No Good Germans
First of all, a bit of terminology. “good germans”, in the Jewish neighborhood I grew up in, referred to the Germans who under Nazi rule, didn’t participate in the genocide, but rather, simply did nothing.
So, here I was, in Germany; Jewish, socialist, in a wheelchair (my scooter), and at a labor conference; four capital offenses under that former regime. But what I experienced was truly amazing!!!!
Our first clue that things would be different, occurred in Munich. We arrived and, unlike U.S. accommodations, PWDs don’t have the option of having our wheelchairs delivered to the plane. We have to pick them up at another locations, transported by the wheelchairs provided by the airline, pushed by airline personnel.
I REALLY HATE THIS!!!!!
The man assigned to push me was really rude, not listening to me, going ahead of my carry on bags, leaving Andy behind to carry everything. Basically treating me like luggage. Some of this may have been due to lack of a common language, but the dissatisfaction in my voice was very clear. I told him to stop and he kept pushing me. Finally I stood up, so he couldn’t push me, and he pushed the wheelchair into me. Fueled by this shot of adrenaline, I made my way back to the plane, sat down in the seat, and clearly upset, explained to the flight attendant what had happened.
What she didn’t say was; “I can’t help you if you don’t calm down.”
I HATE THAT TOO!!!!
I hear that a lot and its (hm, no better word available here) BULLSHIT!!!! Of course we can help people when they’re upset, in fact that’s usually when people need help. What’s the point of helping people when they’re totally content? Really now!!!
What she did say, in English was, “He DID that!? I’m going to tell him off!”
And guess what happened?
I calmed down!!!!
I REALLY LIKE THAT!!!!
We got to the gate of our connecting flight from Munich to Berlin. In the U.S. lifting people in wheelchairs up stairs, is not considered an accommodation, but rather a dangerous and patronizing response to lack of access. After the Human Rights Committee retreat* I really understood the importance of access, the ability to come and go without assistance or permission, when I had to obtain help from those ridiculing me, to get my walker down the stairs. At the gate we were told that I would be preboarded and would be carried up the stairs. Now, I can get up stairs with some effort, but would have difficulty carrying my bags. Andy has arthritis, so stairs and portage are also problems for him. With my scooter, I can drag one bag with wheels, and carry at least one more in my baskets. All of this “assistance” leaves Andy with most of the responsibility for all the carry on luggage, which for us, including medical equipment, is considerable.
I realized I didn’t have a grasp of the laws governing access and that I was a tourist in this country, so there was little I could do. My displeasure was noted, though muted. The next announcement we heard was that the flight would be delayed 20 minutes. Then, as boarding began, the attendant approached us and told us we would be post boarded, but that boarding for this flight would now be via jet-way.
It would appear that the entire flight was delayed and the plane moved from the tarmac and stairs to the jet-way, motivated simply by a subtle grimace. A far cry from the dehumanizing, humiliating experience stateside PWDs routinely experience when traveling by air.
Dorothy, you’re not in Hollywood anymore!
We checked into the hotel, and the next day found ourselves negotiating the streets and public transportation of Berlin. There were PWDs EVERYWHERE! –in the subway, the market, the museums, the restaurants, the shops, with families, in beer gartens. It wasn’t that the physical obstacles didn’t exist. At the Pergemon Museum, home of (expropriated) Nefertiti’s bust and the Gate of Ishtar; listed on line as partially accessible, there was a lift to get up the stairs to the ticket counter, and a maze of passageways, elevators, locked doors etc. to get to the main exhibits, requiring the extremely gracious accompaniment of a museum staff member. At one point I got to a landing in the museum only to find two steps into the hall blocking my access. Before Andy, only seconds behind me, could catch up, strangers ran to the docent to let him know I needed assistance. The subway, for the most part is accessible, but there are subway cars that extend a difference of as much as 5 inches above the platform, making direct access impossible. Again, without provocation, volunteers magically appeared to help lift my beast onto and off the subway. On elevators, people moved to make room for me. No elevator was ever too crowded. Huge difference from amerikan elevators, where people rush in front of me, filling the elevator, so that, unable to maneuver as quickly, I have to wait for the next one or the next one or the next one, or risk social stigma by speaking up; “excuse me, but I was here first!” And my scooter, an ambulatory anomaly in Europe, where both the semi-ambulatory and the para and quadriplegic all use standard wheelchairs, was somehow never in the way, never incurred the wrath of the people around us. At restaurants I prefer to sit at the table or booth, next to my scooter; I find it more comfortable and more convenient. In one establishment we asked for a space that would not be in the way, so accustomed we were to trying not to take up too much space. They showed us to a table, where my scooter would be clearly in the line of traffic the wait staff used to get from the restaurant to the kitchen. We thought at first they would want me to park the chair out of the way, as is the custom too often in Amerikan establishments, forcing me to sit some distance from my ambulatory device. NO, they insisted I park the scooter next to the table, and graciously and effortlessly changed their own path to and from table and kitchen. Later that day we went to the Berkinstock store, a tiny establishment in Alexanderplatz. There was no where to put the scooter, as I tried on shoes, that didn’t block display racks. We were uncomfortable with the space it took up, but neither the staff nor the patrons were at all bothered by the presence of the Beast, nor did they understand our preoccupation with the space it took up. At another restaurant, one step barred access. We opted to park the scooter right outside, in sight of our table. The diminutive wait staff person would think nothing of it, weighing no more than 100 pounds (or should I say 45 kg?) she lifted the scooter into the restaurant herself!
Despite all my protestations stateside, it became apparent how extremely we had internalized the (both spoken and unspoken) mandate that the accommodation to disability be the individual responsibility of the “cripple” and not the greater society. What became clear to me in Germany of all places, is the difference between physical barriers and social barriers. The physical barriers still existed in many places. What had changed were social perceptions; the collective understanding of the essential value of full inclusion and the collective responsibility for this inclusion.
Germany is a remarkable destination for Amerikan travelers. Many people speak fluent English, and being a Saxon language, we arrive already knowing tens of thousands of words, we just don’t know which ones! Additionally, having grown up in a Jewish neighborhood, where many people had names that are also German words (Selbst, Klein, Stein, Rosen, Thal), along with a minimal exposure to Yiddish (an non-standard dialect of German, spoken by Ashkenazi Jews), I had arrived having been exposed to many German words, albeit out of context, but the sounds themselves were familiar. Within a week (due to both primary language support, previous knowledge and contextual clues) I had acquired a minimal ability to use German to actually negotiate meaning. I think, within a summer, without instruction I would be able to pick up much of the language.
After one day on the streets of Berlin, I said to Andy “If I have to go out alone, strangers will help me.”
Aside from the one initial experience with the porter at the airport in Munich, I was spared the daily humiliation I have come to expect in the states. If it weren’t for the brutal winters, I might even consider living here.
Germany has a growing Jewish community, is actually the preferred destination of emigrating Jews. (So much so, that the Israeli government petitioned Germany to limit Jewish immigration, so that refugee Jews from the former Soviet Union would be forced to migrate to Israel.) Now, for those unfamiliar with my face, I am not one of the more European looking Jews. I don’t pass. (Though back home, Arabs and Armenians often confuse me for one of their own.)
What explains this change in social attitudes? A Jew, a “cripple” a socialist, a labor activist—4 death penalties little more than half a century ago, winding freely down the streets of a new Berlin, on a strange device, feeling freer than I have felt in years, wondering how far back Germany’s right of return policy might extent. This is the question any human rights activist might ask. What accounts for this very real change in values? This very different understanding of space, of place, of community, of membership?