Vaggelis Avgoulas walking with his white cane among students while speaking to them in one disability awareness program.


Source of the original article (in Greek):

Translation: Giorgos Lyberis

When children meet people with disability, they put some of the most imaginative questions a mind can create. Do blind people see dreams? Could someone with mobility impairment drive? Why are some dogs called guide dogs? The blind lawyer Evangelos Avgoulas and other volunteers with visual, auditory, or motor impairments meet school students across Greece every day to answer their questions and build with them a world accessible to everyone.

The educational information programs around disability are organized by the non-profit company “Me Alla Matia”, which was founded by Evangelos Avgoulas with the aim of action to assert inclusion. The programs are aimed at students of all levels and are conducted live in Attica and online throughout the rest of Greece.

It is noon, and the students of the 2nd and 4th grades of Leonidio Primary School, with the help of their teachers, log in to an online platform to chat with the founder of “Me Alla Matia”.

He tells them about his favorite game… the Blind Man’s Buff: “Since I was born blind, I am a champion at this game”, he tells them laughingly. Next, he describes the obstacles people with disability face and how they overcome them. He uses as an example how he cooks as a blind person. “I was born without vision, but I “see” in my way. When I cook, I taste the food, and I smell the salt and pepper to distinguish them, and I touch the shape of the ingredients I will use.”

The children ask him how he reads, writes on the computer, travels by plane, and even why his cane is white. After patiently answering each question, he adds:

“Remember that if we want to communicate with people who are different, we will find a way given that we want to.”

Then he reminds the children of the cartoon fish Nemo, born disabled with one fin shorter; also of the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White’s friends who were born too short.

“The children are our only hope,” explains Mr. Avgoulas. “They have an innocent, inquiring curiosity. In the discussions, they do not see anything different, merely many things seem inexplicable to them, and they ask to know how PwDs live,” he adds.

He underlines that his goal is to communicate that we should not stop at any challenge. “Each of my speeches closes with the observation that if a difficulty suddenly befalls us, we must find how to continue our lives, even if it seems like a mountain to climb. Life hides many pleasures, so it is not worth becoming inactive spectators,” he emphasizes.

From September 2017 until today, more than 24,000 school students have participated in the “Me Alla Matia” programs.

Juliana Bousi, a philologist with visual impairment, a specialist in special education, and a volunteer of “Me Alla Matia” meets online students of the 5th grade at the primary school of Leros. She urges them to ask whatever comes to mind, clarifying that this is not a lesson but a dialogue. “I am not embarrassed by the questions. It is part of inclusion to answer all questions,” she explains.

A student asks her about her hobbies; Mrs. Bousi replies that she likes singing and sports and describes the team sport of goalball, which uses a ball with bells. The students excitedly shout that they too often play goalball in their school playground with their younger classmates.

However, her guide dog, Yuni, is at the center of attention. Mrs. Bousi explains to them how long and expensive the training of a guide dog is and clarifies that when a dog is guiding its blind companion, the children should not feed or pet it.

Recently, the educational programs of “Me Alla Matia” were supported through a “Concert in the Dark”, organized by the production company “Spoudaia Events”, with the participation of Natassa Bofiliou. In the same context of informing the public, NPO “Me Alla Matia” implements the #SpeakUp campaign featuring disabled people in short videos, which has gathered over ten million views.

The training programs are also aimed at adults: in the last two years, “Me Alla Matia” has designed and coordinated more than 60 customized training programs for companies, agencies, and municipalities and has trained over 6,000 employers and employees on disability, accessibility, and inclusion.

Among other things, it implements training for clergy and volunteers who support disabled people, focusing on the disability and the proper ways to approach it, under the auspices of the Archbishop of Athens and All of Greece, Ieronymos. An educational program on disability is also implemented at the Post-Training School of the Hellenic Police for police cadets. During this period, the training of judicial officials is also planned.

Finally, “Me Alla Matia” restarts the “Dinner in the Dark” that had stopped amid the pandemic and provides it to companies that want to organize a unique Christmas event. Participants dine in complete darkness, guided by specially trained blind and sighted waiters.

“We are increasingly using cooking to promote diversity. Our goal is to open soon a place in Athens that permanently hosts dinners in the dark and gives work to visually impaired people”, concludes Mr. Avgoulas.

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