The Stigma Of Disability In Italy

Diego Chiapello, legally blind since birth, isn't one of Italy's famous "mama's boys" who live with their parents into adulthood. The 27-year-old lives alone in Milan, works as a network administrator, loves diving and dreams of sailing across the Atlantic with an all-sight-impaired crew.

Obviously, he's not your average disabled person--but especially so in Italy. The country throws up more barriers to integration than almost anywhere else on the Continent: among European countries, Italy ranks third from the bottom in accessibility for the disabled, ahead of only Greece and Portugal. People who use wheelchairs, especially, find it difficult to navigate the country's cobblestone streets, ride buses or visit restaurants, shops and museums. Less than a quarter of Italy's disabled hold jobs, compared with 47 percent for Europe.

But the biggest obstacle for the country's physically challenged may, in fact, be the fabled Italian family. Because of the social stigma that still attaches to disabilities, "they tend to keep disabled people at home" and out of public view, explains Giovanni Marri, head of an employment training center in Milan that caters to the handicapped. Thus while 15 percent of the country's families include a disabled person, according to surveys, only 2 percent of Italians report going to school with a disabled person and only 4 percent work with one.

Italians are beginning to recognize the problem. Over the past decade, the government has passed laws targeting everything from workplace discrimination to accessibility requirements. A recent study by the European Union (this is the EU's Year of the Disabled Person) found that 85 percent of Italians admit that public transportation and infrastructure are inadequate for the handicapped, and 97 percent say action is needed. But the biggest barrier is psychological. "Italian companies are afraid of hiring disabled people," says Chiapello. The only way to alter that, he says, is for Italy's disabled to do what he did--get out of the house and demand change.