App for the Blind Aims to Make Jerusalem’s Holy Sites More Accessible

An Israeli soldier accompanies a group of visually impaired Israelis while holding up a speaker broadcasting a new app-based audio tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Refuit Golan had visited the Old City of Jerusalem before, but it wasn’t until she toured the ancient site while listening to a voice-guided tour for the visually impaired that she fully began to appreciate its history and significance.

“When you can’t see well, one stone is just like any other stone,” said Golan as she and two dozen other visually impaired Israelis meandered through the Old City’s warrenlike alleyways alongside several sighted companions with the help of a new app.

The tour, which Golan had downloaded on her cellphone and listened to on a small portable speaker, provided the kind of tidbits a tour guide would deliver, but added details and descriptions that a blind person would otherwise miss out on.

Refuit Golan poses for a
photograph in the Old City of
Jerusalem. Golan had visited the
Old City several times, but it
wasn’t until she toured the
ancient site while listening to a
voice-guided tour for the visually
impaired that she fully began to
appreciate its history and
significance. RNS photo by
Michele Chabin

Funded by city and Israeli agencies along with advocacy groups, the app was created by the Center for the Blind in Israel and is available for iPhones and Android devices in English, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. It is part of an ambitious initiative to make the Old City, home to some of the world’s holiest sites, accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

Transforming the Old City into a more disability-friendly site “is holy work,” Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said during a June 3 event to kick off the app. “Jerusalem is leading the way for ancient cities around the world.”

The Old City, surrounded by 500-year-old walls, resembles a labyrinth. Thousands of stone steps lead to four distinct ethnic quarters, a colorful Middle Eastern market, archaeological excavations and holy sites, including the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount. Millions of people visit every year.

A screenshot from the tourism
app created by the Center for
the Blind in Israel

In recent months, handrails have been installed and ancient streets that function as pedestrian walkways through the oldest parts of the city have been reworked to make them wheelchair- and stroller-accessible.

In addition to three-dimensional maps on various walls along main thoroughfares, the East Jerusalem Development Co., which represents the city and national governments, has created a printed accessibility orientation map and a GPS-based app in eight languages that provides real-time navigation between the alleys and sites.

The city is catching up with tourist sites that have been adapting to people with disabilities for years.

The Tower of David Museum, housed in a medieval citadel within the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, launched its accessibility initiative three years ago.

In addition to installing wheelchair ramps, the museum created programs for children with various disabilities.

“If you have a child with special needs, the hustle and bustle of regular museum hours can be too imposing,” said Caroline Shapiro, the museum’s director of international relations.

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Source: Religion News Service