Using iPhone Apps to Highlight Accessibility Issues

Via a story on Treehugger, I learned about an iPhone application called ‘Fill That Hole1,’ designed to allow members of the general public to draw the attention of public officials to potholes in their communities. Snap a picture, file a report, alert public officials to the fact that there are potholes that need to be fixed. This isn’t the only application providing this functionality, Jaymi Heimbuch at Treehugger noted in the article; this basic premise appears to be quite popular, actually.

Another example he provided was SeeClickFix, allowing people to report non-emergency safety issues in their communities. Both of these applications are terrific, as they encourage people to get involved in their communities while providing a really easy mechanism for doing it. You don’t have to locomote past a pothole, remember where it was, look up an official to contact, and then report it; you can do it right there and then, very quickly. I know I’m not the only one who sees problems in my community, sighs, and then doesn’t remember to contact someone at City Hall about it because I have a lot on my mind, so anything that would make it easier for me to tell people in charge about problems I identify is a good idea in my opinion!

Which got me thinking: Why not use applications like SeeClickFix to report accessibility issues in the community? I’d love an accessibility-specific application, actually, and I suspect that some of our readers may well be involved in the development of iPhone applications as well as applications for other phone platforms, and thus might be interested in such a project or might be aware of an existing application I’m not aware of and could point readers to it2.

I’m visualising an application that allows you to document accessibility issues like potholes, uneven ground, blocked accessible paths and entryways, and so forth, and submit that documentation to public officials. A neat doublewhammy would be an option to report them to the local newspaper as well. Here in Northern California, several newspapers maintain ‘hall of shame’ type features where they document community problems and publish them on the front page in a little box at the bottom to push public officials to make changes, and many of those papers are always looking for new issues to feature. I’m assuming that community papers in other regions do the same, or could be encouraged to start such a feature if it’s clear that there is community interest as well as the crowdsourcing ability to generate a steady flow of problems to feature.

Sending documentation of accessibility issues to newspapers would have a twofold impact of encouraging papers to discuss accessibility issues and raise awareness while also having the advantage of the newspaper platform for shaming public officials for chronic accessibility problems. Many members of the public aren’t aware of accessibility issues and don’t think about them, and featuring serious accessibility problems in the newspaper would force people to confront these issues, and could result in more conscientiousness about addressing accessibility problems before they start; someone planning an activity that will encroach on the sidewalk, for example, could think about potential accessibility problems it might pose and work on resolving those before starting the project.

For people who encounter personal barriers to accessibility or who notice accessibility problems, the barriers to reporting them can also be significant. You’ve got to take note of where the problem is and what’s going on, go home, look up the proper city official to contact, draft a communication, and send it, knowing full well that you might be the only person who is going to go through these steps, and thus that your complaint will be allowed to sit at the bottom of a pile forever. Having a phone application to facilitate rapid and concise reporting of accessibility issues would result in generating more reports, forcing people to actually pay attention to them and potentially leading to a quicker resolution of accessibility issues in the community.

I also love the idea of being able to use an application to crowdsource things like accessible routes, accessible restaurants, and so forth. When I was in the city with abby jean and Annaham recently, abby used her phone to look something up and I was struck by the fact that with people reporting on accessibility issues, her phone could have provided us with an accessible route to our location. Or we could have used her phone to look up an accessible restaurant, restroom, or attraction if we were dithering about what we wanted to do. In addition to saving disabled folks a lot of time, such applications would also act to encourage venues to be more accessible so they could be listed too. And individual user reports could cover different accessibility issues like loud noise, smells, flashing lights, and so forth; things that often aren’t considered ‘accessibility problems’ by the larger community, but would be great to know about before you schlep across 10 city blocks to get to a venue you can’t enter.

We’ve used the Internet to network as a community, why not use cell phone applications to make our communities more accessible?

  1. I am less than thrilled with this name, let it be said for the record.
  2. I should note for the record here that I barely ever use my cellphone and am really behind on cell phone applications, so if you’re rolling your eyes right now and thinking ‘how could s.e. not know about Some Great Accessibility App,’ well, that’s why.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

9 thoughts on “Using iPhone Apps to Highlight Accessibility Issues

  1. When I was having my last round of “would someone please make my city accessible”, a friend suggested that such an app on an iPhone, plus carrying around a few “fill in the blank” accessibility complaint forms would be really useful.

  2. Ooh, I knew I’d heard of something like this before. Some similar solutions were mentioned in a recent Easter Seals/Transportation Research Board conference call on transportation accessibility– see Session 2 on this summary page. (Specifically, it starts on page 14 of the transcript, and slide 25 of the slides.) They even mentioned SeeClickFix as something that could be used as a model.

    So it looks like there actually is some consideration of using apps like this to report accessibility issues.

  3. Incidentally, this reminds me of one of my own pet peeves.

    It was not uncommon at all for pedestrian crossing buttons to just not work where I was living. As in, you could push the button hard, and push it repeatedly, but never get a ‘walk’ signal.

    The only way to report this, of course, was by phone. The city had a web site, but they didn’t even list an e-mail address on it for public works, much less have any sort of contact form you could use to report issues. Half the time, I didn’t actually end up reporting these issues because it’s just too exhausting (regardless of whether I use relay or voice; the former is less stressful for me, but of course, much more stressful for everyone on the other end of the call).

    If they’d had an e-mail form, I could simply have sent them a Google Map showing not just the intersection but specifically which corner the issue was on, rather than having to describe it in words and possibly screwing up my description in the process. (I had to use Google Maps just to remember the street names half the time anyway, much less to figure out which of the four corners was affected!)

  4. A lot of pedestrian crossing buttons in the UK are actually fake. At a road junction, the pedestrian signals (if any exist) are usually under the same controls as the traffic lights, so it doesn’t matter if or when or how often you press the button; your turn will come when traffic on that road has to give way to traffic coming from somewhere else. You press the button and a “wait” light comes up, but that’s all it does. I think it’s a means of cultivating good habits in pedestrians, particularly children, and making crossings consistent, so kids know what to do when crossing and when to cross, etc.

  5. This seems a bit like what Ari Ne’eman is talking about in this interview (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/exclusive-ari-neeman-qa/all/1):

    “Second, I’d love to see research into ways of using social media to improve access for disabled people. If there was some kind of web-based tool or mobile app that enables people to flag buildings with “very good” or “very bad” access, it could spur a lot of positive social change.”

    Glad to see such a cool/needed idea get some play across the web!

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