As soon as the pandemic ends, the city of Valožyn is planning to open Belarus’s first fully accessible tourist centre and hostel for people with disabilities. The inclusive facilities are part of the EU-funded project Valožyn without barriers, which has invested more than a million euro in buildings across Valožyn District.
It all started with the Belarusian Society of Disabled People and the Belarusian Public Association Country Escape having an idea to create an accommodating environment for tourists with disabilities in a region in Belarus. The two organisations wanted to show that this ambitious venture was not just possible, but also in demand.
Eventually, they picked Valožyn District, located near the capital Minsk, as the Naliboki Forest and the many agricultural estates in the region make it attractive for ecotourism lovers.
The EU has allocated a grant of €1 million for creating the infrastructure. The project was implemented by the two organisations and the Valožyn regional executive committee. The Interakcia Foundation took part in writing the project, taking care of the administrative aspect of it and communicating with donors.
Although Belarus has a state programme whose aim is to create a barrier-free environment for people with disabilities, there is a lack of funding, so international projects like this one provide good support and are very important for solving social problems.
“We were able to understand people with disabilities better”
Galina Ray, director of the Valožyn Territorial Centre for Social Services, has been working on the project since its launch.
“This EU project gave us the opportunity to explore the subject of accessibility. We studied the experience of other countries and we were able to understand people with disabilities better,” says Galina.
The coronavirus pandemic has made the locals realise how difficult life can be for people with disabilities, many of whom are constantly isolated in their homes. There are about 2,500 people with disabilities in Valožyn District, including 100 wheelchair users, who are most affected by the lack of a barrier-free environment.
“Our work was not in vain”
With the help of experts from the Belarusian Society of Disabled People, an accessibility assessment was carried out for more than 270 facilities, including entrances to buildings, ramps, lobbies, toilets, drives and car parks in 80 institutions and farmhouses in Valožyn District.
As a result, several dozen public facilities have been made accessible and nineteen buildings have been equipped with ramps, handrails, tactile paving and special car parks.
Galina says that, for example, the Cultural Centre has become accessible for everyone, while previously, people with disabilities had to be carried inside.
But it’s not just public buildings – the 1.4 km long nature trail located near the bank of the Isloch River has also been adapted for people with special needs. The trail is equipped with special eco-friendly coating that allows people in wheelchairs to move freely on it.
Galina teared up when one day she saw 50 cars in the car park and realised how popular the trail was:
“Our work was not in vain. People using wheelchairs can explore the trail on their own, and parents of children in wheelchairs say they now have a place where the entire family can go.”
As part of the project, the building of the Territorial Centre for Social Protection of Valožyn District was reconstructed into an accessible tourist information and recreation centre with a hostel for 20 people and a conference hall.
“Many people with disabilities do not travel abroad because it is expensive, but travelling around Belarus is more affordable. The hostel in Valožyn will provide services at low government-subsidised prices. It is perfect for a two- or three-day trip, and thanks to the accessible environment created, everyone is welcome,” notes Irina Ivanova, manager of the project.
Author: Elena Spasyuk
Article published in Russian by Nviny.by