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Maps

How can we make maps more inclusive?

The future of accessible mapping needs innovative technology like POI databases that, in turn, depend on broad and diverse communities gathering real life information.

As a person with fully functioning mental and physical capabilities, I take maps for granted. I look and plan my route, never having to worry about the availability of an elevator or hearing and sight services. But for the physically or cognitively disabled, most maps represent a series of unforeseen obstacles.

In cities, all too common situations become barriers: cobblestone, stairways, blocked ramps and inaccessible toilets to name only a few.

People with learning disabilities or those on the autistic spectrum, find the noise and stimulation of an urban environment equally inhibiting.

Did you know that inaccessibility can lead to increased cost of living, social isolation, poor nutrition or lack of medical attention? It can make disabled people feel like second-class citizens.

With the onset of increasingly detailed and accurate mapping technology, I wonder: what can we do to make maps more inclusive and useful for those with disabilities?

Disabled Man On Wheelchair In Front Of escalator and staircase

If you don't see stairs or revolving doors as obstacles, you're less likely to mark them on a map.

For whom, and by whom, was this map created?

“The fear of not being able to navigate busy, cluttered and visually oriented environments is a major barrier to participation in normal life," says David Meere, a visually impaired person from Melbourne, Australia.

Hundreds of millions of people living in cities around the world share David's fear. By 2050, citizens with disabilities will number an estimated 940 million people, or 15% of city dwellers.

Although the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Australia's Disability Discrimination Act attempt to boost rights and access, the reality is often very different.

Making cities more accessible is necessary but the task often presents urban planners with structural and financial obstacles making progress slow. With our current mapping technology, I see a potential for improved accessibility before people even reach the street.

The function of a map, and the responsibility of those who make them, is to reflect reality and provide navigation for all users, not only those taking the stairs.

It's time for digital mapping platforms to reveal what people without disabilities fail to see.

It takes a (diverse) village

Implementing location based technology like HERE's Places into a digital mapping platform can help those with disabilities plan accessible routes.

Geographical coordinates are great for finding a location, but they don't provide contextual accessibility details: is there an elevator, a ramp or a staircase? Incorrect and missing information can lead disabled users to arrive at dead ends or “no-go zones". Using Point-of-Interest (POI) databases to mark accessible roads, sidewalks, parks, stations, shops, bathrooms etc. will give disabled urbanites a more accurate representation of their city.

POI databases rely on information collected from multiple sources including those who know the ups and downs of the city best.

Urban accessibility map

Viewing accessible routes prior to leaving the house provides disabled people with the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

Research from large groups of disabled and able-bodied people via accessibility map-a-thons has the potential to produce an extensive, collective understanding of access, and can help able-bodied people notice and report barriers. Assembling the data into POI databases, publicized by mapping apps, makes the information lasting and effective.

But, map-a-thons often make binary assumptions and leave out important assessments. Rather than simply "is the location accessible, yes or no?" We should consider:

  • Will the location impede those with cognitive, chronic illness or learning disabilities?
  • Does the location accommodate the spatial needs of a wheelchair?
  • Are the staff respectful to visual/hearing impaired people?
  • Is the site scented or does it have lights that could cause reactions?

The future of accessibility runs deep

This is not to say that many cities are failing to move toward barrier-free infrastructure:

  • In Breda, NL authorities removed the cobblestone in the city centre, turned the stones upside-down and sliced them widthways. They now have a flat surface for those with mobility impediments.
  • In Melbourne a program featuring a Bluetooth beacon navigation system sends audio cues to users via smartphones. The system offers directions, notes escalator outages and guides people to accessible routes within Southern Cross train station.

While these solutions help make the physical space of a city more inclusive for all its inhabitants, many technological options remain restricted to able bodied people.

Projects like “Smart Cities for All" guarantee that smart technology will “seamlessly integrate" daily lives in urban space by connecting personal devices with city services. But, the design is primarily visual and textual, creating potential barriers for disabled users. And these services don't prevent people from arriving in less than accommodating circumstances.

Accessibility maps designed by cross-disability coalitions are more inclusive and functional. Rather than rely solely on visualizations of data, digital-accessibility maps can increase access by incorporating “deep mapping" and by gathering and disseminating information in multiple sensory formats. In the future they will include images of shop doorways and feature turn-by-turn navigation, video, audio and visual descriptions of spatial coordinates in addition to real time information such as elevator upkeep.

Most digital-accessibility apps do not have these capabilities yet, in part because able-bodied designers feel that street and storefront views are enough.

Full access benefits us all

Integrating accessibility mapping into a one-stop digital platform that dissolves the divide between “ours" and “theirs" will encourage inclusivity, not to mention help mitigate people's negative assumptions and increase confidence among the disabled.

By incorporating knowledge from broad groups of people, digital mapping could do more than just record the world as it is. It could encourage political, design and policy improvements.

What do you see when you look at a map? Read more about accessibility concerns and initiatives in cities around the world.

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