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In Athens, the other Olympics

Friday's start of the Paralympics forces Greece to improve access for the disabled

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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."


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