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Portrait of the month - Evaggelos Avgoulas

Q: Good morning Evaggelos, and thank you so much for being our guest for this month's edition of "Portrait of the month".

A: Oh, you're more than welcomed! It's a pleasure for me.

Q: So, let's start! Are you blind?

A: Yes, I was born totally blind, in 1988. I come from Krete.

Q: Did you go to a mainstream school or a school for the blind?

A: I went to a school for the blind only for the first two years of primary school, in Athens. After that, I was integrated in a normal school, with other two blind pupils: we had a special teacher who supported our integration, and all our classmates were sighted. They helped us with all the visual things: Geography classes, Maths classes etc. Unfortunately, the integration programme was interrupted after primary school, as there were not enough funds, and so I had no special support throughout high school.

Q: Oh, that must've been difficult. How did you manage?

A: Well, from the very first day, I used laptop and printer to give exercises and tests to my professors at the same time as my classmates. Fortunately, nowadays the integration programme has been restored: blind pupils get special support throughout their entire education.

Q: Why did you opt for a mainstream school?

A: I thought it would've been better for me, and it was: I had friends, and I really felt the benefits of integration. Honestly, I don't believe that blind people should have designated places to work, live, get educated, meet others etc., but that they should be integrated with the sighted from an early age. But if they have additional disabilities, I agree that they should go to a special school.

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: I studied Law at the university of Athens, with a BA in Civil Law. Afterwards, between 22 and 26 years of age, I was Deputy Mayor (responsible for social affairs and education) in Ilion, my city, which has about 140.000 residents. I was elected again afterwards, but as an independent local counsellor. Also, for two years I've been law adviser for mr. Kurublis, first in the Ministry of Health and then in the Ministry of the Interior; he's blind as well and gave me the job because he knew about my involvement in social affairs: I've been president of the Youth Committee of the Pan-Hellenic Association for the Blind for 8 years.

Q: Are you very involved in politics?

A: Not really, but I accepted the job because he was the first disabled minister in Greece: before, we had only had disabled people working in the Parliament, but never in the government. So I thought it was a real historic turning point for the Greek Disability Movement and I wanted to be part of it: I was the only Deputy Mayor between 2011 and 2014, and I'm really glad that these new posts are opening for disabled people.

Q: And are you involved in other disability-related activities?

A: Yes, I'm still President of the Pan-Hellenic Association for the Blind, and I'm part of the Committee for Social Affairs in the Central Union of the Greek Municipalities.

Q: Where are you currently working?

A: I work as a lawyer (I have my own office), but it's quite hard to work on a daily basis, finding clients etc.: I'm not a permanent adviser for a company or something like that, but I'm a freelance.

Q: Do you think that being blind makes your job a bit harder?

A: Yes, it's much harder actually: I can easily convince my clients on the telephone that I'll be able to help them with their case, but it happened to me many times that upon our first meeting, when they saw I was blind, they didn't want to continue with me because prejudices worked against me. Fortunately, though, I had also many positive experiences: people who believe in the abilities of blind people and feel even safer and more comfortable with me, because they think I won't judge them based on their appearance, but I will look farther and more in depth.

Q: So you don't mention that you're blind, when you have your first contact with clients. Do you just let them find out when they meet you in person?

A: Yes. My stance, that I apply to everything I do (social affairs, working as a lawyer etc.) is that blindness is part of my being, of course, but it doesn't define me as a person.

Q: So you don't mind the awkward silence and the embarassment that may arise when they find out?

A: I've been giving speeches in mainstream schools for 10 years now, to show pupils they don't need to be afraid of disability. Well, something I usually say is that for everyone who refuses to hug a disabled person there is someone else who will do it gladly.

Q: Going back to your work as a laywer, what about signatures? I know blind people can get a lot of problems in this respect, which can result in serious difficulties if you're a lawyer!

A: Yes, we get many problems with that. It often happened that the signature on my identity card wasn't accepted, even though it was on an official document; in the end, I got a special permission from the Ministry of Justice in order for my signature to be accepted as authentic, and I changed my identity card. It was paradoxical actually: as Deputy Mayor and Law Adviser for a Minister I signed many important papers, and yet, no one accepted the signature on my identity card! Signatures are a very big problem for blind people, especially when it comes to banks. I organized many protests about this issue, but we need more active people from the disability movement: if the public administration doesn't feel the pressure on these issues, they won't give them the importance they deserve.

Q: So, do you think you will continue to work as an independent lawyer?

A: Yes, I think so. I also have my own blog, where I publish my own articles: I like to give my opinion on current affairs. I also had my own Web radio for two years, but due to financial reasons I had to stop. Besides, I organize various social events across the whole country, with charities, associations etc... All in all, I have a very active life besides my job, and I want to keep this going until the day my country, Greece, gets out of the economic crisis.

Q: Well, I think we can conclude the interview here, unless you have something else to add.

A: Yes, there's something I'd like to add. I also have some other difficulties to face: I live alone in Athens, because for the last five years my whole family was forced to move to a very far island and to change their lifestyle due to the economic crisis. So I had to learn to manage a house on my own, but it's OK: I'm 28 years old and I already have many experiences that I can use as weapons to win the battle of life. One last thing: in 2006, together with other disabled students, I founded a committee at the University of Athens, which helps disabled students during their studies (books, exams, technological aids...). In particular, we try to give every single disabled student the specific help he needs. And fortunately, this committee is still in place today.

Q: Thank you very much, Evaggelos. It's been great talking to you.

A: Thanks to you too. It's been a pleasure.