by Peter Brasse
(Editor’s Note: Peter Brasse is a recently retired vocational school teacher and is on his third four-year term on the executive board of the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted.)
Approximately 155,000 blind and 500,000 to 600,000 people who are visually impaired live in Germany, but this is only a rough estimate since no disability-specific data can be obtained from any census after World War II.
A significant number of the blind and visually impaired population are age 60 or older. Age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are the leading causes of vision loss among these senior citizens.
Education and Training
Traditionally, children and youth who are blind or have low vision were educated in special schools. In the 1960s a growing number of schools realized the different needs of the partially sighted clientele focusing on utilizing any residual vision. The late 1970s saw the first attempts at mainstream education. Throughout the following 20-25 years, interested parents and a growing number of teachers of the visually impaired had to struggle to obtain personnel and material resources to achieve their objective. After Germany ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, the idea of inclusive education gained momentum, but due to financial constraints and a shortage of trained specialists, we still have a long way to go to reach the intended goal.
Due to medical progress over the last 2 to 3 decades, a growing number of severely multiply disabled children constitutes the majority of blind and partially sighted students.
In Germany, as in most developed countries, only about 30-35 percent of the blind and visually impaired population of employable age actually hold down a salaried job. Over the last 20-30 years, rapid developments in automation and robotics have swallowed a considerable number of employment opportunities for our clientele. This is particularly true for non-academic work. The job market for lawyers, economists, teachers, psychologists, social workers and computer scientists still holds employment opportunities, but the growing trend of digitization and rapid progress in information technology cause concern. Legislation regulating the accessibility of websites, software programs and apps unfortunately is not as strict as in the USA or in Scandinavia; it only covers government and public administration. The private sector is as yet untouched by any accessibility regulations. Recent European Union legislation may partly remedy this situation.
Disability-specific accommodation in the workplace is available through government funding. Braille displays, screen readers and similar hardware and software can be purchased through funds raised by the quota scheme. The process can sometimes take an extremely long time, which can jeopardize a career. The German quota scheme prescribes that every company or business with 20 or more staff will have to allocate 5 percent of its workforce to disabled persons. Fines apply if the quota is not filled.
Cultural and Social Participation
Public buildings such as city halls, theaters and swimming pools are mostly accessible; however, adequate signage for the visually impaired and tactile floor markings are often missing. Less than half of all traffic lights are equipped with audible signals. Public transportation is very reasonable in most cities, while rural areas are often underserved.
Voting on all levels is made accessible by templates with large print and braille signage, their meaning and function are explained by accompanying DAISY CDs. These materials are automatically delivered to all registered members of their self-help organizations free of charge. Other eligible individuals can receive the same materials upon request. Eligible individuals can receive financial assistance through the health insurance system for purchasing 40-character braille displays, screen readers, magnification software and optical character recognition software to enable participation in everyday activities that depend on the use of computers.
Recent legislation demands that all movies receiving any degree of public funding must contain subtitles and audio description. For the last 2 to 3 years the introduction of a smart phone app for both iOS and Android providing descriptive video services has greatly increased the consumption of films in movie theaters. Public broadcasting, which provides a major share of television services, makes available a steadily growing amount of audio-described content. Audio description of live performances and sports events is slowly emerging.
Many local and regional newspapers, as well as a number of national magazines, are available via paid subscriptions through smart phone apps. Several talking book and braille libraries provide free services to eligible patrons. Especially for braille materials, the number of produced titles is significantly smaller than the number of titles available in North America.
Financial Assistance and Other Benefits
To compensate for blindness-related expenses, people receive a monthly allowance. The amount varies because it is not regulated nationally. The 16 federal states pass their own legislation concerning this allowance. Only those who are legally blind are eligible recipients. The definition of legal blindness in Germany is the 50th part of normal visual acuity or less. In 5 of the federal states severely visually impaired people receive significantly lower amounts. The definition of severe visual impairment is the 20th part of normal visual acuity.
Blind and severely visually impaired people can ride public transportation for free all over Germany. An accompanying person or a guide dog also rides for free. This is also the case for long-distance train travel, but the blind person is required to buy a ticket.
A car registered in the name of a blind person is exempted from automobile taxes as long as it is exclusively used to benefit the blind person. Blind and severely visually impaired people in employment receive 5 extra vacation days per year as well as a small reduction of their income tax.
Despite all the above-mentioned benefits and services, we have not yet arrived at full social, political and cultural participation in society. And that is the reason for a strong consumer organization of blind and partially sighted people to lobby for our rights and to provide peer support and solidarity among us.
German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted
The German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV is the German acronym) is the oldest consumer organization in Germany. It was founded in 1912. It represents about 155,000 people who are totally blind and over 500,000 people who are visually impaired. DBSV is an umbrella organization which coordinates at the national level the work undertaken by its 19 autonomous regional member organizations — with more than 35,000 individual members — to empower people who are blind or have low vision to speak with one voice.
The regional organizations provide a range of services for blind and partially sighted people such as counseling in all matters pertaining to visual impairment and blindness, delivering information, recreational activities and other services. The work undertaken at the various levels of the network relies heavily on the commitment of more than 1,200 peer volunteers.
The goals of DBSV are the retaining and improving the social status of blind and partially sighted people, promoting their independence and equal participation in the community as well as enhancing rehabilitation services, legal guidance, cooperation with the national movement of senior citizens and the implementation of the principles laid down by the UNCRPD.
DBSV fulfills these functions mainly through taking the following measures:
- lobbying national and regional governments and parliaments
- legal counseling, legal representation and filing collective legal action in all disability-specific matters
- promoting participation in the community
- promoting access to the job market and participating in the development of new employment opportunities
- promoting medical rehabilitation and measures for the prevention of partial sight and blindness
- enforcing accessibility in all areas of public life
- promoting the development and provision of suitable assistive technologies
- promoting special as well as inclusive education of blind and partially sighted children and youth
- promoting measures for improving the safety and mobility of blind and partially sighted people in the public space
- supporting cultural and sports activities of blind and partially sighted people
- delivering expert opinion and providing advice to government agencies and private companies
- publishing magazines, brochures and other media for its membership and to enlighten the general public
Since 2002 DBSV has stepped up its activities to coordinate the operation of the numerous professional organizations and agencies within the blindness system, which is reflected by the setting up and extension of their corporate membership which is convened for regular meetings and is represented on the decision-making bodies of DBSV. In all its activities, DBSV is guided by the firm conviction that only organizations of the blind and partially sighted which cooperate efficiently are strong enough to achieve their common goal of sustainably improving the lives of blind and partially sighted people in our society. To take this strategic objective further, DBSV has developed and put in place a wide range of effective mechanisms such as cross-organization bodies for policy areas such as:
- braille literacy,
- information and telecommunication systems,
- environment and transportation,
- living with partial sight,
- living with deaf-blindness,
- seniors’ needs,
- accessible tourism,
- regulating the use and general access for assistance animals,
- gender equality,
- youth activities to develop future leadership, and international cooperation.