Swimming by Seatrac
By Yorgos Karahalis
In Greece, with its hundreds of islands, one of the longest coastlines in the world and a great climate, people are lucky enough to enjoy the beach for nearly half the year. Swimming in the sea is a way of life for many Greeks and a habit they’ve grown used to from their earliest years. With tourism being the country’s biggest industry, almost all visitors plan at least one “touch” with the sea during their holiday.
But for some, things are not so simple. Those with kinetic disabilities have always had to ask for help to enjoy the simple pleasure of swimming in the sea as wheelchairs cannot be driven on the sand or over pebbles. Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual in a country where access facilities for the disabled are in general very poor, even at the most basic level. A lack of infrastructure by the state and hostile behavior by many locals is a cocktail poisoning the daily life of those who depend on wheelchairs to get around.
In such a difficult environment, a team of university students and professors developed a solar-powered device which enables autonomous access to the beach for people with kinetic disabilities: the “Seatrac”, an innovative project covered by European and U.S. patents but faced with Greek reality.
“I feel like I built a penthouse apartment without a building underneath it,” says engineer Ignatios Fotiou, one of the inventors. The device, which has been sold to municipalities and placed on a few beaches around the country, has been very much welcomed by its users. Those who used it last year waited eagerly for the summer season to begin again. Many even arranged their summer holidays and rented homes near beaches where the device has been placed.
“It makes you feel free and able to do things which you could not imagine you could do on your own” says 52-year old Lefteris Theofilou, a paraplegic man who has been stuck in a wheelchair since 1992.
Still, no matter how modern and innovative a device is, it is not enough to overcome the “disabilities” – not of the people but of Greek reality. In Alepochori, a coastal town a few miles from Athens, parents let their children use the machine as a diving board and vandalism is not a rare phenomenon. While the municipalities bought the devices, locals say they did nothing in terms of developing a supportive infrastructure and furthermore they are not able to solve a problem when it comes up.
At a busy beach in Alepochori, a small ramp which was needed to be built to allow access from the street to the device became a huge issue and was never built by the municipality, but by a local man instead. A balustrade to support the disabled on the way to the beach has been a very expensive and complicated construction for the local municipality to overcome. “The support by the local authorities simply does not exist” says Minas Georgakis, whose wife Matoula suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been using a wheelchair for the last six years. Good idea, nice beaches, great weather but the lack of respect and the way the state treats its citizens makes you think that there is a long way ahead to have them all working in harmony.