As difficult as it may be for many Greeks and visitors today to get around Greece, in Ancient Greece people with disabilities were taken care of when buildings were built, especially those dealing with the healing process.
By building graceful stone ramps at temple entrances, the Ancient Greeks showed that they were indeed sensitive to the needs of those who had difficulty climbing stairs.
Although not a widespread method, the presence of such ramps at the sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidaurus, as well as in Corinth, is evidence that disabled people were accommodated, at least when they were trying to be healed, points out the Greek Reporter.
Dr. Debby Sneed, a lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies at California State University, Long Beach, says that the establishment of accessible buildings for the disabled and the elderly was a function of the ramps that once existed in these sanctuaries.
People with disabilities in Ancient Greece were accommodated in surprising ways
Dr Sneed’s work on the subject, published in the journal Antiquity, called ‘The Life Cycle of Disability in Ancient Greece’, was awarded the Ben Cullen Award for Outstanding Work in Archaeology.
Sneed surmises that the ancient Greeks, “especially those constructing monumental buildings in the 4th century BC, built stone ramps at the healing sanctuaries of Asklepios to make the buildings accessible to visitors with reduced mobility, which may include not just the disabled, but the elderly, pregnant women, young children, generally anyone for whom a ramp is easier than stairs,” she says.
This was “the primary function of the ramps, even though they could also serve additional functions, such as moving heavy objects to and from the temples. “Thanks to this understanding of ramps, we can apply the interpretation to other, non-healing contexts: the ramp leading to the Acropolis in Athens, for example, was 10 meters wide by 80 meters long, and although it probably also provided a means for transporting construction and sacrificial animals on the slopes, would also have provided access for Athenians with reduced mobility attending the Panathenaia, for example,” says Sneed.
The ramps on the Acropolis return to original access
Many remember the recent scenes of ramps being built at the Acropolis so that wheelchair users and people with mobility issues could have the full experience there. The concrete ramps installed at the time drew furore from some who believed no further construction should ever have been done atop the Holy Rock.
An exhibition at the Venice Biennale showed how accessible the Acropolis was in ancient times, with Mantha Zarmakoupi from Greece one of the contributors to the exhibition.
Given the new accessibility features on the Acropolis in Athens, says Sneed, it is important to realize “how it was originally (at least as far back as the 6th century BC, with the construction of the first ramp) intended to be accessible!”
The collective experience of “climbing”
In Antiquity, the path up the Acropolis was a ramp that led all the way from the Agora to the Parthenon. This allowed almost all people, regardless of disability, to traverse the slope, “helping each other or being assisted as needed in the collective experience of the ascent,” according to the exhibit’s creators.
However, “in the 19th century, the path was changed to its present form: a narrow, turning path in keeping with the times, embracing the romance of the solitary pilgrimage,” it added. “But lost was the communal aspect of travel, along with the potential for visitors with disabilities to join their peers on the rise.”
And it is not only in these monumental structures that sensitivity towards people with disabilities can be found in the world of Ancient Greece. Sneed also focuses on other types of accessibility features we see in Ancient Greece, such as “prosthetics (including the so-called Capua member from ca. 300 BC) and other mobility aids such as would be crutches and walking sticks (such as those seen hidden under the arm of Hephaestus), on the frieze of the Parthenon,” says the professor.
Payments to disabled people in Ancient Greece
The existence of such forms of healthcare was also seen in the Egyptian mummy that had a wooden leg, which was buried with its owner and survives intact today. Perhaps most surprising of all, Sneed also spoke of a law from the fourth century B.C. of Athens which “provided a daily pension for disabled citizens, known from several sources, including a speech written by the orator Lysias”.
At the end of her presentations, Sneed makes a critical distinction between what we call “accommodations,” which are retrofits to existing structures, versus what she calls “accessibility features” that were part of the original structures. We need to make accommodations because most of our buildings were built for able-bodied people: “we need to change our society to accommodate disabled people in it,” she says.
However, in the days of Ancient Greece, “at healing sanctuaries, people with disabilities were taken into account from the beginning, as evidenced by the construction of ramps,” she points out. “The ramps were not added later, but were included as part of the building program in the 4th century BC. and they required no laws requiring it. It was just a practical matter.”