Remember Yelp? You know, that archaic crowd-sourced web tool that helped you find a restaurant that meets all of your picky, prickly foodie prerequisites? (Yeah, I know – remember restaurants?) Well, even when restaurants were a daily and nightly thing, Yelp wasn’t much help for people with disabilities looking for an accommodating, accessible place to dine. That’s why creating a Yelp-like guide for people who need or simply prefer such accommodations has been one of a few Holy Grail-type goals for techies interested in accessibility and disability tech.
But despite numerous attempts, no one has really reached the scale needed to become a dependable, multi-city or national resource, and reliable information about the true accessibility of everyday destinations remains elusive at best.
Now, two women who are both longtime wheelchair users think they may have solved this riddle. Their product, 360-access.com, debuts fittingly on July 26, the by now well noted 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Co-founders Joann Peterson and Madonna Long are turning the concept of crowd-sourcing on its head, instead boldly asking the venues themselves to provide the information for disabled, older and otherwise constrained consumers–such as the presence and quantity of stairs, accessible bathrooms, Braille or online menus, hearing induction loops, sound levels and more. 360-Access will provide these opt-in venues with a survey that will enable managers to quickly note their business’ accessible strengths and weaknesses, giving customers an accurate picture of what to expect. With that and a small annual sponsor fee, restaurants and other venues will become listed in the app, making it easy for consumers to choose a destination that suits.
On the consumer side, people in the disability community can become members of 360-access at no cost and will receive regular info about upcoming discounts or events involving sponsors. Members or not, they will be able to verify the venue-supplied information and add their own reviews or comments.
Such verification is critical, because sometimes compliance with ADA guidelines is, unfortunately, no guarantee of design quality, and also because some managers may make overly optimistic or even knowingly false statements about how accessible their business really is.
Reviewers will also require reviewing. “All reviews are subject to an internal review before they go live,” says Peterson. There will be numerical ratings, and fouled or abusive language won’t be permitted.
Will it be hard to get owners and managers to sign up, especially if they have to fill out a survey that acknowledges a lack of compliance? 360-access takes a welcome reality-based approach. “We would love the world to be 100% accessible for everyone,” Peterson says. “But we aren’t here to talk about compliance. We’re here to talk about what exists today–and in the future. If businesses provide information about the features they do have–based on ADA guidelines–then the person with a disability will be able to make an informed decision.”
Indeed, the ability to plan ahead for even a casual trip is key for anyone with accessibility in mind. Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad likes to bring her Bronx-based family, which includes her sister, a wheelchair user, into Manhattan and around the city to visit tourist destinations and have a nice meal. “Finding reliable digital information about accessibility is the most difficult part of the trip” she says. That information was so scarce that she created a blog, Accessible Travel NYC, so she could describe her family’s frustrations and triumphs for her readers.
360-access’s co-founders met at a technology conference in Pittsburgh after Peterson spotted Long sitting alone in her wheelchair. “I just crutched over to her and introduced myself,” Peterson laughs. That was essentially when the app went into development. A planned launch in 2018 had to be scrapped when Abator’s Chief Information Officer, who had designed the proprietary software for that version of 360-access, passed away suddenly. Stunned, they nonetheless went back to work, and decided to pull the trigger as the ADA hit its 30th anniversary.
Peterson and Long persevered by staying focused on their goal, and by drawing on their own experience and connections–along with being, according to Peterson, “100 percent self-funded.” Peterson is the CEO of Abator, an IT engineering systems firm she founded almost four decades ago in Pittsburgh, where it remains; 360-access is being housed under the Abator umbrella, at least for now. Long is a career-long advocate and activist, with a wide and deep network of connections across the U.S., including the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Centers for Independent Living, as well as chambers of commerce and local travel and transportation organizations. She’ll be leveraging those contacts to build partnerships to hopefully bring in the restaurants and other venues that will populate the site. “If we map it,” she predicts, “they will come.”
And if they don’t? Peterson doesn’t flinch. “No risk, no reward,” she declares. But it’s more than that for these personally invested partners.
“We want the emotional reward if it kicks off. Our community need this, and I want to help move it forward.” In the end, Peterson says, “I believe it will work. I don’t believe we will fail.”