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Venice's Gondoliers Make Room For Wheelchairs


Historic buildings in cities present unique challenges for people with disabilities. In Venice, for example, it's all but impossible for somebody in a wheelchair to take a ride in a gondola. But if a group of locals has its way, the most Venetian of experiences will soon be accessible to all. Christopher Livesay has more.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: The enduring beauty of Venice owes a lot to the city's resistance to change. You'd be hard-pressed to find much difference between an 18th-century painting by Canaletto and the Venice of today. That's great news if you're an art historian, less so if you're in a wheelchair...

NICOLO: Beep, beep.

LIVESAY: ...Like Nicolo.

NICOLO: Hello.

LIVESAY: He's in the first grade and says he's always wanted to ride in a gondola, but to do that you have to walk down a narrow, rickety wooden staircase then step over open water and onto the wobbly edge of the boat.


LIVESAY: Alessandro Della Pieta, a fourth-generation gondolier, got tired of watching people pass on a ride because of a disability.

PIETA: Every time that we see a people in a wheelchair that look at us like last Coke in the desert, we see in their eyes that they was very sad and in our heart we feel sad, too.

LIVESAY: There's another reason Della Pieta feels something in his heart.

PIETA: I understand more than a lot of people because anyway my son have a couple of problem, so I know.

LIVESAY: Perhaps because of his own son's disabilities, Della Pieta goes above and beyond.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: He and Nicolo's mom carry the 6-year-old onto the gondola...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: ...And we're off.


NICOLO: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: Carrying someone on board is pretty risky, says Della Pieta. Once, he and a quadriplegic woman nearly fell overboard.

PIETA: It's really dangerous because it's a boat that is moving, and we do this with our heart, but we can't go on like this.

LIVESAY: So he and a colleague enlisted the help of an engineer who designed a motorized platform that could safely lower wheelchairs directly into the gondola. They approached the city to fund the proposal. After all, there are 80 million EU citizens with disabilities, and that number is only growing as Europe's population rapidly ages, but the city balked at the $120,000 price tag.

CAMILLA SEIBEZZI: All the resource of our government is still involved in preserving the history of our country.

LIVESAY: Former councilwoman Camilla Seibezzi.

SEIBEZZI: We know perfectly how much is precious, the heritage in our city. We still need to remember day by day how much precious is the life of the person that are coming in our city.

LIVESAY: It's a problem Roberto Vitali understands firsthand. He's part of a government committee on accessible tourism, but he's not dogmatic.

ROBERTO VITALI: For example, I don't want create an elevator for Pisa tower.

LIVESAY: Vitali himself is in a wheelchair and points out that Venice is more accessible than Milan.

VITALI: Over 80 percent of the historical center is accessible.

LIVESAY: Wheelchair-accessible water buses ply the city's canals, but that most Venetian of experiences, the gondola ride, is still out of bounds. Vitali's helped the lift project secure $50,000 in funding, but they're still short, so they've launched a crowd-funding campaign called Gondolas For All. Allesandro Della Pieta, the gondolier in charge, knows it's a big challenge, but say it's nothing compared to what people with disabilities have to face daily.

PIETA: I tell you, people don't want to see a disability. People are afraid of a disability, so what we want to show that if everybody do something, all together we can broke a lot of walls.

LIVESAY: If the fundraiser is successful, the biggest wall to come down will be the one at the top of those rickety stairs leading to Della Pieta's gondola, and for 6-year-old Nicolo, that's one change Venice can afford to make.

NICOLO: Adios, amigos.

LIVESAY: For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay