Tallinn sets the accessibility tone

Jüri Järve got a severe disability by a jump that ended wrong at an employees party in 1998. He broke his C6-C7/ bones in his neck and can't walk anymore since. Also the feeling in his fingers has detoriated. Jüri was a building engineer, specialized in pipes and water management. His technical knowledge about buildings is still very practical nowadays in his functions with the Tallinn Union of People with Mobility Impairments and the Estonian Union of  People with Mobility Impairments. Two examples of the Estonian disability movement that was established in the eighties and nineties when the Soviet influence got less and finally disappeared. Nowadays, he uses his knowledge in accessibility research. Accessibility is one of the main subjects of this interview.
 
In both unions, Jüri is board member. In the Tallinn union he is even chairman of the board. The organizations do a lot of accessibility research and make the results public. The Estonian organization created a special website, www.liikumisvabadus.invainfo.ee, on which the accessibility of over 2,000 buildings throughout Estonia can be read. The accessibility, also of streets and parking places, is explained by several icons and a short description. The site started in 2005 with 600 objects with sponsorship by the  Tallin city government.
 
Average accessibility in Tallinn
 
Jüri explains how accessible the city of Tallinn and the rest of Estonia is being researched. 'We got the idea from Finland where Accessible Helsinki came online in 2000. The Finnish have taught us their mistakes, so we wouldn't make them too. Ten to 15 people do the actual research. We do research ourselves and if requested we can also execute an accessibility audit of a building. The owner then pays us for our research and in return he receives a report about what is good and what has to be improved. Most of the time, the accessibility measures applied to the building don't match with the official  measures that are written down in a special law that came into power in 2002.
 
'I would call the accessibility of buildings in Tallinn average. The new ones are okay. The situation in Tallinn is better than in other Estonian places. That's simply, because the city of Tallinn has more money to spend. The Tallinn Union checks about 80 buildings a year and co-operates with the council where it comes to the accessibility of new buildings. Other disability organizations in Estonia are rather passive with regard to accessibility matters. What is a problem is the accessibility of heritage buildings in Tallinn. Churches, museums etc. Their owners (the state) are not willing to change anything to their buildings to make them more accessible. Which is a pity, because it can be done without harming their architecture. I've seen examples of that in other European cities.'
 
When walking through the old town of Tallinn to the place of appointment, I noticed the old town is not easily accessible to people with mobility impairments. The pavements are narrow, if there are any, and the cobblestones on the road make normal walking very very difficult. Jüri acknowledges this observation. 'I can drive with my electric wheelchair over those cobblestones. Not that it's fun, but it's possible. With a normal wheelchair, it's impossible. The problem is also there are big gaps between the stones. We've discussed this with the council and there's the intention to work on it. The pavements must be levelled and boulevards must be created. But, there's no money to realize this yet.'
 
As far as the accessibility of public transport is concerned the same conclusion can be drawn: Tallinn scores best and the rest of Estonia stays behind. Jüri: 'The city of Tallinn runs a company which offers rides with adjusted busses. One can make eight trips a month with them and only pays a small sum. Of the normal busses only ten percent has been adjusted and to use those busses is still very prolix. The bus driver has to get out of the bus to install the ramp. In Barcelona and London, busses do have an automatic ramp.
 
'Estonian Railways are testing new trains at the moment which have adjusted toilets and an adjusted entrance. I hope these tests will succeed soon. To end, there's also a bus connection between the Estonian cities. The company which runs this, has three busses with a lift. '
 
All in all the situation in Estonia as far as accessibility is concerned isn't bad, but a lot has to be improved. From my visits to Latvia and Lithuania I've learned the situation in those other Baltic states is similar.'
 
Estonians with a disability are not (financially) forgotten
 
Ten percent of the Estonian population, 134,000 people, does have a disability. This can be roughly divided into one half with mobility impairments and a second half with other kinds of disabilities. Estonian government has divided the disabled into three categories: heavily disabled, medium and slightly. Jüri belongs to the first category. 'I'm entitled to 24 hours of assistence. Not that I make use of it. My son who's 26 comes to  help me a couple of times a week. I'm not living with my wife anymore. Someone who's heavily disabled gets a disability pension between 250 and 300 euro a month. Two to three times lower than a Finnish disabled receives. One is able to live of it, although it requires budgetting permanently. I do have the fortune I also still receive money of earlier employers.    
 
'Estonian companies are being stimulated to hire people with a disability. They get a small tax reduction for this in return. When a disabled person gets back to work, he is allowed to keep his disability pension as a stimulance. Many employers are still afraid to hire disabled people, because they think a lot must be arranged then. While disabled people with a mobility impairment could perfectly practice desk work behind a computer without too many adjustments. Certainly within the government itself, there should have to be enough chances for work. I'm 51, I don't want to have a boss above me anymore, so I'm not looking for a new job myself.
 
'For Estonian youngsters with a disability it's important to have the chance to get a normal job. They look to life just like there non-disabled comrades and are not interested in the older disabled people with their problems. Most of the youngsters speak English very well, while the older generation still speaks fluently Russian.' 
 
No time to get bored
 
Jüri intends to continue the voluntary work for both unions for another three to four years. Together with a mate, he's also busy developing a Geographical Information Systems about the small towns pipes and water management. If he's not working, and those occasions are rare, Jüri loves to watch movies on the internet. And there's of course his son.
 
'My son Pent is important to me. Just like me he studied at the Tallinn Technical University. But, afterwards he decided to make a career move. Nowadays, he's a musician. He's studying at the Music Academy and plays guitar in different bands. He will find his way. We are like brothers to each other. My musical choice is a song by one of his bands, Powerplay. The song is called West Coast.' 
 
Copyright text: Johan Peters, May 27th - ...