Paralympics Workshop : Berlin by wheelchair and white stick

Fit for all? An experience from the creative accessibility tour of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. The young journalists from the "Paralympics Zeitung" used wheelchairs and blindfolds.

Joanna Bartlett
Im Team der Nachwuchsreporter beim Vorbereitungs-Workshop der "Paralympics Zeitung PyeongChang 2018". Die Jung-Journalisten testen mit Rollstühlen und Taststöcken die Barrierefreiheit rund um den Potsdamer Platz in Berlin-Mitte.
Im Team der Nachwuchsreporter beim Vorbereitungs-Workshop der "Paralympics Zeitung PyeongChang 2018". Die Jung-Journalisten testen...Foto: Thilo Rückeis

A blindfold is strapped across your eyes and, in complete darkness, you are handed a stick. You grasp it very tightly, as only this will keep you from falling down an unseen set of stairs, or worse walk unexpectedly into oncoming traffic. While you are a told it is a very special stick with which you can feel the vibrations of surroundings on the ground, you are not quite ready to trust it with your life. You ask a colleague for supervision and guidance. You feel very dependent on him. The aim of this unique tour is to experience Berlin and its accessibility for people with a disability, but you do not want to acquire a permanent one in the process. 

As you get more accustomed to the darkness, your steps get longer and faster

The tour is led by Larisa Tsvetkova who works for the Institute for Creative Sustainability. She has a background in architecture and has lived with some "very nice people with disabilities" who have shaped her view that "inclusion should be more mainstream in architecture." You make your way out of the Otto-Bock Building in Potsdamer Platz where the tour starts. Shuffling at first, fearful. The Stick stretched in front tapping the similarly feeling pavement ahead, you are acutely aware of the pavement’s slightly uneven texture. The noise strikes you immediately; the threatening sound of crashing bricks and rubble mixed with loud engines and shrieks of people somewhere ahead. You remember noticing the building site on the way in but it seemed innocuous then. As you get slightly more accustomed to the darkness, your steps get longer and faster. Then: "Turn right! turn right!", says a voice. "You’re walking into the fence!" At this point you think it is time to take off the blindfold and attempt a potentially less taxing task. You take one of the wheelchairs available for testing. You push the wheels around and it seems to be very smooth. Until you come to a curb when once again the vision of oncoming traffic flashes in your head with you stuck in the road.

You get stuck in between the metal coverings, but with much effort you get to the other side

Helping out with the tour is Christoph Pisarz, who works for Sportverein Pfefferwerk e.V, and who has a lifetime of experience in driving wheelchairs. He explains how you need to lean back to get over the curbs: no worry as these chairs have "stabilizers" on them so you cannot fall back. Once one obstacle is overcome the next (literal) hurdles appear in the distance: metal coverings of wires running across the path at the Christmas Markets. This requires more of a run up. You get stuck in between the metal coverings, but with much effort you get to the other side. 

The Christmas Market is very busy and even more so from waist height. You appreciate that the Shopping Centre elevator is working and the call button is reachable. Inside, while the ground is smooth there is an incline, imperceptible on foot, but your straining arms feel it when pulling yourself up it in the wheelchair.  The Kebab counter is very high and the tables even higher, but the assistants are very helpful. You can’t reach the tables so must eat from your lap.  You do feel as though you are taking up too much space in this small café and even more so when you stand up to let someone else try the wheelchair. You get some dirty looks!

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