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Irish startup wants to be a Google Maps for people with disabilities

ADA Sign Depot

March 08, 2016

ADA Sign Depot

A Google Maps for people with disabilities

Source: Mashable

Access Earth – Irish Startup Tech Company

In 2012, Matt McCann visited London thinking he had booked the perfect hotel room.

Beyond searching for a good price and decent location, he needed a hotel designed with accessibility in mind. McCann has cerebral palsy and uses a rolling walker to get around, and found a place that seemed to meet his needs. But he soon find out that, while the hotel marketed itself as accessible, it was anything but.

There were three steps that led up to the entrance, preventing anyone who uses a mobility aid like a wheelchair or walker from accessing the building easily — or at all. To make matters worse, once McCann had finally made his way into the building, he couldn’t fit his rollator through the doorway of his room.

“At that point, how are they accessible?” he tells Mashable.

The troubling experience led the Irish graduate from the National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM) to take on the overall issue himself. He created Access Earth, a web platform and app that crowdsources data on accessible buildings and locations to help people with disabilities.

In many cases, especially in cities like Dublin and London with their older architecture, accessibility may not be up to scratch, McCann explains. Business owners might not think it’s much of a problem, but a couple of entryway steps completely exclude the parts of the population with physical disabilities.

With Access Earth, McCann and Ryan O’Neill, who covers the business development side of things, want to build a global user-generated platform for users to add and search for data on accessibility in hotels, restaurants, theaters, stadiums and other businesses.

Users could plan out a trip in their city by checking if the store they’re going to has a ramp, or if a nearby café has a wide door for wheelchairs or an accessible bathroom.

McCann and O’Neill, who are currently the only two working full-time on the site but have had some volunteers and friends helping out, have slowly been gaining attention for their idea. They took part in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in Seattle, Washington, and the Enactus World Cup for student entrepreneurs in Johannesburg, South Africa.

While they didn’t win these contests, the interest in Access Earth showed them that they were onto something. One of the Enactus judges even pushed them to continue developing the platform, McCann says.

The site is currently in its infancy, with a focus on data in Dublin, but anyone around the world can use it. The duo has worked with Irish organizations like the National Disability Authority and Irish Wheelchair Association to get a grasp of the best criteria that makes a building accessible. The IWA, for example, has lengthy guidelines on accessibility, from measurements for door openings to the minimum number of accessible rooms a hotel needs.

Now, McCann and O’Neill are focused on building up as much data as possible, with their eyes set on a mobile app in the future, and gathering together a user base before they start approaching businesses for partnerships.

“It’s about realizing what you can do to make [your business] more accessible,” O’Neill says, adding that many businesses often overstate or falsely advertise their accessibility features.

He recalls a local restaurant having an accessible bathroom available on the premises, but it was down a flight of stairs with no elevator. Often businesses don’t fully invest in accessibility, or forget the seemingly little things that could make a huge difference.

A platform like Access Earth could hold such businesses accountable.

“People see a wheelchair and the Access Earth [logo], and we tell them it’s a platform for accessibility, [so] they think disability straightaway. It shouldn’t be like that,” O’Neill continues. “At the end of the day, accessibility impacts all of us. It might not be yourself, but maybe you have a grandparent and they have trouble with steps. I know with my grandparents, they don’t use walking aids, but they can’t go to a restaurant where there are 10 steps.”

“Then you have invisible disabilities like cystic fibrosis, and you don’t realize how much trouble walking distance is or a couple of steps,” McCann adds.

Accessibility information for hotels is especially important, he says. When people are traveling, accommodations are usually one of the first things they book. Access Earth wants to be the go-to platform for all this information, rather than trawling through booking sites or solely calling hotels to ask if they’re accessible.

Platforms like Access Earth are another cog in a growing user-generated effort to make places more accessible. Startups like Accomable are addressing accessibility for accommodation. You also have sites like Washington D.C.’s Is This Venue Accessible, a burgeoning community of user reviews about music venues around the world, or Legless in Dublin, which reviews bars, hotels and restaurants, and encourages them to improve their buildings’ features.

Data for U.S. cities on Access Earth is sparse at the moment, but it’s open for users to add information. That requires the team to spend plenty of time ensuring it’s always up to date and accurate. Currently, Access Earth also has an ambassador program — a group of volunteers who go out and rate buildings to populate the app and encourage more people to use it.

Right now, you can check out some locations in places like New York or Seattle, such as the latter’s Motif Hotel, which carries a positive rating for its accessible features. A spokesperson for the hotel tells Mashable that 13 of its rooms meet the ADA accessibility standards, which is reflected in the data on Access Earth.

“Within the next 12 months we want to be in the United States as our second country,” O’Neill says. “We built up some connections through competing in competitions over there, and that will be our next step.”

t’s a big challenge to implement a widespread review system as big as the one Access Earth plans, especially as disability laws and regulations vary widely by country.

But right now, McCann and O’Neill are focused on growing gradually — and doing it well.

The two-person team hopes to make some hires soon, both to help develop the app and to promote the business. They’re also applying for funding through Irish government programs for young startups, and will aim to partner with businesses in the future.

But driving a social change is at the heart of the company, and pushing for a better business attitude and culture toward accessibility, rather than having it viewed as an afterthought or burden.

O’Neill says it’s always a topical issue. Despite progress, he explains, we’re still not there in 2016 — and businesses shouldn’t get away with claiming accessibility when it’s sorely lacking. Raising awareness remains the No. 1 task.

“That will push and drive the change socially, for everybody else to get on board with it as well,” he says.

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