Like guerrilla urbanism, accessibility mapping is often a collective, political endeavor: a way of staking a claim for better access to public spaces as a group effort. That may sound obvious, but the enforcement of laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act is often conducted to resolve individual grievances, not to create infrastructure for all. If I encounter an inaccessible place, it is up to me to bring forward a complaint, which may launch an investigation, at the conclusion of which one business may be required to make changes to its physical environment. If I want to make the building next door more accessible, I have to go through the same process.
The result is a patchwork of accessible and inaccessible locations. New urban trends promoting more stairs and LED lighting (which can cause migraines and sensory overstimulation), and smart-city campaigns designed without considering visual impairments, create additional obstacles. Accessibility mapping becomes an ongoing project, not a onetime effort.
One solution is accessibility map-a-thons, which have taken place around the world, from Nashville to Paris. Getting lots of people together can produce broad, collective understandings of access and can help people who do not typically experience access barriers to notice and report them. Assembling that data into databases surfaced by apps makes that information enduring.
But despite their good intentions, map-a-thons sometimes presume a binary kind of accessibility, or that anyone can notice and measure the built environment’s accessibility. Many simply ask whether a location is accessible: yes or no. Others look for wheelchair access alone, ignoring nonmobility disabilities related to sight, hearing, cognition, chronic illness, learning, or chemical sensitivity. In most cases, data report on only a business’s entryway, when the minimum requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines require far more detailed measures of accessibility.
People who primarily move by walking might not be aware of the spatial parameters needed for a wheelchair to turn inside a small space, like a bathroom. People who rely on vision to navigate might not know how to assess a location for its friendliness to the visually impaired. People who are not sensitive to certain lighting or scents might not even notice the presence of these features. Crowdsourcing can create as many problems as it solves.
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An app might mark a bathroom as “accessible” if stairs need not be negotiated to reach it. But the height of hand dryers and sinks might make it inaccessible, even for the wheelchair users who initially inspired the observation. The quality of lighting or the presence of chemical cleaners could make that same space inaccessible for different people, too. Likewise, information about whether staff are fluent in American Sign Language, whether menus and signs appear in braille, or whether flickering lights could cause seizures often goes overlooked in the data sourced for digital-accessibility apps. Evaluating these features relies largely on lived experience—thus that disability-rights motto, “Nothing about us without us.”