Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Germany

Thomas Kahlisch, Jürgen Lötzsch


Statistical data about the situation of blind and partially sighted people in Germany characterize age groups, profession and employment, and others facts. Starting from these the authors give a general idea of associations, responsibilities, aims and services for the visually impaired.
The German Federation of the Blind consists of 20 associations of the federal countries of Germany and is acting on behalf of the interest of the blind and partially sighted people in the Federal Republic of Germany. It aims at preserving the social status of the blind and visually handicapped and to support their reintegration into society and into a profession.
Nearly 60 schools for visually impaired children, colleges and schools for vocational training in about 15 towns and some study centers are responsible for education and training of visually handicapped persons. Their work is explained based on clear examples.
At last two German projects are presented which stand for all the projects where people make an effort for the blind and partially sighted in order to contribute to equal opportunities, to give access to innovative methods and to improve integration into the society. One project aims at making study material accessible to blind and partially sighted students by providing them in electronic form. The second project bridges a gap in training of blind masseurs and physiotherapists, where text and pictorial information must be used in different subjects like anatomy, therapy and others, which can be now done by means of computer based training places.

1. Blind and partially sighted persons in Germany: statistical data

The following numbers and facts have been compiled in [1] and are based on statistical data of different German federal countries and regions as well as on data from a survey of March 1996 about the professional situation of blind and visually handicapped people in the North Rhine region.
In Germany 155,000 people are blind, that is about 2 per mil of the German population. According to the laws of each German federal country blind people receive contributions. Approximately 95 per cent of the blind possess a card for the severely handicapped. It is estimated that 5 per cent of the blind did not register as being handicapped. About 11 per cent of the blind live in homes.
There are no reliable data on the number of visually handicapped people (ie the eyesight is 1/10 and less than 1/50 of the rule) who are living in Germany. It is estimated that the total number is 500,000 people which is about 6 per mil of the German population.

Age groups
The age groups of the blind are as follows:

Age groupPercentage
younger than 61.66
6 to 174.37
18 to 399.63
40 to 5913.40
60 to 645.35
65 to 7924.51
older than 7941.08

Compared to 1990 the number of the blind between 1 and 18 years of age has slightly decreased (about 0.4 per cent) and the number of those between 18 and 79 years of age has not changed. But the number of those who are older than 80 years has been strongly increasing by about 3.3 per cent.

In which age do people become blind?

Age of becoming blindPercentage
younger than 19.02
1 to50.58
6 to 171.38
18 to 396.66
40 to 5912.27
60 to 645.17
65 to 7924.00
older than 7940.92

Profession and employment
Among those who are able to succeed in a profession are persons

Professional statusPercentage
in training9
doing household-work12

About 20 per cent of the blind who are in the age of being capable for gainful employment (between 18 and 60 years) are gainfully employed, ie nationwide 10,000 people. The highest number of employees (42 per cent) is with those who are between 21 and 49 years old. Differing between those who were born blind and those who later became blind these employees make 42 resp. 20 per cent of the working population of the blind.

The number of the working blind is distributed into the most important occupational groups as follows:

medical bath attendants,
industrial workers11.0
telephone operators,
other workers of telecommunications
professionals for desk work12.9
administrative workers6.1
businessmen for EDP,
university-trained workers
eg lawyers, educationists, social
workers, theologians, computer
scientists, economists)
other professions
(in: agriculture/forestry, tourism,
independent commerce etc.)

Quota: Employers who employ more than 16 employees have to employ at least 6 per cent severely handicapped people. Those who fail to meet their quota are required to make a contribution of DM 200 for each workplace needed to be filled to meet the quota.

Other facts

Other statistic facts rely completely on informational material of the German federal countries' associations of the blind about their organised blind members.

Further factPersons
Number of owners of guide dogs1,600
All braille readers and writers29,000
Contracted braille readers
and writers
Active sportsmen2,300
Active players at skittles
(not leisurely)
Chess players (in tournament)740

2. General services for the blind and partially sighted

2.1. The German Federation of the Blind
2.1.1. Responsibilities and aims
[1] : The German Federation of the Blind (Deutscher Blindenverband e.V. - DBV) is a registered association acting on behalf of the interest of the blind people in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was founded in 1912 as the immediate successor of the Blind People´s Union of the German empire. The German Federation of the Blind consists of 20 associations of the federal countries of Germany that themselves consist of several associations in districts and boroughs. Here, many female and male voluntary helpers (themselves often being blind or visually handicapped) and employees work in the offices where they are giving advice and information.
Not only because of the growing party of senior blind people who are no longer able to take part in the professional life, the DBV directs its attention to the basic rehabilitation. Especially the senior citizens need assistence to find back their place in life (ie family, society) after the loss of their sight.
The DBV aims at preserving the social status of the blind and visually handicapped and to support their reintegration into society and into a profession.
It fulfills these needs by:

The 20 associations of the 16 federal countries of Germany are giving help and support to those who are looking for advice, they provide training lessons, in which blind and visually handicapped people learn to manage independently everyday situations again, are informed about the existing possibilities of retraining courses and in which they are informed about the offering of special means of aid, about the point system, auditive literature and the homes for a health resort and the rest homes. They are informed about the old people´s homes and about the institutions of welfare for the working people.

The work for the blind is internationally organized, too. The German Federation of the Blind is a member of the European Blind Union (EBU) which itself is a member of the World Blind Union (WBU). The German Federation of the Blind is having a constant flow of information with a lot of unions and is giving development aid if possible. There are 40 million blind living all over the world. The blind and the visually handicapped who are living in the developping countries often are in desperate need and far away from any help.

2.1.2 Publications

The German Federation of the Blind edits many publications (eg books, magazines) to inform the public and to give technical guidance. Here are some of the titles:

"Die Gegenwart" ("The present time")
"Gegenwart" is the monthly magazine´s title of the German Federation of the Blind. This magazine for the blind, the visually handicapped people and their friends is published in braille, recorded on tapes (cassettes), printed in black-print and stored on floppy disks. It deals with various subjects: questions of law, hints on aiding devices, commentaries and reports on the affairs of the blind and the visually handicapped people, information about foreign countries, announcement on activities and new books, reports about sport events, the readers´ mail, essays on the history of the blinds´ affairs, on culture and art, and advertisements.

"Dein Weg geht weiter" ("Your way leads on")
It is a reference book for the blind, the visually handicapped, their relatives and their friends.

"Nicht so, sondern so" ("Don't do it this way but do it that way")
How to deal with the blind.

"Merkblatt für Blinde und Sehbehinderte" ("Leaflet for the blind and partially sighted")
It is a useful summary of legal regulations.

"Blindenkur- und Erholungsheime" ("Homes for a health resort and rest homes for the blind")br> 11 homes will be presented shortly.

"Jahrbuch des Deutschen Blindenverbandes" ("Year book of the German Federation of the Blind")
It is intended for friends and supporters of the self-help of the blind.

2.2 Some services for the blind and partially sighted people in Germany

Orientation and mobility training
By the instruction of an experienced teacher the blind here learn to walk without any help in a known and an unknown environment. Here the white long cane is the most important aiding device and it is both a help for orientation and a sign for safety for the blind because it tells the other people who are taking part in the traffic that there is a handicapped person who needs help and regard.

Talking books
Special audio libraries lend talking books for free to the blind and the visually handicapped people. The tapes come by mail into the homes.

Recreation homes
There are 11 recreation homes and sanatoriums which are subventioned by the federal countries' associations of the German Federation of the Blind. These facilities also offer interesting courses and seminars.

Daily living skills
This term refers to everything that someone who lately became blind learns to master independently the daily life under these more difficult conditions.

Audio description
Audio description facilitates the access to films and plays for blind and highly visually handicapped people. Additional comments describe silent sequences in order to enable the "non-seeing people" to follow the action. Some films of that type have already been broadcast on the German TV. The German Federation of the Blind is making a strong effort that this service will become a normality because the TV is also for the blind an important means of information, education and entertainment.

The blind and partially sighted practise sports successfully. Not everybody has to become a champion although there are national and international championships. Sportive activities during the free time create the same joy and strengthen the health and the fitness. Among the older blind and the visually handicapped several branches of athletics are very popular such as swimming, hiking, running, tandem riding, rowing, paddling, cross-country skiing, chess and playing at skittles.

3. Education and training for blind and partially sighted people

Schools for visually impaired children
There are nearly 60 schools for visually impaired children in Germany. 5 schools are specialized in instructing blind and 20 are specialized in instructing partially sighted children. Blind as well as partially sighted children are instructed in 28 schools. For the deafblind 4 schools exist.

Some years ago integrative education has been emphasized more and more. Now a lot of schools offer integrative programmes. Usually they have close contacts to institutions where textbooks and graphics in tactile and audible format is made for blind pupils.

"BliStA" [4]
Without any doubt the Deutsche Blindenstudienanstalt e.V. (German Institute for the Blind) is the most important institution of that kind in the German speaking area in Middle Europe. It comprises school, information pool, service office and rehabilitation center. Affectionately their pupils call it "BliStA" briefly.
The BliStA has been founded 80 years ago as the first secondary school of that type of the world. Professor Carl Strehl was the first principal until 1965. At present 260 pupils learn at Carl Strehl school. In 1985 the school started to use modern computing technology with speech output, braille bar, large scale screen, and so on. The school supports integration of visual impaired pupils into standard schools by providing flexible teachers.
>From the very beginning the main objectives have been education and information for the blind.
Already in 1919 the basis of the "Archives and international office of documentation for the blind and partially sighted" has been established. One year later the "Braille printing office" opened. Nowadays BliStA publishes the catalog of all books and journals which are available in braille. In 1954 the first German audio-library has been founded at BliStA.
Books in braille and cassettes are made. The "Individual braille service" of BliStA translates into braille and manufactures tactile media. BliStA gives consultations about aids for the blind and sells them to all interested persons.
BliStA makes every endavour to endow their school-leavers with all capabilities for a self-determined life. It goes without saying that they are mobile with the long cane. 1975 at BliStA a mobility center has been set up. Daily living skills are instructed like housekeeping, cooking and sewing.
The setting-up of as much independence as possible is one of the most essential objectives of BliStA.

Vocational training
In Germany vocational training for the blind and partially sighted is done in state schools and in special colleges of two types ("Berufsbildungswerke" and "Berufsförderungswerke"). The state schools and the first type colleges are responsible for the primary vocational training especially of young people. In the second type college education of adult handicapped people takes place. Usually they had to change their original jobs because of an arising handicap.
The schools and colleges in 15 German towns offer among others training in office communication, text processing, telephone operating, telephone marketing, metal processing, basket and brush making, industrial upholstering, horticulture, piano tuning, housekeeping, and so on.
Training of visually impaired masseurs and physiotherapists takes two to three years. It can be done in special colleges in Chemnitz, Mainz and Nuremberg closely related to medical institutions like hospitals and medical faculties.
Essential subjects are anatomy, physiology, pathology, psychology, massage, electrotherapy and physiotherapy. For all teaching subjects a lot of material is available. The blind students have access to braille texts, to information on audio-cassettes and to tactile diagrams.

Study centers for visually impaired persons at universities
"In 1987 a pilot project was started at the University of Karslruhe dedicated to involve new communication technologies for visually impaired students and the sighted world. This supporting system for blind students led after five years of model development to a Study Center for Visually Impaired Students, which offers equal chances to these handicapped students towards university, in living, learning and examinations inside the university system as well as in steps towards labour market." [9]
Using special hard- and software like braille display, voice output, scanner, large print or print enlargement systems, braille printer etc. printed media are made available in electronic form on diskette or via the network. Decentralized work stations at the library and different institutes enable independent access to the documents.
In the same manner at Dresden University of Technology a study center supports visually impaired persons during their studies [7] . Using advanced methods study material is made accessible by them. Also documents available on the World Wide Web can be accessed by means of those methods. Furthermore, a transformation service for HTML documents into English, French and German braille has been developed following the guidelines of the International Committee for Accessible Document Design ICADD.
The office "Study for visually impaired people" of the Fern-Universitaet Hagen [2] offers about 120 courses on media for visually impaired students: printed braille, audio-cassettes and diskettes with files in contracted braille suited for braille bars. Emphasis has been given to subjects like psychology, soziology, jurisprudence and German literature. Thus complete subsidiary subjects have been prepared for studying.

4. High-tech for the blind: two example projects

In Germany several institutions do research work for the blind and partially sighted. Some of them are universities, some of them are special groups closely related to associations of the blind. Advanced development work is also done in all of the institutions which are responsible for education and training of visually handicapped people. In some cases there are joint projects of R & D institutions and companies in order to prepare manufacturing of the R & D results as early as possible. Funding comes from the ministries and from some European programmes like TIDE and HELIOS.

In the following two projects are presented which stand for all the projects where people make an effort for the blind and partially sighted in order to contribute to equal opportunities, to give access to innovative methods and to improve integration into the society.

4.1. Project: "Improving access to hypertext based study material for the blind and partially sighted students"

This section explains the services provided and the current projects at the Dresden University of Technology. The primary goal of the projects is to make study material accessible to blind and partially sighted students. Access to study material is established by making documents available in electronic form.

To interact with electronic documents stored on computers, blind and partially sighted students use adaptive devices like braille displays, speech synthesizers and large print displays. These adaptive divices offer a blind computer user the chance to work with computers in almost the same way as sighted people.

4.1.1. Preparation of accessible study material

The usual preparation of accessible study material starts with scanning printed material followed by the optical character recognition of the electronically stored images provided by special software. The result of this process is an unstructured ASCII text file, which needs to be corrected manually.
If the printed document contains tables, mathematic expressions, graphics or pictures, the person who corrects the data has to use special guidelines to describe the information in a textual form.

These guidelines [16] describe the following rules:

Mathematical expressions have to be specified in a particular notation called AMS (ASCII Mathematik Schrift) [17] , which uses a programming language like syntax of ASCII strings to linearize this kind of information.

a simple fraction: y = (x+1)/(x-1)
an integral: y = Int[a;b] f(x) dx

Blind and partially sighted students in Dresden do have access to the prepared documents by using adaptive PCs in a local area network. The file service which stores these documents is called ELVIS (Elektronisches Literatur-Verzeichnis fuer Sehgeschaedigte) [15] .
Most of these documents provide less structured information, which makes searching and linking for particular data difficult for the user. It became clear to our group, that a platform independent structured hypertext system might be able to improve the access to the documents. The increasing use of the WWW [18] and HTML [13] appears to be the right starting point.
To make study material accessible over the WWW, we developed a transformation service for ASCII text documents into the HTML format.

4.1.2. Transformation of HTML documents into American, French and German braille

To improve access to the WWW for persons who are print disabled and able to read braille, we developed a form based transformation service for HTML documents into American, French and German braille.
The idea of this project was initiated by the "HTML to ICADD Transformation Service" [5] at the University of California, Los Angeles, developed by Jeff Suttor [14] . The Dresden "International HTML to braille Service" extends this idea, to convert Web pages into braille, from one to three languages. The transformation of the documents into the different braille notations is designed by the use of the German HBS software [3] .
The service can be initiated by filling out and submitting the online form, available at:


A user can specify an URL (Uniform Resource Locator), that points to a document, which has to be translated by the service. Radio buttons can be used for the choice of the appropriate braille formats. The following braille formats are available:

After submitting the form, the specified document will be translated automatically into the chosen braille format and displayed by the browser. The received document can be read immediately or saved on a local file for later use.

4.1.3. Hypertext reader for SGML based study material

Our current project "Presentation of electronic documents for blind people" is designed to establish access to hypertext based study material for blind students. By developing a SGML [6, 8] based Script Reader, we would like to make our prepared study material accessible by using the WWW. The Script Reader will run on MS-Windows 3.X and will be implemented by use of a particular SGML browser engine ViewPort. This software was developed by the Swedish company SYNEX and is used in the SGML browser PANORAMA from Softquad Inc.

The Script Reader will provide the following features:

By using bridge software to make the graphic user interface accessible to the blind user, the Script Reader will offer the following functions in separate windows:

The window, which is activated, will use the full screen to display the information. By highlighting hypertext links, the user can trace and navigate through the given structure of a document. Tables will be treated in a separate window by using a particular table browser. This browser will render less and complex structured tables in different ways. This method will allow us to evaluate the first results of this project and to improve future versions of the reading program.
The system will not provide functions to edit or manipulate the documents. But the user can extract and save information in private note or bookmark files. The history function can be used to trace particular information and to memorize document ancestries.

4.2. Project: "Audio-tactile CBT for blind masseurs and physiotherapists"

The problem
There is a gap in training blind people as masseurs and physiotherapists: They have to train in subjects like anatomy, electrotherapy, etc. but


It is a general problem for blind people to acquire graphic information. But information of that kind becomes important more and more in all spheres of life, in education, training, occupation, everyday life, mobility, leisure-time activities, etc. . Therefore the Los Angelos CSUN'94 conference already emphasised the importance of all research, development and demonstration work in that field for the blind and partially sighted on the way to the information society.
Textbooks and educational programs in anatomy, electrotherapy, etc. are full of graphic information (for sighted people). But without any adaptation to the needs of blind people those do not have any access to it. Therefore in the past several pictures, graphics and diagrams have been prepared in tactile format for use by blind trainees. But design and manufacturing of tactile pictures is time-consuming and expensive. The greatest problem however is touching and recognising the graphic objects of the tactile picture by means of the fingers. Thus it is in training as masseur and physiotherapist too!

The idea
In order to bridge the gap the idea was: Speaking maps, ground plans, network diagrams, plans of museums and exhibitions, and so on, are available. The user puts a tactile overlay onto a touch pad, touches it with his fingers and gets spoken information controlled by a PC. Will we succeed when adapting and applying that advanced audio-tactile interactive method to the subjects in training masseurs and physiotherapists?

The general aim of the project and the user requirements
Based on good experiences in developing and using audio-tactile information systems [12, 10] for the blind it was the aim of the project to design and implement computer based training (CBT) places for blind masseurs and physiotherapists [11] .
Graphical information is fundamental in subjects like anatomy, therapy and massage. Thus an essential condition is fulfilled for the application of audio-tactile techniques. The blind masseur and physiotherapist expects that the CBT system meets the following requirements:

The solution
The project [11] has been realized during the last two years at the three German colleges (see above) for blind masseurs and physiotherapists.
Research, development and field trials in the colleges succeeded in the following results:

The ATT system consists of

ATT fulfils every requirement mentioned above. All ATT components are available commercially. Series of audio-tactile graphics for systematic and functional anatomy, for histology, skeleton and muscles, for physical basics of electrotherapy and some special massage areas are available. For every audio-tactile graphic of the data base a tactile overlay exists.

The series "Lower extremities"
In the following the access to the series "lower extremities" as part of an textbook on anatomy is considered. This series consists of 33 audio-tactile graphics, among others articulatio coxae, femur, articulatio genus, tibia, fibula and pes.
All tactile graphics possess a general layout. There is a rectangular frame enclosing the area of graphical information to be explored. At the top you can find the title of the graphic, also in braille. Usually some methodical objects are placed on the graphic in addition to the real graphic. E. g., the circle with its quadrants serves to control four information levels: name of the object, short explanation of the object, exhaustive information about the object, and transition to a linked graphic if any. The question-answer bar helps to revise for an exam. When pointing to a question box the system asks a question referring to the graphic. The answer is given if requested.
All text pieces linked to graphical objects are part of the underlying textbook in the background.
You can navigate both through tactile graphics and underlying text.
The very general procedure of access is to use first a tactile spreadsheet for information about all the chapters and series. You will be guided to the graphic you intend to use. When having identified the graphic by means of the bar-code reader you can navigate on it. You will get speech and sound output from the PC according to the object touched and according to the information level on which you are moving. Switching to another graphic linked to the actual one can be done activating the corresponding quadrant of the control circle. If you wish to navigate in longer text presented to a certain graphic object then change into the text navigation mode. Here you are able to navigate word-wise, sentence-wise or line-wise through the actual text slice.

ATT contains also an authoring system. That is, you yourself are able to design and implement your own audio-tactile graphics and series of them.

The training material for blind masseurs and physiotherapists is now used in the colleges. Students are very much interested in that CBT method and apply it permanently. A lot of advantages could be attained:

Some days ago the project "Audio-tactile CBT for blind masseurs and physiotherapists" was awarded one Bronze Award by the Jury of the European Commission's HELIOS Competition for 1996.


Thomas Kahlisch:
Dresden University of Technology, Institute of Information Systems,
D-01062 Dresden, Germany
Phone: +49-351-463.8410, Fax: +49-351-463.8491, E-mail:

Jürgen Lötzsch:
Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted in Saxony, Innovative Techniques,
Weissbachstr.5, D-01069 Dresden, Germany
Phone: +49-351-47853.0, Fax: +49-351-47853.42, E-mail: