AccessPlace: Personalized Accessibility information for buildings

Nathan Spaeth, Dennis B. Tomashek, Roger O. Smith

R2D2 Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


A set of applications was developed to assist in the accessibility assessment of buildings: the AccessTools suite and AccessPlace. Together, they form the NIDRR funded Access for Buildings Project. AccessTools is a suite of iOS mobile applications designed for use by trained raters to evaluate the accessibility of buildings. AccessPlace is a multi-platform mobile and web application designed for end-users to communicate and obtain Personalized Accessibility Information (PAI) tailored for the individual’s functional impairments.


In face of uncertain accommodations, people with disabilities (PWD) can be apprehensive about visiting unfamiliar venues, encountering unique challenges when planning ordinary activities such as errands and social outings. Concerns, such as whether there will be sufficient lighting, accessible bathrooms, if there is available assistance, or fear of being burdensome can deter individuals from risking independent trips or from participating in social activities (King, Castro, Wilcox, Eyler, Sallis, & Brownston, 2000; Glass, Balfour, 2003; Michael, Green, & Farquhar, 2006).

Seeing no clear recourse for improving the state of affairs can induce a sense of helplessness and resignation. To cope, many choose an avoidant strategy of forgoing participation in experiences that take place in unfamiliar places. Together, these obstacles highlight a need for readily available Personalized Accessibility Information (PAI), which gives PWD information tailored to their particular set of functional impairments. This allows PWD and their companions the freedom to more easily engage in new activities.

Existing Approaches

Functional Impairment Profile (AccessPlace screenshot of the functional impairment profile setup) The key aspects of this screen are the text question and a slider ranging from “Not Able” to “Able”. Below this are buttons for previous, next, and finish later, and a completion bar.
Figure 1: Functional Impairment Profile (screenshot of the functional impairment profile setup)
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (ADA, 2010) has improved the state of affairs it falls short in several ways. First, the ADA is often not uniformly or strictly enforced in new constructions, and, importantly, individuals don’t have access to information about the level of compliance. Secondly, for practical and economic reasons, older constructions are subject to more relaxed standards (ADAAG). Most importantly, the ADA defines only a minimum standard, neglecting many often encountered accessibility issues.

Popular commercial entities such as Yelp®, Google Places® and Foursquare® include limited accessibility information, namely a dichotomous accessible-or-not indicator that is confined only to wheelchair accessibility, rather than a more nuanced grading. This completely ignores other impairment groups. On the rare occasion that users provide comments oriented toward accessibility, they are lost in a sea of otherwise informative reviews, making the comments of limited utility for making accessibility related decisions. Further, the data may not address the particular users’ functional impairments.

     Other resources are local ad-hoc web communities geared toward particular disability populations that take the form of forums or curated reviews (disabilities-r-us; yourable). These resources contain information that is highly relevant to the given population, and can promote a sense of community. However, due to the large number of functional impairments (Smith, et al. 2007), and the number of people with more than one significant disability, these resources may not meet the needs -of individuals, and are not specific to building accessibility.

With the available resources, researching destination accessibility becomes a time consuming process that interferes with the freedom of more spontaneous experiences. Mobile computing technology offers the opportunity for quick, personalized information entry and retrieval.

Final Design


Relevant Reviews (AccessPlace screenshot of user reviews, sorted by user relevance) The key aspects of this screen are a series of reviews. There is user name, and five stars at the top of each review. This is followed by text. At the bottom of each review are buttons labeled “Report” and “Agree”.
Figure 2: Relevant Reviews (screenshot of user reviews, sorted by user relevance)
We categorized three key common objectives when people plan community outings: 1) Deciding on possible accessible destinations, 2) Anticipating necessary arrangements for pre-determined destinations, 3) Communicating experiences, including praise or grievances to a) similar individuals or groups and b) venue owners who may be inclined to improve their facilities or otherwise attempt to facilitate a more accessible experience.

Additionally, we identified three criteria for a resource to meet in order to provide significant improvement over the status quo: 1) Data must be highly relevant to the individual, implying a broad scope across disability populations could be less relevant, 2) Data must be quickly accessible to allow for spontaneity and minimal interruption 3) Data must be easily accessible to a wide range of disabilities, with particular attention to those with visual or motor impairments – targeted users are more likely to be in need of these features than users of resources meant for a broader population.


Initial View (AccessPlace screenshot showing the initial search screen populated with nearby places) The key aspects of this screen are the list of places near the top. Below is a map with matching numbers within the blue markers.
Figure 3: Initial View (screenshot showing the initial search screen populated with nearby places)
Data for objectives 1 and 2 are obtained through a strategy combining trained rater evaluations and the crowdsourcing of interested parties. Trained raters are individuals trained to evaluate a facility according to various accessibility criteria, aided by the AccessTools mobile application suite. These evaluations are then made available to an end-user interface.

Crowdsourcing is implemented in an extended review format, where a normal user is capable of submitting accessibility related information on a variety of facility features. The crowdsourcing aspect simultaneously achieves objective 3.

User friendly web and mobile interfaces were developed to interface with an in-common database to facilitate access to relevant accessibility information as it pertains to particular facilities. Each of the identified minimal criteria are achieved through various interface design decisions.

Criteria 1

Relevance to the individual is achieved through Functional Impairment Profiles. On user account creation, users are prompted to follow a step-by-step profile creation process. The user is asked to assess their ability or inability to perform certain functional tasks on spectrum spanning from ‘no difficulty to ‘not capable’ (fig. 1).

The submitted user assessments are automatically numerically coded into a multi-dimensional vector representing their unique profile. When accessing accessibility information for a facility, this vector is compared to the vectors of the users who have submitted reviews for that facility. Reviews whose users’ have similar vectors are sorted toward the top of the list, and their ratings are given greater weight in correspondence to their level of similarity (fig. 2). Reviews by dis-similar reviewers are filtered out.

Criteria 2

Search Results (AccessPlace screenshot showing alternative results when searching by keyword) Key aspects of this screen are the list of places found through the search. Each place has a rating next to it. Eg., the first place has 3.5 stars colored blue, and 1.5 stars empty.
Figure 4: Search Results (screenshot showing alternative results when searching by keyword)
Rapid access to information is achieved through a carefully designed screen order. First, the user is presented with a split-screen view depicting a map of the user’s current location and a list of nearby venues that correspond to icons placed on the map (fig. 3). This allows for quick identification of, and access to nearby places, which are often chosen during spontaneous planning. Users also have the option of searching for locations by keyword (fig. 4).

After selecting a location, the user is prompted to select whether they want to read reviews (fig. 2), or review the selected location (fig. 5). This allows users to easily submit useful feedback while minimally interrupting their current activities.

Criteria 3

Review Submission (AccessPlace screenshot displaying the review submission interface) The key aspects of this screen are 5 stars, the first of which is blue and the others empty near the top. There is a text box below this, and a keyboard is visible.
Figure 5: Review Submission (screenshot displaying the review submission interface)
Large fonts and contrasting colors were selected in order to be more accessible to users with visual impairments. Large interaction areas (buttons, clickable areas), and, where applicable, alternative interaction methods were made available (click vs drag).

Discussion & Implications

Pilot data suggest that PWD would use a tool like AccessPlace to plan future outings to restaurants, especially if this information was combined with standard reviews. The pilot data also suggest that PWD like the idea of information that is tailored for them. Challenges for developing this type of crowd-sourced platform is that it is highly dependent on users to populate, and thus has a critical mass below which it is of little use. Thus, plans for widely, advertising and distributing the app to the appropriate populations are imperative.  A second challenge of this type of app is ensuring the reliability and validity of the user entered data. Again, this is highly dependent on the community of users to self-police, reporting inappropriate or erroneous information.

Solutions include partnering with an already established entity that has wide distribution and use, such as Yelp. A method of advertising is to contact the Independent Living centers (both private and government run) to ensure that the populations who would most benefit from this app are aware of it.

A major barrier to community participation for many PWD is the lack of information available about the accessibility of public buildings. An app like this, once populated, would allow PWD to better plan outings, and thus feel more confident about going out into the community.


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