March 3, 2021
Leo-Pekka Tähti, 37, was born with a congenital spinal cord injury that left him unable to use his legs. A love of competition drove him to take up wheelchair racing at age 15, and today he is celebrated as a Finnish sporting legend, unbeatable for the past 16 years in the 100m dash.
Tähti is also a respected spokesman for equality. Over the past decade he has noted a genuine improvement in attitudes towards people with disabilities. “Perhaps the clearest sign of a shift was when I was chosen as Finland’s Athlete of the Year in 2016.”
While many barriers to equality are being eroded, there are still surprisingly many physical obstacles that cause daily headaches for people with limited mobility.
The Paralympic star says that moving around is much easier than in his youth, but he still encounters problems – like restaurants without wheelchair-accessible restrooms. “The food is often a secondary matter when I choose a restaurant,” he quips.
Little big barriers
Tähti’s personal experiences confirm that many cities are still a long way off from being truly inclusive.
“I was staying in Helsinki, Finland, a few years ago and I went out looking for a grocery store. The first three shops I came across had steep stairs at the front entrance. I thought to myself: ‘Hello, how about a ramp… at least?’”
Even a minor structural barrier can present insurmountable problems for a wheelchair user, or anyone with reduced mobility, be it permanent or temporary. “Thresholds are a nuisance, especially when I’m carrying a heavy load in my lap. Really, it would be such a quick fix.”
Usability for mixed mobilities
Older residential buildings are usually the least inclusive for people with limited mobility. “Many buildings don’t even have an elevator. And if there’s an elevator, it’s typically too small. There’s no way I can squeeze in if I’m carrying my racing wheelchair.”
Tähti praises the accessibility of Fuengirola, Spain, where he is currently training for the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics. Being tourist-driven, the Spanish coastal town has invested generously in inclusivity.
New hotels and public buildings are generally well-designed, but Tähti emphasizes that an accessibility expert should always be consulted – if only because the law requires new buildings to be fully accessible.
“Besides, people with disabilities are a very mixed group. A visually impaired person has very different needs from someone in an electric wheelchair. You need an expert to make sure that every detail works.”
Equality through technology
New digital apps offer handy mobility solutions for people with disabilities. Tähti praises KONE for its pioneering work promoting accessibility.
“KONE is legendary in the eyes of wheelchair users. It’s great how they are harnessing technology to make life easier for such a wide spectrum of groups.”
Although many great solutions are being rolled out, they have yet to reach the wider masses. “It’s a whole new world. I would love to get involved in testing new apps. Sign me up any time!”