Figuring out whether a location has the access you need can be hard. Whether you’re looking for a café, a bookstore, or even something like a park, you can sometimes call ahead, but there’s no guarantee that the person on the other end will know the ins-and-outs of accessibility. (Elevator size? Door width? It’s a lot to know). Many small companies have worked to gather and share accessibility information online, but none have been able to reach an audience broad enough to have an impact on a widespread scale. But now an internet giant — Google — is changing the game. A new update to the company’s famed Maps application makes it easy for anyone with a cell phone, tablet or computer to share detailed accessibility information about everything from entryways to elevators. Based on an early trial, it could finally provide the solution to providing accurate access information.
Google relying on users to provide information is not new. Users have long been able to mark down “features” such as types of payments accepted or whether there are good discounts. This was already part of the Maps application — but as of July, users can easily mark down accessibility features as well. It isn’t just “accessible” or “not accessible,” either; the company recognizes that there’s more to accessibility than a front entrance, so checkmarks include entryways, elevators, seating, restrooms and parking lots. Maps now gives accessibility its own category, making it easier for people with, or without, disabilities to find important information — and easier for information-adders to get straight to the point.
Users can mark down a business’s accessibility features by using the Google Maps application on Android phones. The company provides instructions on its website. After a recent visit to a Berkeley restaurant, I figured I’d give it a try. It was plenty easy. All I had to do was open the Maps application and select the main menu, then tap “Your contributions.” That showed another page with a section near the top titled “uncover missing info,” which gives a map with businesses nearby. I clicked “accessibility” just above the map, then selected the restaurant, and the app let me answer questions such as “has a wheelchair accessible entrance,” “has a wheelchair accessible parking lot,” or “has a wheelchair accessible restroom.” I clicked the ones that fit the business, and that was that. You can also add photos to highlight difficult to describe features. There are other categories too, such as food-conscious and child-friendly features, in case you want to contribute even more. Select, click, and done.
The new accessibility features are also available through the desktop version of Maps. Just search for your destination and click the description with a right hand arrow on it. This will open the “about” tab with more information for a number of options, including accessibility. You can’t change the features or contributions from your desktop, but if you see something that’s missing, you can go on your phone, open Maps, and make a contribution. It’s virtually guaranteed to help someone with a disability find out more, and maybe make the right decision for where to plan their outing.
To help expedite the growth of accessible information available on Maps, Google has incorporated the new accessible features into its “local guides” program. The program invites users to rate and review locations, take photos, add new places, edit details, answer questions, and verify information about businesses or other areas, such as parks. People who sign up for local guides can build up “points” by adding more information, with different levels and badges as they keep contributing. The local guides webpage even says that “higher levels also lead to special perks and early access to Google features.” As more guides focus on accessibility — or as more people who care about accessibility sign up as local guides — the amount of information on access will grow.