In Greece families assume a large responsibility, including for personal assistance. But society is rapidly changing, as can be seen in the streets and squares in recent times.
The democratic constitution of the 1970s spoke of “people with special needs.” It was a broad term that even included alcoholics. When the constitution was revised in 2001, the term “people with disabilities” was added. The same constitution guarantees people with disabilities the right to self-determination, inclusion in the workplace and social participation. But for a young Greek like Stelios Kimbouropoulos these are mainly just words on paper. He attended the conference in Stockholm in November 2008 in celebration of 25 years of Independent Living in Sweden, but says he is not aware of any Greek laws in the field of disability and does not think it matters either.
“No one would follow them anyway.”
Stelios lives in the southern suburbs of Athens and is in his last term of medical school. After graduation, he will continue his education with a five-year specialist training program to become a psychiatrist.
Like so many other young Greeks, Stelios still lives with his parents. He also receives the personal assistance he needs there. His mother and especially his brother help with hygiene and eating, but they also help him get to the university and meet friends.
“They are my hands and legs,” says Stelios.
Of course the arrangement is not without its problems, according to Stelios. He has to adjust his life to the jobs and commitments of the other family members, and their willingness to help out may also vary.
Private assistant services are available in Greece, but Stelios does not use them at this time.
“It’s too expensive, and we don’t want to have strangers in the house,” he says. “It makes us feel uncomfortable.”
But what happens if you don’t have money or family to help out?
“Then you have turn to some institution for help,” says Stelios, though he notes that he doesn’t know anything about that particular world.
He knows a bit more about the personal assistance companies through acquaintances. On the plus side is that whatever is to get done – cleaning, dressing, or whatever – is agreed between the company and the customer. No one else is involved. One dilemma, according to Stelios, is that almost all of the employees of the companies that offer this service are women. Stelios has heard about many problems for assistance users. Personnel are frequently replaced, perhaps every three months, and even if you decide what should be done, you cannot control which people the company “sends.” Assistance for one month can cost € 700 to 800, including three or four days off for the assistant.
A government subsidy of € 500 is available for such services, but that is not enough. It also takes a long time to get the money. The application process is complicated with two committees of doctors to assess the needs of the applicant. The applicant does not get to meet the committee, unless the committee specifically calls the applicant. Moreover, the decision must be reviewed every two years, according to Stelios. As Eirini-Maria Gourani writes in the International Disability Rights Monitor for 2007, a committee of three doctors reviews cases every year. Another committee monitors and receives appeals relating to the first committee. These authorities are hospital-based, which makes it seem like it is all part of the healthcare system.
Other information to be gleaned from the IDRM report is that people who have a disability that is expected to be greater than 67 percent – the basis of this calculation is unclear – can receive a special disability identification card that offers certain benefits such as car tax relief, free or discounted public transportation and even a 50 percent discount on mobile phone text messaging. All that may sound great, but Stelios just sighs.
“It’s very complicated. You have to run around to many different offices.”
Stelios does not socialize much with others who have disabilities, nor is he active in any organization. When asked which organization he represents at the conference in Stockholm, he answers honestly and youthfully:
“I represent only myself.”
However, he is a member of MDA Hellas, which organizes people with neuromuscular disabilities. And he has some contacts with others in a similar situation through the internet portal www.disabled.gr and other online groups. He also found the 25-year anniversary of the Swedish Independent Living organization online.
“I searched on the name Adolf Ratzka and found this conference.”
Stelios wants to listen and gather ideas for a similar initiative in Greece.
The disability organizations aren’t particularly interested in the Independent Living movement,” he says. “But now we’re going to start something that is important to us. If we had personal assistance like in Sweden, we wouldn’t need subsidies. You can do everything – study, work,” says Stelios.
Stelios also complains about physical accessibility in his country.
“It's so narrow everywhere. Public buildings don’t have elevators. The sidewalks are much too narrow to be able to get through. And trees are often planted in the sidewalks and sometimes motorcycles are parked there.”
Even worse, according to Stelios, is that clubs and nightlife are not accessible.
Nevertheless he still has confidence in the future and is looking forward to an active career as a psychiatrist.
“I like to talk to people and help them improve their lives.”
Perhaps he will also make the occasional disability subsidy evaluation in his capacity as a Greek physician.
Stelios Kimbouropoulos was interviewed by Emil Erdtman on November 28, 2008