Global Observer

In Berlin, necessity is the mother of innovation

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BERLIN -- Social pioneer Raul Krauthausen talks with SmartPlanet about innovation, self-determination and the power of a Google Chrome ad.

BERLIN — When wheelchair-bound Raul Krauthausen was 15 years old, he informed his mother that he was not going to college. “Well, you can’t become a construction worker,” she replied.

“Three days later it was clear to me that I was going to college,” he said.

Another 15 years on, his non-profit organization Sozialhelden (“social heroes”) was tapped by Google for the group's crowd-sourced project Wheelmap.org to be featured in a German TV spot for Chrome.

“That's when I realized things had gotten bigger than I could have ever imagined,” Krauthausen recalled.

Wheelmap.org was the first web-based social project from Sozialhelden and now lists wheelchair accessibility for more than 200,000 public locations worldwide with some 200 new entries everyday. Krauthausen gave a talk on the project at TEDxBerlin in late 2010, and Sozialhelden has won multiple national awards for its numerous other offline projects.

"In the case of Wheelmap, we wanted those affected to tell us where they want to go and what they want to do, rather than the other way around," Krauthausen said.

In the seven years since he and his cousin Jan founded Sozialhelden, local projects such as Pfandtastisch Helfen — a system for grocery shoppers to easily donate their bottle deposits to charitable causes — have proven widely successful, generating as much as 100,000 EUR in a year.

But in a country where B-corporations do not yet exist, students with disabilities are educated mostly in special schools, and few public buildings are wheelchair accessible, Raul Krauthausen's work is an uphill battle.

“In terms of accessibility, everyone is jealous of the U.S.,” he said, noting legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates wheelchair accessibility among other things for all public establishments in the U.S..

In Germany, it’s common for people in wheelchairs to be denied access to places like the TV tower or a movie theatre because the only available wheelchair spot is occupied, he explained. Fire code or historical preservation laws are often cited as reasons buildings cannot be altered to accommodate those on wheels, including anyone using strollers or walkers.

It's no secret that Germany is one of the least integrated countries in the E.U. with respect to people with disabilities - despite new E.U. laws to the contrary. But many say they anticipate decades of inaction before a general attitude of complacency on the issue can be overturned.

“It’s not meant in a mean way,” Krauthausen said. “The subject is just so underdeveloped here, that many people think they can't do anything about it."

Nonetheless, Sozialhelden makes it clear that it has no interest in lecturing anyone. Instead, Krauthausen says the focus is on developing innovative solutions to social problems with fun, energy and even irony in tow, in hopes of empowering people with their own minds.

“Therein lies the magic. That’s why I do this. Not because of money or success… but simply because you can learn an unbelievable amount," he said, noting that the byproducts of the journey are often the most critical:

"Much more important than the actual function of Wheelmap has been the conversation it helped to start among people without disabilities. When Google became the largest company to ever run an ad featuring a person with disabilities in Germany, that had a major, lasting impact."

He added that people often run from conversations surrounding disabilities because they can become so deficiency-orientated and negative - but that the world can be orchestrated anew in so many ways.

"My mother always said I wasn't going to get pity from her," Krauthausen said. "'You’re going to have to find a way,' she said. She wanted me to be independent at 18, and it just wasn't up for debate between us."

"So what do you do when it’s not an option to live with your parents forever? You really begin to ask yourself, what do I want to do?"

Photo: SOZIALHELDEN e.V.

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure