Most people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, at least tangentially. The landmark law, enacted in 1990, is more or less the disability community’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Act. The bill was crafted by Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman from California. I interviewed him a few years ago about his life and the origin story of Bill. Thanks to the ADA, as it is colloquially known, people are aware of accommodations in the physical world for people with disabilities, such as wheelchair ramps and parking spaces.
Beyond that, accessibility, let alone on the digital front, becomes nebulous.
What about accessibility in public spaces? Does the grocery store or restaurant have a wheelchair ramp? Does the bar have toilets adapted for people with reduced mobility? Is the car park within walking distance? Considerations like these are of the utmost importance to legions of people with disabilities, but finding this consolidated information in one place isn’t always easy. Software tools like Apple Maps and Yelp, for example, offer details about businesses, such as whether they accept Apple Pay and their price, but they don’t tell you if the location is accessible. Third-party apps like Compeer only for iOS aim to fill the void, but the reach of an independent development store only extends so far. They’re exponentially dwarfed by what Apple’s Maps group has access to, for example.
Indie developer Brandon Winfield is doing his part to fill the knowledge gap with his iAccess Life app, which is available on iOS and Android. A competitive racer who raced professionally for American Honda, Winfield was 14 in 2008 when a motocross accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He quickly discovered that while many public places were compliant with the federal Equal Access Act, others were grandfathered and not up to code when it came to accessibility for those with mobility impairments. scaled down. The problem, of course, was determining which places were accessible and which were inaccessible. It was a mission-critical thing that Winfield needed to know. Its solution became iAccess Life, whose site promises the possibility of “[review] and [research] public places according to their accessibility. iAccess Life was launched in April 2019, gathering more than 13,000 users. There are rankings in all 50 states, as well as 35 other countries around the world.
“I wanted to create something that was going to be fun and help solve the accessibility issues I was facing. That’s where the idea for iAccess Life came from,” said Winfield, now 29. years, last month in an interview with me via email, “Our mission is to provide fairness and independence to those facing the same accessibility challenges that I have faced.”
Echoing what Rep. Coelho told me in May 2020, Winfield thinks the Americans with Disabilities Act lags behind modern life. The physical world is pretty well regulated, but the digital arena is a different ball game. Few people could have foreseen three decades ago how technology and the Internet would later revolutionize so many aspects of everyday life. Now, with technology entrenched in humanity, the time has come to build on the foundations of ADA by expanding and embracing the tech-driven sensibilities of the modern world. Winfield agrees. “I think now is the time to revolutionize accessibility and evolve what [the ADA has] done,” he said. “We have modern technology to solve these modern problems. What could be better than getting feedback from people who are having these issues and who don’t have to go through the litigation process: hire a lawyer, go to court, or get bad press. It takes away vital functions that you might be doing in your daily work or that person might be doing in their life.
Winfield explained that the name iAccess Life is a pun; the app was originally going to be called ParaPerks. When he and his then-girlfriend went out, they encountered many places that were suddenly inaccessible to him as a newly disabled person. Companies would overcompensate for inaccessibility by giving the pair special treatment: skip-the-line, free tickets, etc. Reality was a rude awakening and gave them a new awareness and appreciation for people with disabilities and their needs, not just those with physical limitations. “We wanted to include everyone,” Winfield said. “[We wanted to encourage] people to access life – to live life to the fullest, not to be stuck inside their homes. We allow our users to feel part of the community, to have experiences and create new memories with their loved ones. Essentially, go out and access life.
Feedback on iAccess Life has been “fantastic,” according to Winfield, citing positive reviews on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. He noted a partnership with a company called Passport Parking, whose service helps drivers find and pay for parking. Winfield said Passport allows his startup to create accessibility feedback signs, placed under the handicapped sign in designated handicapped parking spots. These are QR codes which, once scanned, allow users to leave immediate feedback on their parking experience. “[It’s our hope] we can really make impactful change by taking that information, putting it together in a report, and sending it to the municipalities and cities that Passport works with,” he said. “It helps them revolutionize and evolve what the parking industry has done so far.”
Asked about his long-term vision, Winfield was succinct in his response: “We’re going to empower people to live their lives to the fullest,” he said. He admitted that starting iAccess Life was really a “selfish business”; he quickly grew tired of having to use the bathroom somewhere only to find it was not accessible to him, and embarrassing accidents resulted. Winfield decided to never let that happen again. “We want to make accessibility flaws and people with disabilities more common and not so second class [culturally]: out of sight, out of mind,” he said. Winfield and his team worked with Google, after being selected to attend their Google for Startups Founders Academy, to “hone the [iAccess Life] business,” he said.
The future for greater accessibility and Winfield’s business is bright.
“We want to build something that’s cool, fun, and evolves accessibility,” he said. “We are just getting started. It’s cool to see the response we’ve had so far.