LeadingAge Magazine · January-February 2019 • Volume 09 • Number 01

Crowdsourcing Accessibility

January 18, 2019 | by Gene Mitchell

This New England initiative is a model for how today’s navigation and communication tools can be used to help people with mobility impairments enjoy their community, and how businesses and other public organizations can be educated about making themselves more accessible to all.

Residents of Portsmouth, NH, and a number of other New England towns are benefiting from an effort to identify and catalogue accessibility information for public spaces. Employees of JSA, Inc., a Portsmouth senior living and health care architecture firm, have created Access Navigators, an effort to inform residents with mobility impairments about accessibility in local businesses and public attractions.

LeadingAge spoke to Todd Hanson, a principal at JSA, and Anne Weidman, community engagement director for the firm, about their efforts.

Hanson’s personal story bears directly on his efforts to identify and catalogue accessibility information for public spaces. In his public appearances, Hanson usually introduces himself with remarks pre-loaded onto—and spoken by—an iPad:

“I may have been best known as a runner here in New Hampshire. I ran countless miles for over 30 years, and actually won a few races now and then. I was also a pretty well-known architect who developed a specialty in planning hospitals and health care facilities. I thought I understood accessibility. About 10 years ago my reality began to change, big-time. I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disease that would take away my ability to walk and even to speak. But it provided me with whole new insights about what the world is like for people with mobility impairments. I went from running marathons and weekend hikes in the White Mountains, to needing a walker to keep from falling down, to finally resigning myself to a wheelchair. It took me a while to discover that there is value in an architect having his mouth shut but his eyes opened.”

During our conversation, Hanson used 2 iPads: one preloaded with remarks for speaking engagements, and the other on which he typed his answers to my questions in real time.

LeadingAge: Let’s start by talking about your initial efforts in your city. What is the story of Access Portsmouth?

Access Navigators
The Access Navigators home page.

Anne Weidman: It started in the summer of 2016. Todd was using a wheelchair for mobility at that point, and said he had a hard time taking family out to eat, because they would get to a restaurant and he couldn’t get in the door. He found a few places [with better access] and thought about setting up a blog to share the information.

We decided this could be a big initiative. We started in Portsmouth with [information] about 12 restaurants, and within 3 months had over 100 restaurants. We then moved into attractions like theaters and parks, outdoor and indoor attractions—reporting on accessibility—and then finding groups of users, people with mobility impairments, to test these places. Though Todd uses a wheelchair, I do not, and I can only report what I’ve been trained to see. As a non-wheelchair-user I need to find users to make it real. Our user fact-checkers are very valuable to us.

The chamber of commerce puts our link on its website, and more than half of our web traffic comes through that site [The Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth]. We speak to organizations all over New England. We’ve learned that keeping people connected to their communities is a big benchmark for health and wellness, particularly behavioral/mental health issues that can develop when you get isolated from your communities. What we didn’t expect is that this [has become] a big economic driver for restaurants. When they are good enough to go on our website, they see a bump in their traffic. People who use wheelchairs don’t usually go out by themselves or even with 1 other person. It’s usually a celebration of something, and because they can’t access someone’s house, the group goes to a restaurant and it’s a party of 10.

LeadingAge: How did Access Portsmouth morph into Access Navigators?

Anne Weidman: We were so successful in Portsmouth that the logical thing was to scale it up. By spring of 2017, using only JSA staff, our hands were still tied geographically to Portsmouth. We entered into an alliance with the University of New Hampshire [UNH]. This initiative has become a 2-credit course for public health nursing students. The students come to us at the beginning of the semester, and we teach them about accessibility and what to look for in a building. We teach them how to speak to business owners. They meet with users, people with mobility impairments. Then they hit the streets and gather data. We just wrapped this past [semester] and these students gathered data from 9 communities across New Hampshire, now added to our online maps. Going forward, we’re looking for other schools to partner with … where students can be our data gatherers, our foot soldiers.

LeadingAge: What will users find at the Access Navigators website?

Anne Weidman: You can navigate to towns in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. We have an accessible brewery map, so people with mobility impairments know what to expect at these little nanobreweries that are popping up all over New England.

LeadingAge: What are the key attributes needed for a business to be accessible and welcoming?

Anne Weidman: First, we should be clear that we are not ADA inspectors. This is not about ADA compliance, but our data gatherers do carry business cards from the New England ADA Center, so business owners know who they can ask about [those issues].

The first thing we look at is to see if the entry is level, with no more than a half-inch bump on the threshold. We look for “pull-side clearance,” so that a person using a wheelchair can get off to the side when pulling the door open. We look at the vestibule to see that it’s properly laid out. Any time those doors don’t have perfect clearances, we tell you exactly what to expect. For instance, ADA asks for a 32-inch opening. If an opening is 30 inches and everything else is perfect, we’ll tell you that. If you’re in a power chair that’s particularly wide, you will know if it’s a bad fit. Todd’s chair is 24 inches; if he sees 30 inches, he’ll know it’s fine.

We don’t say something is good or bad, we just tell you what to expect. And we’re reliable. Primarily, the site covers restaurants, so for instance, we look for standard-height tables; high-top tables mean your dinner is going to be up at the level of your nose.

Also, we look for clearances between tables: 36 inches between the backs of chairs when people are seated is a great thing. These are ADA compliance numbers but we’re not in there with a measuring tape, we’re just trying to eyeball it well.

We take a look at the bathroom. ADA asks for 2 grab bars. Building codes in a majority of states call for a third one. We tell you how many there are, and expect that the user will know what they need. It allows you to plan ahead. If a restaurant really isn’t hitting these requirements—if you can’t get in the door, for instance—they’re simply not on our website. There’s no wall of shame, we’re not going to call it out. Our goal is to push business to restaurants that do accessibility well.

The fourth thing we’re looking for is parking. In a lot of New England towns, parking spaces can be a challenge. We point it out, we link to parking maps when we can, and we try to look at that whole experience from the time you drive into town, get out of your car and get into the restaurant, and then back to your car.

Access Navigators Portsmouth NH
A detail from a city page at AccessNavigators.com.


LeadingAge: What do you find in office buildings, museums, churches, and other such places?

Anne Weidman: We’ve looked at museums and theaters, which go into our attractions category. We have not done office buildings or city buildings. We have not done retail, because they change too often and retail [sites don’t] have to have a restroom, so it really just becomes all about the entry.

We use the phrase “derail your outing.” Will what you find in this restaurant derail your outing, or can you manage if you come here?

Churches are a challenge. JSA is consulting with some churches now about accessibility. A lot of churches are old, so they weren’t planned that way. Anything that’s new construction has to comply with ADA law. In renovations there are all sorts of gray areas, which is when you call the New England ADA Center. You don’t always have to bring it up [to standards] as perfectly as we’d wish.

LeadingAge: Todd, how do office buildings measure up in general?

Todd Hanson: I was asked to attend a meeting in Boston on accessible housing, and when I got to the door of an old city office building in the rain, I found only steps. Luckily, I was with another person who was able to go in and we were directed down an alley to a back door. But most newer office buildings are fairly safe, accessibility-wise.

Anne Weidman: We’ve spoken all over New England, and for me, it’s a terrifying eye opener when you go to these towns where you don’t know what to expect and there are so many old buildings and they are not planned very well for people with mobility impairments. We had an epic adventure in a parking garage that had no accessible parking spaces, and then no way to get out except for wheeling down the “marble chute” that got us out of the garage onto the street, only to discover there were no curb cuts, so we couldn’t get up on the sidewalk, and then had to wheel down the busy street! And then we had a speaking gig in a building with no accessible restrooms. I found that incredibly stressful, and the next day I thanked Todd, because that was a good exercise for me to have. I had to try to find access all day, and later realized it was just 1 day for me, but for Todd, any time he visits a new town, this is his “normal.”

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Trends Among Aging-Services Providers

LeadingAge: How about retirement communities such as LeadingAge members? Presumably we’re doing a lot of things right, but perhaps we’re not.

Anne Weidman: The organizations we work with in senior living manage accessibility pretty darn well. If anyone’s going to get it right, it’s a senior living community because they understand the needs of their population. We’re talking to communities about the broader picture, particularly with independent living. Those residents are more active and engaged, and like to know what’s going on in the area around their communities. It’s about mapping and finding the resources in order to keep residents engaged with the surrounding neighborhood.

LeadingAge: Do you have an ask for our members?

Anne Weidman: We’re looking for partners around the country. We can easily do training online, and we have a toolkit that helps people understand what to look for. We’re working on collaborations with other universities, and if there’s an interested senior living community, we would look to see if we could [create] a team of data collectors [from both] to investigate their area.

In the current Design for Aging Review award book there are trend studies, let me quote, an “increased focus on the impact of social isolation … The jury recognized that submissions continue to create connections to the greater neighborhood, including being within walking distance to public transit and public services and amenities.”

They’re seeing more communities built in cities and suburbs, and that residents want to be connected to the greater neighborhood.

We’ve seen some retirement communities use Access Navigators for the benefit of family members. It’s a guidebook for when you pick up grandma; it picks up new possibilities for them.

LeadingAge: It’s valuable for family members who live out of state and come to visit their parents, perhaps to a town where they are essentially strangers.

Anne Weidman: Or it could be the other way around. For instance, Todd had challenges while visiting his mother in Tulsa: In that case, he was the one that needed the accessibility, and his mother did as well.

Think about trends in senior living, such as aging in place. If you’re going to stay in your own home until age 86, you’ll need some help re-learning your neighborhood. You see social isolation when people have stayed in their own homes.

LeadingAge: I’m sure you could live in a place for 60 years and not even see it through those lenses until things change for you; suddenly it’s a whole different world.

Anne Weidman: That’s Todd! His world changed more quickly than a person aging in place, and he sees it through an architect’s eyes too.

LeadingAge: Your work seems to dovetail with the age-friendly community movement.

Anne Weidman: It’s a perfect dovetail. We unofficially partner with Sylvia von Aulock, the director of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, She’s been doing some phased studies on age-friendly cities with AARP. When someone invites Sylvia to speak, they sometimes invite us to come in tandem with her.

We’ve already started looking at visual access for people with vision impairments, and we’ve taken our lead from the Newburyport, MA, and its commission on disabilities. The head of the commission is vision-impaired, and she’s given us all sorts of guidance. Now, it’s primarily [about] menus, but we have some graduate students at UNH that are looking at what our towns look like—or should I say don’t look like—for those who have vision impairments.

Visual access is starting to appear on some reviews, but another big new [measurement] that is coming on Access Navigators is noise levels in restaurants. Every time we speak, someone asks about noisy restaurants. It’s a problem for people with hearing impairments, or neural or sensory issues, and also just for people who want to have a conversation when they go out. We’re looking at some technology that will help us reliably measure the sound in a restaurant.

In this process we’re creating listings, but we’re also giving suggestions to business owners. I’m not talking about $200,000 elevators. Could you just put some signage on your accessible back door, so we can find it?

We help them with where the trash can should or shouldn’t be in the bathroom. Or what about that cute table you put into the accessible restroom … it now blocks the turning circle, so does it need to be there? We make easy comments—that your doorknobs cause difficulty, and for $30 you could switch to better doorknobs for people with arthritic hands.

Todd Hanson: You need to be able to operate hardware and faucets with a closed hand.

Anne Weidman: We look for quirky things—for instance, the flush handle on the toilet should be on the room side rather than the wall side. But that won’t derail your outing.

Some things are just harder to change. For example, the hand dryer on the opposite wall from the sink means that you’ll have to use wet hands on the wheels of your wheelchair.

We giggle at some funny stories. When we first started, Todd had done a few of the restaurants and he wrote a review about a coffee shop in Portsmouth, and said everything was great. We published it, and then I asked a friend who uses a wheelchair to check it out. He came back and asked, “Who wrote up that coffee shop, it’s not right. The fixings bar is up so high that when I’m putting cream in my coffee, I’m afraid I’ll spill the hot coffee on myself.”

So I went back to Todd to say, “What the heck,” and he started laughing and said, “I take my coffee black.” He hadn’t really looked at the fixings bar because it didn’t affect him. Whether disabled or not, everyone looks at a space differently.

We’re happy for anyone, anywhere to gather data for us. It’s great if you reach out for the toolkit, but on every map page there are online data collection forms, and they bring up a Google form, and we walk you through the things we look for, and give you the points to look for, and we ask for your email address so if we have a question we can reach out for clarification. (Your email address doesn’t go into a database.) That’s how our students collect data, and we have some retired people who collect data for us. It comes to me on a spreadsheet and then I standardize the language and move it onto maps. If you live in Tulsa, get me 15-20 restaurants and we can make a map for Tulsa!

We’re happy to have conference calls; we can train online, and we have some bulleted suggestions and checklists that we use to train our UNH students that we can use as well.

Editor’s note: Todd Hanson and Anne Weidman will present an education session at the LeadingAge Leadership Summit, March 17-20, 2019, in Washington, DC. They are scheduled for Tuesday, March 19.

Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.