Learning To Navigate Berlin In A Wheelchair

Ben had an accident that resulted in him having to use a wheelchair. His Doctor’s advice was to not return to Berlin. However, Ben proved him wrong.


Berlin is not like the rest of Germany and this is still why it continues to attract so many young people. When Ben decided to move here in his early 20s however, he was warned. The doctor from the rehab clinic in which Ben spent a few months after an accident told him, Berlin wouldn’t be the ideal choice for someone like him.

The fact that Ben had already lived in the capital for over a year suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore, as he wasn’t in a wheelchair back then. Also, Berlin might not be the best choice for a lot of people and for various reasons such as if you are someone that gets easily distracted.

Back then the city was busily engaged in consolidating it’s reputation as a “versatile and tolerant” place, with cheap apartments and the most exciting clubs. But it was not promoting itself for being particularly suitable for the disabled.


Going One’s Own Way

Ben was not to be swayed by the well-intentioned advice, the innumerable stairs, the absence of elevators in subway stations and buildings, “I had my friends here and thought I’ll try it anyway,” is the simple explanation.

He continued his studies at the Technical University, in which his sister had secretly enrolled him, and happily continued to go out. Assuming from the start that the capital’s nightlife wasn’t suitable for wheelchairs and that the disabled were a rarity, he wasn’t intimidated. “I have no problem with the judgment of others. That’s not really my thing,” he says, and it sounds quite easy.

Not only has self-confidence helped him, but being surrounded by friends too, especially just after moving back. “Nobody stared at me, when I was with them,” Ben says.

His speech is even and thoughtful, sometimes making small breaks between the sentences. It’s somehow reminiscent of a witness talking about events that date back a long time, but which have hardly faded from the memory. Ben’s age doesn’t fit that picture. His temples are only slightly gray, the laugh lines around his eyes very thin and he is a very attentive interlocutor.

“Upon my return I lived in Schöneberg” he continues. The district is characterized by a large gay community, at least since the seventies. Ben says he experienced it to be more open and much crazier than other districts. “I don’t really care about scenes. What was special here, was that you could start the night at some posh birthday celebration and end up at an anarchist-party, all that while wearing the same clothes.”

Every now and then he would go out by himself but that didn’t matter because he would always meet someone that he knew and move on to a new place together, for example to Kumpelnest. Among the many entertaining anecdotes circulating about this rather unremarkable and ground-floor bar (Kumpelnest), a wheelchair is certainly no attraction. “But I’m not sure if it’s still the way it used to be”, Ben says.

He now lives far away in Prenzlauer Berg. The neighborhood is different, not as communicative, but he doesn’t go out that much anymore: “Just about twice a week, and not as long as I used to.”

The Importance Of Elevators

Ben now has a room in a flatshare in an old building with an elevator which is a rarity in Berlin because these houses were built during the early 19th century.

By now elevators have been installed in many old buildings but they can only hold between floors. What that means is that when you exit the elevator you still have to climb or descend a step. These details play a decisive role in Ben’s everyday life, which is also why he knows that the subway and train stations are generally significantly more comfortable for the disabled and parents with prams today than they were ten years ago. Elevators that are out of order can be found on the website brokenlifts.org. A quick glance reveals: there are many.

“The most exhausting thing about life in a wheelchair is that many roads aren’t paved for you. You have to do it all by yourself. And the result is not necessarily satisfactory.” What Ben refers to are bureaucracy, proposals and laws. This might reflect how one can move around the city in a wheelchair.

Sometimes, however, you can identify a hidden path. Berghain (famous night-club), for example, has a freight elevator Ben was allowed to use. “They are usually very helpful and quick to get the keys.” All you need is the courage to ask for it and a bit of luck to meet a cooperative person.

“Berlin’s bouncer-scene was different in the past. They were people who used to go out themselves, you often knew each other from partying. Meanwhile, there are many bouncer companies whose employees seem to think only about the rules they’ve been taught. Or they just don’t know how to deal with someone in a wheelchair. Major events are the most stressful, allegedly because of the fire protection. I’m asked to stay in the provided space and not to move. The other day I was tracked and sent back to my space by a doorman, while I was trying to get a beer during a concert. I find that patronizing,”after a short pause, he adds: “Sometimes it annoys me so much, that I don’t even want to go out anymore.”


True Loves

Understandably, Ben also doesn’t want to talk about stairs, the helpfulness of strangers or “toilet situations” in leisure places all the time. He prefers to recount how he recently saw a performance of the Belgian singer Trixie Whitley by chance, who has a surprisingly good voice and gushes about his last festival (which he rather wouldn’t advertise here).

He thinks a lot about technical progress by inductive energy transmission, his area of expertise, but as an attentive interlocutor he avoids to deepen this topic. Instead, he paints a positive picture of how a world full of autonomous cars might look like: “More space for planted front gardens, because the cars do not have to be parked in front of the door. No accidents caused by intoxicated drivers. And old people are mobile, without personal risk or having to rely on the help of other people.”

Things might have been easier for Ben in other more wheelchair accessible cities rather than Berlin. But who looks at his domicile from only a single perspective? Ben doesn’t regret his return. When he feels wanderlust, traveling helps.

Of course, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to draw attention to disabled places. Anyone can mark them on wheelmap.org (this works in various international cities).

See Ben's Gallery

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