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Building better maps for the disability community

Google and a slew of startups are including accessibility information in apps to help people navigate the world if they use wheelchairs or have other disabilities.

Occupational therapist turned disability rights activist Alanna Raffel has spent her career thinking about accessibility. So for her 30th birthday last year, she turned her passion into action.

Raffel had worked with disabled clients for years in Philadelphia. It wasn't till late 2016, however, when she became more involved in advocacy, that she learned how difficult it was to find meeting spaces that could accommodate people of varying abilities. It's particularly challenging in an old city like Philadelphia, where many of the buildings were built more than 200 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.

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Alanna Raffel enlisted her friends and family to help provide information to the accessibility app, Access Earth. 

Photo provided by Alanna Raffel

So last April she hosted a mapping event in which her family and friends downloaded the Access Earth app and scoured area businesses answering questions, like whether a storefront or restaurant has a step-free entrance or an accessible restroom. The goal: find out what is and isn't wheelchair-accessible in the Center City district of Philadelphia.

The experience was eye-opening.

"When I want to go to a bar or restaurant, I search on my phone for the menu or location," she said. "I don't need to check if I can use the bathroom there, or if I can reach the bar or a table. But that's what my friends who use wheelchairs have to do."

Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, often referred to as ADA, require businesses and public facilities to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but they aren't always followed or enforced. Many older places are exempt. What this means for someone with a disability is that it's harder to get around and know what's accessible and what's not.

"It's like playing the lottery," said Michele Lee, a 35-year-old wheelchair user living in Chicago. Lee has moved about via wheelchair for the last 15 years following a spinal cord injury from a car accident.  "You never know whether train stations have working elevators or if sidewalks are free of construction or whether the restaurant I want to go to has an accessible bathroom."

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Apps like Access Earth allow people who use wheelchairs find accessible businesses.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

But apps such as Access Earth are hoping to make life a little easier for the disability community by providing better information. And often, they're created by people with first-hand knowledge of the problems they're trying to solve. AccessNow, which shares accessibility info, was created by Maayan Ziv, who was born with a type of muscular dystrophy and who uses a wheelchair. Jason DaSilva, a filmmaker with multiple sclerosis, founded AXS Map, which lets you rate locations for their accessibility.

It's not just the startup community. Big-name companies like Google and Yelp are also taking note and have begun adding accessibility information to their search and review products.

Change is coming

Matt McCann got the inspiration for Access Earth, the app Raffel used for her mapping event, while on a trip to London. Even though he searched the web for a hotel that was accessible, when he arrived he realized there were steps in the lobby to get to the elevator.

"This was clearly not accessible for me," said McCann, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

These apps provide a welcome change for the roughly one in seven people in the world who consider themselves disabled. The figure is actually higher in the US, where at least 20 percent of the population identifies as having a disability.  

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Companies are starting to pay attention. Last month, Google said that it's adding wheelchair accessibility navigation to its Google Maps app so you can find a route that accommodates wheelchairs. Google Maps' accessible-transit map is available in six major metro areas: London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston and Sydney. The company plans to add other cities in the coming months.

Yelp allows business owners to include information about accessibility in their profiles. The company said that more than 700,000 businesses have marked themselves as accessible.

"We want to make life easier for everyone who uses our products, and that includes people who use wheelchairs," said Rio Akasaka, product manager for Google Maps. "But accessible routes are also helpful if you're on crutches or pushing a stroller."

The power of the crowd

But it isn't enough just for companies to tweak their popular apps. Developers such as Ziv and McCann say crowdsourcing is crucial to providing useful information for these apps, which is why their programs offer a place for users to share their experiences.

Yelp also allows accessibility information to be surfaced based on the text of reviews written by users.

Google has launched its Local Guides program, through which people can share their knowledge of local places -- submitting information about how accessible they are or providing photos of a restaurant, museum, or any other public space or local attraction. People looking for more information about the accessibility of a restaurant, for example, can tap into the Local Guide to find out what others who've been there say about it.

Crowdsourcing also brings a diverse approach to solving what is actually a universal problem.

"Realistically, you need contributors from all different perspectives," Ziv said. "But it's also important to create awareness that access is an important feature in our lives whether you have a disability or not."

Creating awareness

Mark Bookman is a doctoral candidate at University of Pennsylvania who created an app called the Accessibility Mapping Project that maps accessibility on UPenn's campus. He says his app is useful for students on campus. But there's a larger purpose. He plans to use the data he's collected to push university administrators to make improvements.

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Mark Bookman has created an app to provide detailed information on accessibility on campus. Alice McGrath, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn Libraries, is helping Bookman collect data for his app. 

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Bookman, who uses a wheelchair because of a rare genetic condition similar to ALS, said it's not enough for universities, such as UPenn, to simply comply with basic ADA requirements. They need to go beyond that to ensure the entire campus is accessible to all students, he says.

"Just because you can get access to a building or a classroom itself doesn't mean that the desks are the right height or there's enough room behind a podium for the instructor who uses a wheelchair," Bookman said. "There are so many different aspects of access that it's important to provide as much information as you can."

Raffel also believes it's important to create awareness, which she hopes will result in societal changes. That's why she wanted her friends and family to experience the mapping event she organized for her birthday. Instead of simply telling people what the problem is, she wanted to show them.

Ziv has also hosted and helped other civic groups and companies organize "map missions" using her app to do the same thing.

"It's a great way to show people what accessibility means rather than running a bunch of PSAs," she said. "It's creating awareness through actions, which can be powerful and fun."

Tools still need work

Sharon Pennock, a community organizer in suburban Philadelphia, has used several apps to find accessible meeting places where she can host events. But she said there are still kinks to be worked out. For instance, some services aren't collecting enough information. Others allow people to contribute a lot of information, but it can be harder for users of the app to search and find what they need to know.

"It would be so much easier if Google just had it all," she said. "Everyone uses Google."

But even Google's service still needs some work. Lee, who has used and contributes to Google's Local Guides in Google Maps, says the interface could be easier to use and discover.

"It's a little hidden on the app, so it's not as intuitive to find," she said. "But hats off to them for even trying.  You have to start somewhere."

For Raffel, who has been energized by the accessibility movement, her hope is that one day people with disabilities won't need to check an app to see if a restaurant has a wheelchair-accessible bathroom or if a subway station has a functioning elevator.

"In an ideal world, every place you want to go should be accessible," she said. Until then, she hopes that these apps will keep improving. 

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