Tag Archives: accessibility

Sidewalk Too Steep for Your Wheelchair? In Seattle, There’s an App for That


Debbie says:

In Yes! Magazine, Megan Wildhood features one of the most useful apps I’ve ever seen:

For the nearly 50,000 Seattle residents who live with disabilities and are younger than 65, not to mention the roughly 90,000 who are older than 65 and are more likely to face mobility challenges, getting around the city is a constant challenge with few easy remedies.

Seattle, as its residents know, has a high proportion of steep streets. So the folks at Hack the Commute built AccessMap Seattle, an app to enable wheelchair users and other mobility-impaired folks to find out where they can (and can’t) navigate:

On the app, which is free, users can find streets color-coded for steepness (green for flat, yellow for moderate, and red for steep), and the locations of curb cuts, bus stops, and elevators, as well as construction sites, which tend to sprawl and block crosswalks and sidewalks. When discerning steepness, users can select from predetermined settings for “wheelchair,” “powered,” “cane” or “custom,” which allows users to set the maximum uphill and downhill steepness for their needs.

Wildhood’s excellent article features both the importance of the app and the difficulties in creating it (not to mention making a template for other cities):

The AccessMap team has found data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to be inaccurate or incomplete, particularly regarding curb ramp locations. That’s largely because of funding: City and county taxes still tend to benefit drivers and freeways, not pedestrians or mass transit, and budget cuts often limit municipal governments to large-scale planning and infrastructure projects, like for bridges and freeway on-ramps. Plus, when legislation is proposed to redirect spending, drivers can put up a fight.

If Seattle can do it, other cities can do it. And what a great project for some of the Summer of Code projects, prisoner coding projects, and other efforts to bring marginalized folks into coding — even better if they can also help marginalized folks by the coding they do.

What Is Walking Good For?

Debbie says:

As the World Cup moves through its paces, I keep thinking about this post from Lisa Wade at Sociological Images:

Juliano Pinto, who has paraplegia, kicked off the World Cup wearing an exoskeleton. The media story is, of course, “Look at this amazing technology that lets people out of wheelchairs and let them walk!”

Lisa Wade refers us to Red Nicholson at AttitudeLive, who has a different view:

The implicit message from the media seems to be, ‘Wheelchairs suck! Walk in this robot instead!’.

In many ways, it’s as if mainstream news organisations have taken it upon themselves to fulfil the “dream” of wheelchair users, without actually stopping to ask two really important questions.

  1. Is this really your dream?
  2. How will this relentless pursuit of pseudo-walking (because let’s be clear here, we’re strapping you to a robot) make people feel who don’t share this dream?

So for the record: this is not my dream. I have no more desire to be strapped to a robot than I do to go swimming with great white sharks. In truth, my life as a wheelchair-user is a very good one. I do a lot of great things and know a lot of great people.

So hey, able-bodied media: quit making me feel like wheelchairs are a shitty, sub-par option. Stop beating your exoskeleton drum. And most of all, let go of your obsession with walking, because it’s totally overrated.

It should go without saying that Nicholson is making enormously good sense, and voices like his need to be heard — a lot!

But, speaking as a person who can walk, I think he is leaving out two important things.

First, our buildings and structures and systems need to be welcoming to people in wheelchairs. Walking is not over-rated if it’s the only way to get somewhere you need or want to be. Almost no single-family homes are built for wheelchairs, and many apartments are also inaccessible (though some dwellings are ramped after the fact, generally when a wheelchair user moves in). So life in a wheelchair means life not visiting a lot of other people’s homes, not seeing your friends in their own spaces. Even when public space is reasonably accessible, it is often not thought out: the building might be accessible but the bathroom door too narrow, or the elevators might take you to some floors and not others.

That’s a frustration that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by responsible building practices and a commitment to universal design.

Second, temporarily able-bodied people like me (some disabled people call us “TABs”) are often patronizing, disparaging, or dismissive of people we can’t look in the eye. People in wheelchairs are often treated like children, or become invisible. It’s common for a wheelchair user with a service dog to have people talk to the dog and not the human … repeatedly. It’s not just common but standard for restaurant, store, and public employees to ask the walking companion of a wheelchair user “Does he want …?” “Would she like …?” as if the person in the chair was deaf, or incapable of talking, or incapable of thinking.

That’s a discrimination that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by changing social expectations to recognize the lived human experience of the person in the chair.

I’m genuinely glad that Red Nicholson thinks walking is overrated. I think so too. But some of the perks that come with walking could be far more widely extended. And then maybe the high-tech exoskeletons would be more of a toy and less socially important.