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Uphill battle

August 7, 2011

The German tourism sector is full of historical landmarks strongly protected by the law - often a barrier to improving handicap accessibility. But the free access of disabled people is on a steady upward path.

Sign showing steps and wheelchair ramp
Germany aims to become fully accessible by 2020Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

In western Germany, on about 110 square kilometers of land that stretches to the Belgian border, lies the Eifel National Park. Opened to the public only five years ago, it's a hidden gem that many in the surrounding area have no idea exists.

What perhaps even fewer people are aware of is that last May the park inaugurated a five-kilometer trail specifically designed for people with disabilities.

Officially called the "Wild Kermeter Area for Experiencing Nature," the trail has a maximum 8 percent incline to accommodate wheelchair users, a fully accessible bus stop, information in raised letters and brail, and a special pathway to help lead blind visitors.

"The history of barrier-free development in the Eifel National Park is very long," Silvia Montag, the Wild Kermeter project leader, told Deutsche Welle. "The idea was, 'If we're going to develop a national park here, then let's make it accessible for all people - with and without disabilities.'"

Ranger Sascha Wilden looks out at park
Sascha Wilden is specially trained to give tours to people with disabilitiesImage: DW

The trail's main look-out point features a topographical model of the surroundings. Sascha Wilden, a park ranger specially trained in giving tours to disabled people, said the model helps blind and visually impaired visitors tactilely picture the surroundings they cannot see - and that seeing visitors also find it useful.

"The view from the look-out point is limited," he said. "And here, using the model, visitors can sort of look around the corner."

'Where there's a will, there's a way'

Handicap accessibility in the German tourism sector often conflicts with historical preservation codes. Those codes are written on the state level, meaning a disabled person's ability to see and enjoy Germany's tourist attractions varies across the country, according to Guido Frank, director of the National Coordination Board - Tourism for All (NatKo).

"There are some strong state building regulations that say accessibility needs to be considered, because historical landmarks have to be useable for the people who visit them," he said. "Other states give more weight to the preservation of historical sites and less to the people. And so in those states, there is less that can be done."

Guido Frank at office desk
Frank said businesses have a financial incentive to make themselves accessibleImage: DW

But Frank said the best solutions to accessibility problems are often simple. For example the Rheinsberg Castle, about 85 kilometers north of Berlin, needed an elevator connecting the ground floor with the museum one floor above. Bound by a law prohibiting the facade of the castle from being obscured, planners built the elevator around the corner.

"There are many creative solutions that reconcile historical preservation with accessibility," he said. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Service chain

Professionals working for accessibility development often speak of the "service chain," which ranges from easily navigable websites for blind and deaf people to wheelchair accessible hotels, restaurants and public transportation.

However the private sector is often reluctant to build new structures or renovate buildings because of cost. But Frank said there are great incentives for businesses to improve their accessibility - especially in light of Germany's aging population.

"The interest, of course, is to earn money," he said. "We have excellent examples that show if you renovate to make things handicap-accessible, you can earn good money. And that's a big competitive advantage against those who don't adapt, who just leave things as they are."

In the middle

Topographical model of park
The Wild Kermeter trail features tactile models for blind and visually impaired visitorsImage: DW

Germany made a relatively late start in tackling handicap accessibility compared with other developed nations. Ilja Seifert, a parliamentarian from the Left party and a wheelchair user, said while German law is relatively advanced with disabled rights, compliance often lags behind.

"The legal obligation is already there, we've had that for a long time," he said. "It's just delayed too often, or avoided all together. The problem is there's not enough monitoring by the government. Handicapped people always end up experiencing this after the fact, when construction is over and the barriers are there. Not when the blueprints are submitted and approved - that's the problem."

A year and a half ago, Germany ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which spells out what countries have to do to prevent discrimination in education, employment and participation in cultural life.

Ilja Seifert
Ilja Seifert said too many businesses flout handicap accessibility lawsImage: dapd

In June the government presented its national action plan for the convention's implementation, aiming for full accessibility by 2020.

Seifert said he encounters many more problems with accessibility in eastern and southern Europe than he does in Germany. But he added that there are some countries far ahead of Germany, like those in Scandinavia, and that he sees no reason why Germany should not catch up.

"We're about in the middle," he said. "And that doesn't really make me happy. I'd like us to be one of those countries who can say, 'We're on top.'"

Author: Andrew Bowen

Editor: Sean Sinico