A Smart City for the Blind: Marburg as a Case Study

A Smart City for the Blind: Marburg as a Case Study

Dago Schelin (Philipps University of Marburg, Germany), Péricles Varella Gomes (UniBrasil University Center, Brazil) and Verônica Isabela Quandt (Universidade Positivo, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-5062-5.ch005
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In this chapter, the authors present the German city of Marburg as an alternative model for the conception of a smart city. Marburg's historical relation with its visually impaired citizens has shaped not only its infrastructure but also its human framework. Generally, smart cities are equated with world-class major metropolitan areas, with international airports, use of high band internet, internet of things, and other IT infrastructures. However, Marburg might be considered a smart city according to other criteria. This case study articulates the uniqueness of what Marburg has been able to achieve using a diverse approach of cultural acceptance of the blind, becoming a world reference for other small cities. The authors suggest that Marburg can serve as a model for other cities. This hypothesis was reached through critical investigations into concepts of smartness and disability, intersected with the insights obtained in a focus group interview.
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Introduction: Marburg - City Of The Blind

There are several reasons for someone to visit the German city of Marburg. Being a university town, many students and academics come here in order to attend conferences at the Philips University of Marburg1. Many visitors discover the city’s touristic appeal as Marburg bears several noteworthy historical sites2. But, although the early gothic architecture from the Elisabeth Church is hard to ignore, perhaps it is even more unlikely that one will overlook the number of blind people walking on the sidewalks, crossing a street, or waiting for a bus. Some use a white cane, some follow a guide dog, most are busy with their smartphones. For many years, Marburg has been known for being the capital city of the blind3. Newspapers often like to refer to Marburg as the Mecca for the blind (Coordes, 2016b; Fittkau, 2017). Currently, one-third of all university-level legally blind students in Germany attend Philipps University of Marburg (Coordes, 2016a, p. 5). Nowhere else do blind and visually impaired students have so many subject-areas to choose from in an environment which is also accommodating to their specific needs. But, how did this come to be?

During World War I, Germany had to provide support for soldiers who were injured in the battles. Specific cases were assigned to specialized hospital units. After the war, about three thousand soldiers had undergone medical care at the Eye Clinic of Philipps University of Marburg. Most had lost or damaged their sight as a result of mines, hand grenades, splintering projectiles or poison gas. At the time, Professor Alfred Bielschowsky (1871-1940), director of the Eye Clinic, realized that medicine alone would not be enough to readjust these young men into society. Among the returnees were also many high school and university students and academics for whom Bielschowsky organized braille courses, took care of their accommodation, and provided general every day resources. He appointed a student, Carl Strehl (1886-1971), who himself had lost much of his sight, to start teaching the war-blind. To enable further education, the Association of Blind Academics4 and the German Institute for the Blind5 (also known as Blista) were founded in 1916. Bielschowsky became honorary director of Blista and Strehl took over its management. From 1927, Strehl worked as Blista’s director, a post he carried out for almost 40 years.

Carl-Strehl-Schule, Germany’s first Gymnasium6 for the blind and visually impaired, is still the core of Blista. There, around 280 blind and visually impaired young people attend classes and prepare for professional and academic life. As part of the institution, the youth live in around 40 assisted shared residences distributed throughout the city. Part of the essentials of the program also include activities such as taking the bus, visiting friends, eating without spilling, cooking, washing clothes, vacuuming, and cleaning.

In the class, many lessons are learned through (literally) hands-on explorations. Students who have no sight perception at all learn through a combination of the senses, especially those of touch and hearing. There are models to understand earthquakes, human-formed puppets that can be taken apart, and molecule structures that can be assembled and disassembled. Electricity and colors are expressed through tones, while nitric oxide is recognized through sniffing, etc. (Coordes, 2016b).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Blind: This adjective defines the inability to see; lack of sight. However, there are several degrees and levels of blindness which degrees severity, viz: legal blindness, visual impairment, low-vision, significantly visually impaired, etc.

Intelligent or Smart City: Whereas most definitions of an Intelligent or Smart City focus on technological interconnectedness of smart objects and electronic services, the authors have chosen to focus on other aspects that also define a smart city. Smart City is a definition given to urban areas in which citizens’ lives are enhanced by the systems intertwining the geographical and historical areas of the community.

Visual Impairment: In contrast to blindness, visual impairment usually means that the person has some residual sight, also referred to as low vision.

Group Interview: It refers to a methodology of quantitative research, usually used to conduct surveys, especially in the social sciences.

Ontology: This term refers to a branch of philosophy that studies the meaning of being. In computer science and information science, an ontology is a data model that represents a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. The focus of this study is on the former meaning.

Ableism: The term refers to a worldview that considers people with disabilities less valuable than those without any disabilities.

Disability: This is a term usually used to describe a condition, physical and/or mental, which a person might have. The authors propose that this term, which contains the negative prefix “dis” connected to “ability” carries a political, social, and ontological weight.

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