A Smart City Is an Accessible City

Timi Hamraie at The Atlantic: “A new breed of accessibility apps can make life easier for people with disabilities. They can also make it harder….

Digital-accessibility maps are proliferating rapidly, thanks in part to the release of apps such as AXS MapAccess EarthAccessNow, and Wheelmap. In the decade that I have been studying accessibility, I have come across dozens of these projects (and even started one of my own). Some, such as AccessNow and AXS Map, are carried out by and with their potential users: people who are disabled and who identify a gap in more mainstream mapping technologies. Others are supported by people with relationships to disability, such as family members or therapists, and still others by philanthropic start-ups and major technology companies, such as Google.

Digital-accessibility maps assume that crowdsourcing serves two purposes. First, user-contributed data can provide information quickly while simultaneously educating the public about accessibility best practices. Some apps even allow users to establish profiles and receive recognition on leaderboards for the number of places they have surveyed. Some hope that this will spur the emergence of a new type of urban citizenship: the so-called smart citizen, a technologically enabled community member who contributes time, labor, and device time to generate data about everyday life. Even if such a citizen does not identify as disabled, noticing and documenting the built environment can promote awareness of barriers that many people with physical, sensory, and mental disabilities face.

People have been crowdsourcing accessibility data far longer than apps have been around. Disability activists have been drawing maps by hand for decadesto prove the need for curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, signage, and other features that make public access possible, particularly for wheelchair users. In cities such as Berkeley, California, and Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, environmental audits, mapmaking, ad-hoc design practices, and “guerrilla urbanism” have enabled wheelchair and power-chair users to get around otherwise inaccessible cities by, for example, fashioning curb cuts from found materials.

But long before crowdsourcing became a term for technology-assisted outsourcing, disability activists were questioning the wisdom of the crowds in this process. Many disability activists are fond of the motto “Nothing about us without us,” which binds together design practice and political protest. Consequently, many of these interventions have taken place outside formal architecture or urban-planning practices. That cuts both ways. In Berkeley, people who are blind or visually impaired sometimes objected to guerrilla urbanist curb cuts, arguing that such interventions made cities less predictable and therefore harder to navigate. Eventually, activists worked in cross-disability coalitions to produce a new design standard: a curb cut with raised, yellow, tactile bumps that would enable wheelchair access while also signaling the coming change in grade to someone using a cane….(More)”.