We asked ... Hedwig Reiffs, Self-Help Organization of Physically Disabled Persons Bonn

"Comprehensive accessibility would benefit all of us"

What is it like when you have to manage everyday life in a wheelchair? And what effects do age-related limitations have on mobility? Interested parties can experience this with the help of a wheelchair course and an age simulation suit. REHACARE.com spoke with Hedwig Reiffs from the Self-Help Organization of Physically Disabled Persons Bonn (German: Selbsthilfe Körperbehinderter Bonn e.V.), who recently attended this kind of adventure day in Bonn, Germany.


Photo: Hedwig Reiffs with a visitor and a wheelchair driver; Copyright: beta-web/Lormis

Hedwig Reiffs (standing) with a visitor and a wheelchair driver; © beta-web/Lormis

Trying out a wheelchair even as a pedestrian and driving up a ramp or attempting a slalom course for example: Mrs. Reiffs, how do people respond to this adventure track?

Hedwig Reiffs: Today approximately 200 people stopped by here, but only about 70 of them actually took the time to get more detailed information. The men primarily dropped by in groups – and either looked away immediately or were willing to talk. But unfortunately, only a small percentage of these men were willing to try out the wheelchair course on their own. The women were clearly more open to it. There were two mothers for instance whose children (without disabilities) attend an inclusive school. To them and many other women, the change in perspective came far more natural and was valuable.

What insights can people gain through this switch?

Reiffs: When a wheelchair user drives by us on the street, it always looks so effortless. Yet at the wheelchair course, you quickly realize that it is definitely exhausting to travel this way. Of course, things get gradually easier.  Even people, who are new at using a wheelchair, initially take a while until they manage a wheelchair really well. Mobility needs to be newly acquired; this way of moving does not come easy to a person at first. This is why I believe that so-called wheelchair mobility training is very important. Unfortunately, this is not always paid for by insurance. Yet this training is very important to face your potential fears and develop the necessary self-confidence for everyday life.

Aside from the wheelchair course, you also offer the chance to put yourself in the shoes of older persons. What is the effect of the age simulation suit?

Reiffs: With the age simulation suit, we highlight the physical limitations involved with age. Weights on the arms, legs and the upper part of the body show how much effort is required for minor activities such as climbing up stairs for example. The reinforced gloves limit the use of the hands, which becomes noticeable when you try to write or pick up a pen for example. And the glasses clearly demonstrate how poor vision affects everyday activities such as reading. This also illustrates barriers we keep encountering in everyday life: low-contrast texts for instance or confusing layouts of contents in newspapers or brochures. Yet comprehensive accessibility would benefit all of us.
Photo: Hedwig Reiffs and two participants
Photo: A man in an age simulation suit walking down some stairs; © beta-web/Lormis
Photo: A man in an age simulation suit reading; Copyright: beta-web/Lormis
What does inclusion mean to you?

Reiffs: Inclusion is primarily just a word, which needs to be put it into action. Inclusion presumes a certain inner attitude: being open towards everybody – regardless of whether somebody has a visible or perhaps invisible disability.

When it comes to inclusion however, we are still just taking baby steps. Adventure days like the one today are more like a play; they take place on a stage in a manner of speaking. But if we want to make inclusion a reality in society, we need to continue things behind the curtain, beyond the stage. Yet it will still take a while until inclusive thinking has truly made its way into our brains. This is a generational task. Having said that, we mustn’t just talk, we also need to start doing something!
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)