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Doing the Berlin Stadtrundfahrt Again: This time as if I were blind.

One of the constants around my office are the groups of people going on walking tours of Berlin – wandering from Brandenburger Tor, through the Holocaust Memorial, past Hitler’s Bunker, and to a number of other historic sites in the area.

Occasionally, when I have a guest in town, I find myself in the tour groups. Usually I don’t pay that much attention because, uh, well, I’ve heard it, and seen it, all before.

Saturday was different.

Saturday, along with my current houseguest, I joined the “With New Eyes” Stadtrundfahrt, hosted by Katrien Ligt.

Katrien is a graphic designer who became interested in understand how the blind / visually impaired view hear the world.

So after paying my 10€, I was rewarded with an mp3 player and a sturdy pair of headphones. In my right ear I was fed instructions, in my left ear I was fed reminders of all the things I might be hearing as I walked down the street.

The tour started at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station), at platform level, and almost immediately started to face some of the challenges that blind people face in navigating through public spaces. For example, there are directionally grooved paving stones that are supposed to guide you though the station – and, indeed, we were told to follow them until we got to the, uh… I forget the name of it, but a larger grooved square that indicated we could change directions.

Walking the Line

Walking where the blind walk at the Berlin Hauptbahnoff

The first challenge: people stand and leave their luggage directly on the way-finding tiles that blind people use to navigate.

Fortunately, as sighted people, we could walk around the obstructions on our way to find the elevator.

Once we hit the ground floor, we paused to listen to the train station with our eyes closed. It’s something I’ve been subtly aware of before, but actually pausing for 3 minutes to listen to all the sounds, without the visual input, brought home to me how audibly perplexing the main train station can be. Trains arriving and departing, both above and below you. The frequent three-toned bongs that proceed announcements. People dragging suitcases around. Groups talking loudly.

Grooved Paving Stones, Not Groovy Enough

These grooves fill with gravel and cannot be easily found by the blind.

From there we went on a tour of the city that was mostly audible in nature – yes, we did walk past the Reichstag, through Brandenburg Tor, through the Holocaust Memorial, and past Hitler’s Bunker, but we didn’t really learn about these places and their historic (or current) significances, rather we learned that sometimes the guiding grooved stones aren’t deep enough and that blind people, using a cane, cannot tell the difference between those pavers and the rest of the walk (our tour guide, while testing the route, almost sent a blind friend into a river as a result). We also learned that it can be difficult to cross streets – walking way out of our way to cross one street because it didn’t have a light at the intersection we wanted to cross – and, I might note, that the alternative intersection had a light, but nothing to tell blind people when crossing traffic was stopped.

Reichstag Path

Guess where.... can't? It's the Reichstag.

Meanwhile the left voice was reminding us of all the things we might not otherwise notice – the plethora of languages and accents, over grown plants blocking the side walk, restaurant sign boards blocking the path, the sound of birds chirping, the feel of a subway passing underground, or cat pee (not sure if that was something you’d smell or hear).

Friedrichstraße Crosswalk

Our last crosswalk, waiting for it to be safe to cross. No light, gotta listen.

At the end of the tour, inside one of Berlin’s more upscale malls, we sat down and talked about our experiences and what we had learned on the streets of Berlin.

We were also given our parting gift, a CD with music based on the sounds of each one of the six resting stops on our tour – the points where we’d paused, taken off our headphones, and listened to hear what the blind hear. Attached to the CD were cards with tactile art that helps us feel what it might be like to be blind. It truly is an unusual, and cool, souvenir of Berlin.

If I could, I would highly recommend that you see out this tour, but as it turns out we were on the last tour.

8 comments to Doing the Berlin Stadtrundfahrt Again: This time as if I were blind.