Irish start-up wants to be Google Maps for people with disabilities


Access Earth Ambassador Program (Click to enlarge)

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.

Access Earth Map Image: Access Earth (Click to enlarge)

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.”

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