What difference do five centimeters make on a curb when you are in a wheelchair? How much does spatial orientation vary when you can barely see or cannot see at all? People without disabilities can find out first-hand answers that may help them choose to consciously change their own mobility.
"For me, inclusion also means to sometimes change my perspective," says Ulrike Pohl. This is why she has already offered children and adolescents, in particular, the chance to do just that ten times. Pohl is the project manager of "Inklusion konkret" (English: actual inclusion) with the Association of Sociocultural Work (German: Verband für sozial-kulturelle Arbeit e. V.) in Berlin. The association organizes the project titled "Perspektivwechsel" (English: change in perspective) together with the people behind Creative Accessibility Tours.
"Going to the movies in a wheelchair, using a white cane to go shopping or going on the streetcar – those are exactly the types of everyday situations we test in small groups," says Pohl. After a brief introduction to the topic, up to 15 participants make their way downtown – using a wheelchair, walker or simulation glasses. Depending on how much time is available to obtain the change of perspective, they all go shopping or eat out together. At the train stops, the participants also test how well they get around in a wheelchair or as a visually impaired person.
One insight many of them gain is that persons with disabilities are often restricted in their mobility and have to put up with additional detours since many places are not accessible. "We also increasingly noticed that limited or the loss of vision has a very big impact on the speed of the participants," says Pohl. "Usually not much changes for the wheelchair participants in this regard."
Johannes Mairhofer also states that his mobility didn’t change when he spontaneously decided in March of this year to use a wheelchair for one day. "As a part of the OpenTransfer Camp Inclusion in Dortmund, I was invited by chair skater David Lebuser and his girlfriend Lisa Schmidt. Another one of David’s friends was also there," the photographer from Munich explains. "The previous evening, this friend and I walked on foot while David and Lisa used their wheelchairs. They were much faster than we were on foot. This is how we came up with the idea that all of us should use a wheelchair the next day."
After some brief coaching, they started the next morning. Mairhofer now had two experienced wheelchair users by his side. Not only were they able to provide tips, they also knew ahead of time at which underground stations you were able to change trains without too many problems. "As a wheelchair user who is new to a town, this is definitely harder in the beginning. But even though the two of them knew their stuff, we still experienced obstacles that should actually not be there. Steps, for instance, where you could have also have built a ramp or made a ground level entrance," Mairhofer describes his experiences. "I generally noticed that I actually moved a lot faster, but things are still lacking here or there. However, all of these were physical barriers that needed to be removed."
Wheelchair user Pohl can also confirm that many people rarely give thought to such structural aspects: "When I discuss the appointment with a school, I also always ask whether the school is wheelchair accessible for example." In her experience, this is frequently not the case. "That means, in the organizational preparation there is already an initial learning effect," Pohl concludes. However, you can typically find an alternative room in other school buildings or in the community center of a town.
The same way Mairhofer sought advice from his friends who use wheelchairs Pohl also believes that this is especially important in these self-awareness projects. "For such campaigns to be truly beneficial, persons with disabilities need to definitely be a part of it." This is why it isn’t just wheelchair user Pohl but also blind lecturer and trainer Kerstin Gaedicke who accompanies this change in perspective project with the typically young participants during the city discovery tour and the joint quiz and evaluation session at the end of the day.
Two of the main goals of the Berlin change in perspective project are to experience how different barriers change your own mobility and, therefore, increase the awareness and understanding for one another. Yet Pohl also clearly points out that "just because you sat in a wheelchair for a couple of hours or more does of course not automatically make you understand how persons with disabilities experience everyday life – that is obvious."