Article: Sophia Paftounou
Translation: Panayiotis Lolos
From now on, people with visual and physical disabilities will have the opportunity to enjoy their stroll with unobstructed access to central and historical areas of Athens, thanks to an enterprising guide created by the Municipality of Athens and the social enterprise “Me Alla Matia”.
Thanks to coordinated efforts, Athens’ historical city is finally becoming humancentric and accessible while respecting its cultural heritage and modern landmarks.
The municipality of Athens has cooperated with the social enterprise “Me Alla Matia” and the official tourist bureau “This is Athens”, to mark and write down accessible routes for tourists with visual and motor disabilities.
More specifically, the routes were checked and monitored by a focus group of people with these types of impairments and professionals who studied them up close, using their experience as a reference point.
The routes have been chosen to incorporate the most places of interest possible, with as few obstacles or structure limitations as possible. At the same time, they include general accessibility information available to the public for each point of interest.
Which are the routes
The mapped routes go around the Acropolis, the National Garden, the Historical center of the city, and Omonia square. These are places everyone would like to visit. In total, there are 8 routes, 4+4 since there need to be changed in some waypoints that work specifically for groups of people with visual or motor disabilities. What does this mean?
Essentially, there are 4 routes proposed for people with visual impairments and 4 for people with motor impairments, respectively. The biggest part of the routes remains common between the two groups although some parts are different, depending on the road and pavement structure, the connections to train stations, the existence of ramps, etc., and of course, taking into account the needs that come with each disability.
“We don’t make visually impaired people go through places of the town which are only visually interesting. We try to show them places where they can feel the best atmosphere and aura of the city, where they can touch things… Our suggestions vary in some places”, states Vaggelis Avgoulas, lawyer and president of NPCP “Me Alla Matia”.
The routes in detail:
1. Walk around the historical center toward Keramikos Square
Syntagma Square – Ermou street – Kapnikarea – Monastiraki – Thissio – Gazi – Athens Technopolis – Keramikos Square
2. Stroll at the Acropolis – Ancient Athens Uncovered
Dionysiou Areopagitou Street – The Acropolis Museum – Odeon Herodes Atticus – The Acropolis
3. Stroll at Omonia square – Origins of Modern Athens
Athens Academy – National & Kapodistrian University of Athens – National Library – Rex – National & Technical University of Athens – Archeological Museum – Omonia square
4. Stroll at the National Garden and Surrounding Highlights
National Garden – Zappeion – Olympieion – Panathenaic Stadium – Hellenic Parliament – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
How the routes were mapped
“We are talking about a whole different description. Some routes are designed for visually impaired individuals and others for people with motor disabilities, which means that the route description must be customized and cater to their needs. For the visually impaired, there are specific instructions whereas for persons with motor impairments there are also illustrations since each group of visitors has distinct needs. This means that the accessibility information each group receives is fundamentally different.”, he explains.
Each route is planned in an interactive map, and it has been tested by specific focus groups containing both people with disability and non-disabled professionals. “This wasn’t just some amateurs mapping random routes. We had the necessary guidance from a certified mobility trainer for blind people, while I, as a lawyer, discovered some legal issues that we needed to solve. There was always a surveying engineer who allowed us to suggest changes to the municipality. Thus, there was a scientific background whenever it was necessary. We didn’t just speak our minds. We have even studied the high obstacles that cannot be found with the white cane so that in some parts of the city the routes differ accordingly to avoid dangerous points containing tree branches, road signs, etc.” Mr. Avgoulas points out.
“We had a team of people with disabilities from birth, like me, who was born blind, but also people who lost their sight later in life because we had to understand all of the descriptions clearly. We needed them to be easily understandable and enjoyable to both types of visually impaired people. The guide also informs people with partial vision. For instance, it will let them know if the light is reduced at night at a specific part of the route, potentially creating problems for them, or if there are marbles around which reflect light and might obstruct them from detecting stairs, for example, due to the lack of color contrast”, he mentions.
“The same happened for wheelchair users. For mapping, we used a manual wheelchair and an electric one. All routes were repeated many times by the focus group at different times of the day, under different weather conditions, so that we would be certain that we could predict almost everything. Therefore, in many parts of the routes that we feel barely sure about and the person must decide if they´ll attempt it, we also add pictures for assistance. For example, if the pavement is too narrow, one has to choose if their wheelchair can pass through or if they have to go to the other side of the road, depending on its width. We provide such directions”, he adds.
How the accessible routes guide works
For each route, every potential obstacle is written down along with a way to avoid it before one reaches it. The steps are clear and detailed for everyone, while always keeping in mind that people with visual disabilities will have to listen to them through the widget.
These routes are included in a thematic and fully accessible website, in Greek and English for now, and they also contain some general accessibility information depending on the different needs of each disabled group.
“As part of our strategy for a sustainable and accessible city, we created through “This is Athens” a platform with specialized routes, designed for people with visual and motor disabilities. We are addressing both locals and native visitors, but also disabled travelers from abroad who would like to visit our city and experience our hospitality. This platform was created using the invaluable knowledge of the NPCP “Me Alla Matia”, whom we would like to thank deeply for this collaboration. By deploying their vast experience in accessibility issues, we mapped 8 routes in the city that best accent parts of cultural and touristic interest, focused around the Historical center, the Acropolis, the National Garden, and Omonia square.”, said ADDMA’s (Athens Development & Destination Management Agency) CEO, Vaggelis Vlachos.
The guide is written exactly as needed for the person who will use it. The instructions are written in detail and with high precision, both verbally and map-wise. There is a listing of every obstacle as well as steps on how citizens can avoid it and reach a point of interest.
Depending on the type of disability of the user, a widget is activated accordingly. For example, if someone has a visual impairment, the widget will speak to them to guide them on their route.
It should be noted that this is not an app. All the persons have to do to receive these instructions is to simply visit https://accessibleroutes.thisisathens.org/ for free. Then, they have to activate their desired language and the website’s specific mode that suits their disability before they just follow the instructions. Also, to ensure that the entire process is as easy to understand as possible, there is an introduction that better explains how the guide can be read and used online.
After the user has selected between visual or motor impairment, the guide will suggest all of the possible routes, along with their respective descriptions and a set of assets that will make it more attractive. The user will then choose which route they want to follow, and the guide will explain it step by step. There are points of interest, a map, a route summary as well as a description of everything that the user can see or do.
“For example, we have added a lot of details for visually impaired users. We tell them to take a detour to Athena’s Street because the smell of spice will win them over. We create imagery using all the other senses. For those with motor impairment, we suggest the closest metro stations or if they possess an electric wheelchair, we inform them of recharge points. We make a variety of such suggestions”, Mr. Avgoulas tells us.
Safe routes for people with disability
From these routes that traverse the heart of the center of Athens, and go through hotspots of culture and entertainment, we see that with the right combination of instructions and information, disabled visitors can visit and explore Athens all by themselves. “Athens isn’t this inaccessible chaos we all imagine. There are parts of it that the municipality of Athens has agreed to keep protected and safe. There are specific instructions for Officials to supervise them so that this guide remains useful, relevant, and updated every day.” he emphasizes.
As he says, “Greek citizens wouldn’t dare such a stroll for any reason. Up until this guide, in our capital city, disabled people couldn’t prepare for any route. In this way, we make good use of the train and the metro –we are proud owners of some of the most accessible train stations in Europe. This is a project where disabled people know what to do after they exit those train stations –because our routes go through those stations.”
“Now they feel a lot more secure. They can follow those routes by themselves, without a companion. Someone with a white cane or a guide dog, a wheelchair user, will no longer require a companion if they listen to our instructions. Wherever there are problems or changes in the route that the user needs to know about, we warn them beforehand. These routes are suggested based on safety. This is a lasting need that the municipality of Athens has finally started to fill, and we are already discussing adding more routes.
Athens becomes an attractive destination for people with disability
Of course, Athens is now an even more attractive location for visitors from abroad. “Anyone reluctant to travel to Athens, now knows that this issue is no longer a problem. People from abroad need to know what’s waiting for them here and how they can move around in Athens,” says Mr. Vlachos.
“It’s something groundbreaking. We’re essentially talking about an accessible tourist guide, tailored to the needs of people with visual and motor impairment. What’s important about this project is that this guide was not created to be used after things change. We designed it based on the existing situation in Athens. This isn’t to say that our city is bad. There is an abundance of problems that we all know about and work daily to solve. There is constant communication with the municipality of Athens, where we inform them of problems with the technical services, most of which are solved eventually. They fix ramps, pavements, etc.” Mr. Avgoulas points out.
What makes this guide especially useful is that you can find it online and it’s updated constantly for every single change, unlike some guides from abroad that just include static pdf files that you can download and read. This guide of accessible Athenian routes can be available right there on your phone.
“We’re able to interfere at any time to fix and correct anything needed, to add or remove some piece of information that may help. In other words, the traveler or the visitor can use it again and again without having to print 50-60 pages of information and be confused with it.”, Mr. Avgoulas reports.
Besides that, the fact that this guide is online allows you to choose the point you’re at and start your route from there or split it into smaller parts if you’re tired. That is, the instructions can be received realistically each time based on your location. Furthermore, there are details considering, for instance, the eligibility for discounted tickets in museums or archeological sites, which is thanks to a collaboration with the Ministry of Culture.
At the same time, we should note that the Athens Urban Transport Organization (OASA) also contributes to this effort, as they began to train their station masters and drivers in effectively and properly assisting passengers with a disability. “This isn’t just a window dressing, we’re creating a chain of accessibility”, Mr. Avgoulas, who has been awarded by multiple organizations in Greece and worldwide for his work, emphasizes, urging other municipalities also to adopt this project.
In conclusion, he asks the people to help optimize this project after trying the guide themselves: “The project is now under public review. We need as many people as possible to provide us with their feedback, to further improve upon existing suggestions but also enrich the guide with new ones.”