Berlin & Accessibility

Chloe Johnson looks at how accessible the capital is for people with disabilities…

Accessibility is a broad term often used to define a very specific concept. Wheelchair accessibility is the main idea that often springs to mind, but there are a variety of different ways we can be accessible to disabled people: alongside physical access, there is also intellectual, psychological, financial and other aspects related to disability culture that we sometimes fail to consider.

The internationally recognised symbol for accessibility.

It’s important to measure how accessible a location is to normalise having access needs that impact daily life; we all have access needs but the way they are catered for differs in terms of what is deemed essential or otherwise. When disabled people’s access needs are viewed as non-essential, it can impact the ability to travel and explore the world, creating anxiety and barriers instead of a fun, stress-free experience.

So where does a city like Berlin—a destination famed for its cultural capital as well as its progressive and open-minded nature—sit on the accessibility scale? Public transport accessibility has been on the city’s political agenda since before reunification, when disabled activists from West Berlin banded together in 1987, reacting to budget cuts and asserting their mobility rights by interrupting infrastructures, blocking the flow of bus traffic and numerous other protests. This overlapped with movements within academia and political culture in terms of shifting towards the social model of disability.

This social model states that disabled individuals have barriers to access and inclusion, as opposed to their disability needing to be fixed; in other words it is society that must be more committed to inclusion instead. The Senate Department for Urban Development began a working group in 2001 called “Building and Transport – barrier-free” and in 2007 published “Barrier-free Planning and Building in Berlin – Publicly Accessible Buildings”—the debut handbook for planning private and public building access.

This was updated into the Design For All scheme in 2012, and in 2013, the capital was named a barrier-free city by the EU Commission—beating 99 other cities—and was particularly commended on its public transport and new barrier-free buildings. In the last decade or so, Berlin has continued to pursue a policy of accessibility, partly because of population ageing, which means the proportion of people with disabilities is expected to rise throughout Germany.

The more recent 2018 Mobility Act put together actions that aimed to make “the people of Berlin will be able to move around the city more safely, in greater comfort, with greater reliability and without barriers”. This resulted in Berlin introducing a “pedestrian law” which elevates the status of pedestrians, which in turn gives more rights and say for disabled people.

In addition to these broader city planning initiatives there are also some decent resources available on the Visit Berlin website, such as a dedicated page for wheelchair users and a page listing accessible landmarks, parks and gardens, shopping locations and restaurants.

Screenshot from the Visit Berlin website

Many of the city’s tourist attractions take access into consideration, offering wheelchairs for rent or having lifts available. This goes above and beyond the experience in a lot of other capital cities despite the fact it may seem a basic necessity. Little wonder that the city consistently ranks well in accessibility polls: in 2019, insurance company CompareTheMarket conducted a study on how accessible cities were, with Berlin ranking second only to Luxembourg, beating other popular European cities such as London, Paris and Amsterdam.

Berlin’s public transport is where it’s access inclusion really shines. It’s extremely clear which stations are accessible and how to go about using trams and buses as a wheelchair user. There are also 145 S-Bahn (mostly overground) stations equipped with guide systems for those with visual impairments, and over ninety percent of these overground train stations are considered barrier free, so train travel to other locations as well should be efficient for a wheelchair user.

S-Bahn, Berlin

Sightseeing around the city is also relatively straightforward for wheelchair users, or those with other mobility aids such as scooters or rolators, as Berlin is well-known for its flat terrain and for having comparatively less cobblestones than other European cities.

So if you’re a tourist in Berlin, for the most part, you hopefully won’t have too many issues accessing the main tourist attractions, especially if you’re looking mainly for wheelchair access; the Reichstag even has a spiral ramp with rest stops along the way for manual wheelchairs. That said, some major tourist attractions, such as the TV Tower, are hampered by their original design and preservation rules, and do not have wheelchair access.

Accessible taxis are another area where Berlin needs improvement; if you’re able to get your mobility aid in a boot or backseat, there shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but for those with electric wheelchairs, scooters or otherwise, there are limited options and its advisable to book earlier or look into wheelchair accessible shuttle buses.

There is also room for improvement in terms of assistance for those with cognitive disabilities, visual or hearing impairments and mobility aid users. There is also limited information on how to gain assistance for other disabilities, such as hidden disabilities, or how/if any locations are providing specific access requirements for disabilities such as neurodivergence. The Sunflower Lanyard is one way countries such as the UK and Australia have been developing accessibility in those with hidden disabilities, and could easily be adopted in Berlin and Germany.

In terms of attitudes, Berlin and Germany as a whole have also been accused of having some outdated opinions on disability, especially intellectual disability, having only in recent years giving 80,000 disabled individuals with full time care the right to vote, after the country’s electoral law was ruled to be unconstitutional by discriminating against disabled people. A “productivity” mindset seems to be another barrier that restricts the inclusion of disabled individuals, which although isn’t unique to Germany, nonetheless comes with its own problems.

While it’s clear that Berlin is at the top of its game in terms of wheelchair access, there is still work to do. Let’s hope the city continues to listen and create solutions to make it as accessible as possible to all who want to come here.

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