Sunday, August 16, 2015

Disabled Accessibility & Civic Hacking

Accessibility, or disabled accessibility, appears to be a topic ripe for civic hacking, although I use the term ‘appears’ because thus far I’ve only glimpsed the tip of the accessibility iceberg.

I’m writing this post as a result of two things that happened last week. The first was a conversation with my sister and her family while they were on vacation at a rental cottage in Wautoma, Wisconsin. The other catalyst for this post was an article I read about open data from the US Census Bureau.

The first requirement for a discussion about accessibility is to define what is meant by that term. Today’s post will deal primarily with mobility accessibility, but there is a whole spectrum of other accessibility issues which civic hackers may want to consider. The two definitions below from Wikipedia help show what those other issues include.

Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities...which includes not only physical access but access to the same tools, services, organizations and facilities for which everyone pays.” Disability is defined asthe consequence of an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these.” As mentioned, today I’ll just focus on mobility accessibility.

The article I read last week that connected accessibility and civic hacking was “How the Census Bureau evangelizes open data.” The article was about open data from the US census and the five finalists in the Census Bureau City Software Development Kit (SDK) Data Solutions Challenge.
The five finalists in the Census Bureau’s open data challenge showcased their apps...highlighting how they used open data from the census to tackle a multitude of social problems. 
One of the finalists, Disabled Accessibility Score, developed in Minneapolis, uses open census data to allow people with disabilities to find the best places to live or travel in Minnesota. The app lets users search accessibility scores of five data sets: mobility, housing, hospital, safety and community. “I can think of many different federal agencies at this very moment [that] aren’t even aware of this and could use this application,” said Bender. “It has tremendous implications in health care and veterans affairs...”
Disability Accessibility Score (DAS) shows how publicly available data can help address mobility access issues. DAS is one of the early attempts to use accessibility open data, but I can see how the usefulness of this type of open data will improve tremendously as more accessibility data is provided in an open format and people begin using it more.

The conversation in Wautoma with my sister’s family was about finding family vacation spots that are enjoyable for people with mobility limitations. They like to do annual extended-family vacations at rental cottages, but they need to have a place that is wheelchair accessible, both the house and its surroundings. If just the house is wheelchair accessible and not the surroundings, then family members with mobility limitations can’t fully enjoy the vacation and are stuck in the house.

For my sister’s family, their ideal vacation spot will include, among other things, a one-level house or cottage with a swimming beach. In the years before they had mobility limitations, they enjoyed several cottages at a beautiful Lake Michigan beach, but that location has long stairs to get down to the beach. Their goal is to have the same enjoyable summer beach experience as those years when the kids were young, but be able to have it with wheelchair accessibility, which may also be listed on rental sites as handicapped accessibility.

Their other needs and wants are having every entrance wheelchair accessible, ramp to the beach, boardwalk on the beach or a beach wheelchair available, walk-in shower with assist bars and a bench, assist bars for the toilets, no carpet / rugs, plenty of space for a wheelchair throughout the house, and a large driveway for several cars with space for getting assistive devices in and out. Oh yeah, and they’d like the house(s) or cottage(s) to have at least five bedrooms and sleep at least twelve people. This is not the description of a common rental property!  :)

I’m going to have to do several weeks of research before I can make suggestions to my sister for how she can more easily find wheelchair accessible rental vacation cabins with a swimming beach. One answer might be that she should use certain search keyword phrases and operators. Another might be that a list of ten specific sites will help her find the best choices for a vacation rental. A third option might be that there are very few places like they need, and they should consider working with others to remodel or build one or several large wheelchair accessible cabins to fill that gap in the vacation rental market. A ‘civic hacking’ option might be to create a website (and mobile app?) that allows people who need wheelchair accessible vacation rentals to more easily find them. Research on this topic might also point out other potential civic hack projects for websites or mobile apps that would be very useful to people with mobility or other accessibility needs.

There has been some civic hacking around disability issues, and Philadelphia appears to have been especially active with this topic. Some of the work done in that city is discussed in “These locals are making tech more accessible for people with disabilities,” “Six projects from #Hack4Access: hackathon on disability, aging issues,” and “Civic hacking with Impact: Raising Visibility of (In)Accessibility in Philadelphia.” In the latter article, James Tyack explains,
Just over a year ago I started a volunteer civic project...at a Hackathon called Apps for Philly Transit...to raise awareness of good and bad accessibility by mapping accessible stations, elevator outages and accessible venues in Philadelphia… 
UnlockPhilly is a great example of a civic hacking project that has gone beyond the Hackathon to provide useful tools that take into account the needs of the community and make a positive impact...People have found the project online and contacted me; new volunteers have joined the team and contributions have even been made by volunteers I’ve never met via Github... 
Recognition of the hard work made by groups like ADAPT and the Disability Rights Network (DRN) is important. Accessibility has improved dramatically in Philadelphia over the past 20 years thanks to tireless campaigning by advocates and activists. For example, all city buses are now wheelchair accessible and elevators have been installed at many stations. However, there are still huge problems: shops, restaurants, bars and recreational facilities are often completely inaccessible, many stations are still inaccessible and extended elevator outages reduce the number of accessible places still further...”
NE Wisconsin cities are nowhere near as large as Philadelphia, but there are bound to be mobility accessibility issues even in our smaller cities. An accessibility project would be a great way for someone to get involved in civic hacking if they’re motivated to improve accessibility in their city or in the region, regardless of whether they (a) are disabled, (b) have a relative or friend who’s disabled, or (c) just want to make our communities better for those who are disabled.

The concept of civic hacking using 21st century tools to make our communities better or solve problems definitely applies to disabled accessibility issues. Here are four potential Next Steps for civic hackers in NE Wisconsin or elsewhere to consider in the realm of disabled accessibility.

  1. Research disabled accessibility issues to identify (a) major needs of disabled people nationally and in NE Wisconsin, (b) relevant local, state and federal open data or non-open data, (c) existing resources, apps and assistance for disabled people, and (d) all the existing civic hacking projects working on that topic. Parts of this information will be available in reports from state, federal or private organizations; other parts will be scattered across numerous websites. This is a great civic hacking project for non-coders to work on because there is a mountain of research needed that requires no coding skills.
  2. Recruit disabled people as civic hackers to work on this type of project because they’re the people who best know the challenges they face, the existing resources and what types of civic hacks would be most useful to them.
  3. Recruit as civic hackers people who are very knowledgeable and passionate about resources for disabled people, whether that involves mobility or some other type of disability.
  4. Show up for the August 19 civic hacking meetup at the Appleton Makerspace at 6 PM and start working on an accessibility civic hack! If you’re not sure where to start, I’ll be happy to help you.


Update -- 05 Apr 2016 -- This article, "Facebook's first blind engineer is revolutionizing social media as we know it," gives one look at why people with disabilities should be involved with civic hacking and other technology innovation efforts.

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1 comment:

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