafes in the new developments at the port and marina, she can recall only one positive experience with polite and respectable waiters.

“They kindly told me there is a bathroom for disabled people and gave me the key because without locking it “we’re in Cyprus and someone else might use it because they’re not patient enough to wait.”

 

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