What’s it like to shop when you have tremors and have to get coins out of your wallet at the cash register in a hurry? And how much are you still able to see prices when you are dealing with a visual impairment? Many apprentices can only guess what that must be like. At the so-called Lernladen (English: educational venue), they get to experience these scenarios first-hand with the help of simulation goggles and gloves.
Even if the pupils were skeptical at first – after the self-awareness in the Lernladen they are always enthusiastic. Possible barriers in the head and fears of contact can be reduced by this intensive learning experience.
"In theory, we all know that disability entails restrictions in normal daily activities but our knowledge is often rather superficial," says Christoph Berg from the Vocational College for Economics and Business Administration of the greater Aachen Region (BWV Aachen). "The Lernladen allows you to feel and experience impairments first-hand. Apart from the disability simulations, it is primarily the post-reflection of students during and after instruction that is crucial, because this allows them to sustainably anchor and deepen their learning experiences."
The fact that this is an important aspect is shown time and again when the students reflect and report how they actually encounter people with different disabilities in everyday life. "This puts things in perspective and makes students find relevance that is highly conducive to learning," says Berg. "This level of quality learning would not be possible without the Lernladen."
Patrick Dohmen conducts the training sessions at the Lernladen on the BWV Aachen premises. The President of the European Competence Center for Accessibility (EUKOBA e.V.) underscores that this is primarily geared towards conveying values and promoting a service mindset – two crucial elements needed for successful sales. He adds that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) tasks companies to take measures, raise awareness and provide evidence of implementation. "We are the only organization that provides a quality seal in addition to training and instruction. As the owner of the European EURECERT Accessibility Quality Mark, our organization developed the EURECERT Certification in accordance with Article 8 of the CRPD."
This means that after their training is complete, the apprentices take a written exam, which not only serves as a learning and aptitude assessment but is designed to deepen and amplify the (first-hand) experiences and impressions. "After passing the exam, we make an entry into our online database, the so-called quality index. Not only is this a quality certification for the participants, it also includes the company they work for. It is also registered in the database," explains Dohmen. This creates a dual benefit for both employees and employers.
Retail must become accessible – Patrick Dohmen and Christoph Berg agree. This includes, among other things, recognising the needs of customers with various disabilities and being able to provide appropriate assistance if needed.
Self-awareness promotes a better and deeper understanding of people with disabilities
But does this self-awareness create a lasting impact on the professional development of the apprentices? After his training module at the Lernladen, one student, for example, says that he has now become more self-aware. "From now on, I will pay more attention and help people with disabilities and be more accommodating and understanding when they need more time."
This is a response that Christoph Berg repeatedly observes and can attest to. "At the Lernladen, this self-awareness can influence and directly empower the students, who corroborate each time how much this has broadened their perspective and understanding. They take this back to their workplaces and become multipliers who help to break down barriers – especially those that exist in the minds of people."
This unit on self-awareness is presently not a compulsory component of the formal education level. However, it ties in with the curriculum. "After Mr. Dohmen had approached us with the idea of the Lernladen, we quickly decided to embrace the disability awareness training in our school curriculum to encourage the positive social skills and competencies of our students". According to the curriculum, in their second year, the retail apprentices learn to take care of different customer groups and manage special sales situations. This is exactly where the awareness training ties in and comes into play. At BWV Aachen, this course is mandatory for all second-year classes.
The success of the Lernladen, which started out as a pilot project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) speaks for itself. Originally, the project aimed to reach 450 retail apprentices over a three-year period. "We are set to welcome the 3,000th participant in the 1st quarter of 2019. There are now 19 partner vocational colleges that regularly send their apprentices to us each year as part of the curriculum assignment (called Lernfeld 10 in German)," Dohmen is pleased to report. He adds that the underlying SENSE concept is now also offered in Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Patrick Dohmen from EUKOBA e.V. accompanies the trainees during their self-awareness in the Lernladen and tries to sensitize them to the different aspects of accessibility.
Accessibility: Retail has a lot of catching up to do
While apprentices in business administration, health and social care, travel and tourism are taking advantage of the Lernladen’s self-awareness module, brick-and-mortar retail still has some work to do. That’s because the needs of wheelchair users, people on the autism spectrum or blind and visually impaired individuals are still being neglected in many ways. This is why Dohmen and Berg call for a pervasive and comprehensive paradigm shift that identifies accessibility as a social and cross-industry necessity.
"As a vocational school and dual system partner of the retail industry, we will further develop our Lernladen (educational venue) concepts and – if possible – also target the e-commerce sector," says Berg. However, shopping experiences will continue to be shaped by brick-and-mortar retail. "We are committed to raise awareness and help improve the experience of people with disabilities – and that includes accessibility."
If the infrastructure and service chain were finally based on accessibility, it would turn brick-and-mortar retail into a customer magnet. After all, this would finally make participation possible and nobody would be excluded anymore, says Dohmen. "We are talking about human needs and core values that are being ignored and trampled on. We are touting sustainable practices, yet disregard accessibility concerns," cautions Dohmen. "However, sustainability does not only pertain to ecological and economic aspects, but it also applies to the quality of life and certain values – making them important pillars of an inclusive society for all."