Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and among many observances was an event at the White House that was co-sponsored by the FCC and the Department of Commerce. There's a pretty good overview on the FCC blog and a great detailed review from the folks at Purple.
I was fortunate enough to participate, not merely representing Expert Labs but also as someone trying to articulate how innovations from the world of startups and web technology could really make an impact in making more areas of society truly accessible to all.
The analogy that I kept coming back to during the whole day of conversations at the White House and at the Department of Commerce's brainstorming session later in the day was that the ADA is famous for being the inspiration behind curb cuts, the accessible ramps we see on every sidewalk at every street corner. But curb cuts didn't just enable those who were in wheelchairs to get around more easily. They're also a major reason why a market exists today for Bugaboo or McLaren strollers. They're the reason that Samsonite suitcases 20 years ago didn't have wheels on them, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a piece of luggage today that doesn't have wheels. I'm not saying the highest purpose of the ADA was to enable people to buy thousand-dollar baby buggies, but making things accessible for all has the side benefit of yielding tremendous benefits (and, not incidentally, opening huge new markets for business) for everyone regardless of ability.
Which leads to the specific request I have for my friends and associates who've got some time and tech talent on their hands: Ability Maps. One recurring theme from the advocates I talked with at the ADA anniversary event was that it's hard to know which physical places are truly accessible to people with various disabilities. Some municipalities have information about individual facilities like transit systems, but it can be hard to find or out of date, and even in the best cases often doesn't cover private businesses or shopping and recreational areas.
But we're in the middle of a huge revolution in location-based services like Foursquare, right? Isn't everyone from Facebook to Twitter to Gowalla clamoring for a way to distinguish themselves in the race for places?
Well, here's an idea: Let users of a service like Foursquare log in to a site and identify themselves by any accessibility concerns that they have. A user could log in with his social network identity, check a box that says he's visually impaired or has difficulty climbing stairs, and then give the site permission to log his check-ins to various venues. The terms of service could specify that no individual information would ever be shared, only aggregated data.
Once a few users had signed in and check-ins started to be recorded, it'd be possible to ask "Which venues in this area are popular amongst people who've identified themselves as blind?" If there's a restaurant with a disproportionate number of check-ins from blind diners, then odds are, they're doing a decent job of accommodation. Found a theme park that's popular with patrons who use a wheelchair? It'll probably be suitable for other folks on wheels, too.
In short, users label themselves with self-descriptive tags. Then they check in to venues as normal. The site that's tracking them aggregates their visited venues by tags, and allows maps (or simple search queries) by tags to show patterns or popular venues. Voila: An imperfect, but perfectly usable, map of the places that welcome people of all abilities. And nobody is individually trackable to the places that they hang out.
Does it already exist?
Interestingly, this sort of thing is very nearly possible right now. Twitter users can tag themselves on sites like WeFollow already. Foursquare's venue pages already show who has checked in lately, but a separate list could tell us about the self-identified traits of those who did. Our ThinkUp app (formerly ThinkTank) from Expert Labs does a great job of aggregating social networking messages on Twitter and Facebook; It could be part of the toolkit for this sort of thing, too.
But maybe we could go even simpler. If we find places that are accessible (or maybe ones that are inaccessible) we could just use hashtags as part of a shout when checking in to a venue. "I just ousted @somebody as the mayor of Starbucks on @foursquare!" could evolve into something far more powerful simply by becoming "I just ousted @somebody as the mayor of Starbucks on @foursquare! #wheelchair".
I'm certainly not expert enough to know what the hashtags should be, or all the ways that people could identify themselves appropriately in an ability-aware check-in aggregator. But we're definitely very close to a lightweight way of identifying and rewarding the places that allow everyone in, and making clear which places don't. It doesn't require any new regulations or onerous processes, just a simple set of conventions and some good word-of-mouth amongst those who want to make the world a more accessible place. And this sort of scrappy, rough-around-the-edges imperfect solution is the kind of thing that government just can't do very easily for itself. That makes it perfect for us to do for each other.
If you build it, I promise I can help bring it to the attention of the folks who regulate these sorts of things, and will shout from the rooftops about your new site and its ability maps. Got a promising start on this? Let me know and I'll help you make sure it succeeds.