When 45-year-old Icelandic entrepreneur Haraldur Thorleifsson was one day unable to access a corner shop in his wheelchair, while the rest of the family entered to buy some soft drinks, a shift happened. It was not the first time Mr Thorleifsson, who has been a wheelchair user for the past two decades, had been split from his family in such a way.
But at that moment, he decided to do something about it. He was in an ideal situation, having just sold his digital product design company Uneo inc. for a handsome profit to Twitter and returned to his home-country Iceland from San Fransisco.
First there were 100 ramps…
“The idea of 100 ramps was born,” Mr Thorleifsson tells UNRIC in an interview. As his family came out of the corner shop loaded with cool drinks, he told his wife and children of his plan.
“I had this illumination. I have missed experiences, much like thousands of people in this country and millions all over the world. I thought it was silly that I could not join my family and fully take part in life.”
Mr Thorleifsson donated 50 million Icelandic krónor [$365,000, €359,00) to the project and managed to convince the city of Reykjavík to match his contribution. The state as well as private companies later joined the effort. To facilitate the access of wheelchairs into shops, newsagents, cafés and restaurants, 100 ramps were installed, mostly in the city centre.
“100 is a nice number. I know that Icelanders like actions with concrete targets,” Mr Thorleifsson adds.
….and then there were 1,000
In just eight months, the project “Ramp-up Reykjavík” reached its 100-ramp goal, four months ahead of schedule. The project was expanded to reach the entire country with a new target of 1000 further ramps.
“We have built 100 on top of the initial 100, so there are 900 to go”.
Due to genetic muscle atrophy, Mr Thorleifsson has for the past two decades encountered accessibility challenges that many persons with disabilities face. In addition to his home country, Iceland, he has had experience of this in Asia, as well as North and South America.
“You can easily see that accessibility is very different from country to country and city to city. This is simply a choice. There are people who decide if there is access or not. For some reason, it has been decided that Iceland should not be an accessible country”.
Around one-third of shops in Reykjavík centre needed improved access when he started, says Mr Thorleifsson. In Reykjavík, with a population of 120,000, the 100 ramps have already made a difference.
“I can see for myself that there are many more people in wheelchairs in Laugavegur,” Mr Thorleifsson says, referring to the mostly pedestrian main shopping street in the centre of Reykjavík. “Some people have told me that they have gone downtown in their wheelchairs for the first time in decades, or had dinner in a previously inaccessible restaurant that they have always wanted to visit, thanks to the ramps.”
And Mr Thorleifsson does not intend to stop at 1100 ramps. “We are already in talks with small cities in Europe about expanding the concept.”
The Goals and inclusion
Mr Thorleifsson´s initiative chimes with many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a call to action to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy health, justice, and prosperity. Inclusion is at the centre of the Goals adopted by world leaders at a United Nations Summit in 2015. Goal 4 calls for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in equitable quality education. The same goes for Goal 8, on the promotion of inclusive economic growth and full employment for all, not forgetting Goal 11 on inclusive, safe and sustainable cities.
But Mr Thorleifsson´s recent activities tick more boxes when it comes to the Global Goals, as the Sustainable Development Goals are often called. Inequality is an integral part of the Goals, with Goal 10 calling for reducing inequalities and ensuring no one is left behind. “I am quite sensitive to this issue and I want to help people in levelling the playing field when I have the chance.”
Paying back to society
Born into a working class family, he is conscious and grateful for privileges he had such as access to quality education, including university, largely free of charge. “Someone has to pay for that,” he answers, when asked about his decision to move to Iceland and pay a relatively high-income tax on the profits from the sale of his company. In other words, he made sure he would not benefit from any tax-avoidance. On the contrary, he embraced the tax-collector.
“I do not think society works unless everyone can participate. I have lived in the USA and people with my illness find it hard to progress in society,” Mr Thorleifsson says.
The reactions to his willingness to pay taxes were remarkable in his opinion.
“I only mentioned this once on Twitter,” he explains. “Not many of my tweets attract any attention. But this one did.”
“It should go without saying that someone wants to contribute to society. But I find it interesting that it attracted so much attention. In a way, the reaction was more remarkable than the act itself.”
With the world at roughly half-way to the target year of 2030, and war and pandemics added to the challenges included in the Global Goals, there is certainly room for more people like Mr Thorleifsson to ramp up the SDGs.