If you can’t see, you have to feel


Heidrun is blind, but she still has a great perspective on life. She works hard at leading an independent life.



Text: Michael Raeke • Photos: Michael Gernhuber

Kathrin will never get used to it. “Please turn out the light when you go,” Heidrun reminds her support worker. But recently social worker Kathrin forgot once more, so she gave Heidrun a call that evening. “Hey, Heidrun, I forgot about the light again.” Heidrun grins as she relates the story. She is grateful to be told. After all, the light doesn’t need to be on all the time.

The cooking, the cleaning, the laundry – Heidrun could do them with her eyes closed – and effectively, she does. She is blind. She experiences her world through her fingertips. Sometimes she will hear the light humming and then switch it off herself. “I want to be as independent as possible,” she says.

She lives in her own small apartment in Stuttgart, all open plan, with a kitchen unit, a bed, a dining table, a desk and a couch. The washing-up liquid belongs behind the sink, the cleaning agent for the washbasin belongs in the bathroom. There’s a place for everything, and everything has its place. The trouble starts when guests put things back in the wrong place. “Then,” says Heidrun, “I end up having to search for them.” Sometimes the neighbors lend a hand. “They see things faster than I do,” she says. She really does use the word “see,” and another time she says “I can always overlook something.”  
I can always overlook something.
I don’t like the winter because then everything looks the same.
Everything sighted people assimilate as children, through imitation, Heidrun learns in special classes: tying her shoelaces, telling the time, eating with a knife and fork and cleaning her apartment. The classes belong to a range of measures designed to make daily life easier for the visually impaired. They include Braille, which has been enabling blind people to read since 1825 and which the World Blind Union honors each year with World Braille Day and a lecture on the Treaty of Marrakesh, which organizes the barrier-free exchange of literature for the blind.
Heidrun handles objects carefully, delicately almost, whether it’s the handheld vacuum she uses to remove all trace of her afternoon snack, or her laptop, which has a Braille line that reads text out loud and transcribes it into Braille.

Close your eyes and just keep going

The writing system of Louis Braille

A millimeter can sometimes make all the difference with Braille – so sensitive fingertips are all-important. The tactile writing system invented by Frenchman Louis Braille in 1825 enables the blind and people with extreme visual impairments to read numbers, letters and punctuation marks by touch.

The writing system is based on six raised dots in a grid of two parallel vertical lines of three dots each. Each character is roughly 6 mm long and 4 mm wide.

The dots should be at least 0.4 mm high. The system comprises 64 different tactile characters, or configurations – the high art of reading …

“I don’t like the winter because everything looks the same then,” says Heidrun. But most importantly, the snow takes away her points of reference, such as tactile paving. This consists of markings that are let into the ground, raised dots indicating the location of a bus stop, for instance. “Close your eyes and just keep going,” is Kathrin’s advice. The same applies in any season to encounters with quiet electric cars – neither her sense of touch nor good hearing are any help to Heidrun there. At least the EU and the United Nations have agreed that starting in 2021, all newly licensed, low-noise vehicles must give a warning signal.
So Heidrun’s dream of an independent life is one step nearer to fulfillment.