The school that created a city for the blind

Marburg in Germany prides itself on being a Blindenstadt – a city adapted to make life for the blind and partially sighted as easy as possible. But it owes this reputation and its inclusive social structure to a particularly innovative school.A

At the age of eight, Leon Portz was gradually losing his eyesight due to a congenital condition when he was given his first computer. By the age of nine, he had figured out how to speed up the machine-generated voice that read out websites and other electronic texts, allowing him to grasp the information faster. He now listens to texts at five times the standard speed, which is unintelligible to an untrained ear.

But his love of science only truly flourished when he moved from his hometown in central Germany to the nearby town of Marburg, a leafy, medieval university town, to attend a specialist school for the blind. As it turned out, that move transported him into a hotbed of inclusive innovation.

Marburg proudly calls itself a “Blindenstadt”, a city for blind and visually impaired people, due to its long history as a hub for accessibility. A ground-breaking educational institute for the blind, the Blindenstudienanstalt (or Blista) in German, was founded here during World War One, to provide opportunities for young men blinded in the war. The institute has spawned countless inventions for blind people since then, including a tactile mathematical font. It has also profoundly shaped the town around it, turning it into a place where, as Portz puts it, “everything is ideal for blind people”.

Some of the innovations that make Marburg so accessible also exist elsewhere. But the way they are joined up here is unique, Portz and other blind people who have lived in the town say. The clattering sound of guiding canes is ubiquitous in Marburg, as blind people navigate the town aided by beeping traffic lights, pavements and floors with ridges and bumps that act as tactile signals of hazards or barriers. Buildings often have raised maps and floor plans, while detailed miniature bronze models of major sights such as Marburg’s castle and town square allow blind visitors to feel the entirety of each landmark.

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