Building Better Maps for the Disability Community

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.

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.

While laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act in the US require businesses and public facilities to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, 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.”