Opening the doors to accessibility with Google Maps Platform
CEO & Co-Founder, iAccess Life
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Editor’s note: In recognition of Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday, May, 18, today's post comes from Brandon Winfield, CEO & Co-Founder, iAccess Life. iAccess Life uses the power of Google Maps Platform to make spaces and places more accessible for people with disabilities.
When I was 14, I was injured in a motocross accident that paralyzed me from the waist down. Overnight, the way I interacted with the world transformed, but my fun-loving personality didn’t. As a kid heading into my first years of independence, I wanted to be able to do everything my friends were doing, regardless of disability: going out, traveling, dating, and living my life. I quickly learned, though, that not all places are made equally in terms of accessibility.
Going out with friends went from something I could do on a whim to something that required research and planning. Even going to the grocery store or out for a coffee set off an endless list of questions. Will the entrance have a ramp? What about parking? Will there be an accessible bathroom? How close together are the tables? Disabled people have to ask these questions every time we go out into a world that wasn’t designed for us.
Brandon Winfield, CEO & Co-Founder, iAccess Life
So, finally, I asked myself a new question: How could I help create more accessible spaces for people like me? The answer: iAccess Life. Our lifestyle app, built on Google Maps Platform, takes the stress out of making plans with friends and family by helping disabled people find accessible places that accommodate their needs. We do this by encouraging our users to leave feedback about their experience at a venue they have visited, based on parking, entrance, bathroom, and interior spaces.
Envisioning the social rating platform for accessibility
The premise for iAccess Life is simple; I wanted to create a place where people could “know before they go.” In other words, somewhere they could research, rate, and review places like restaurants, bars, stores, and hotels, based on their accessibility. Most importantly, I wanted to give disabled people the freedom to comfortably go out, have fun, and live their lives with dignity.
But while the idea came easily, for a guy with no tech background, building it was much less straightforward. That’s where my Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Product Officer, Sayeed Mehrjerdian, takes the lead. He’s the mastermind who takes my pie-in-the-sky ideas and turns them into a functional app and user interface. Since location is central to our product, he knew that Google Maps Platform was our best choice to turn our vision into reality.
iAccess Life users can easily search by category
Opening (accessible) doors with Google Maps PlatformTogether with our tech partner, KiwiTech, we built the iAccess Life app using the Google Places API, which powers all of our features, from populating our category list and map view to leveraging Places Autocomplete to help increase accuracy of our search function. The API’s unique identifier also keeps our data structured and organized, allowing us to attribute each user rating back to a Place ID and facilitating an interoperable flow of information.
It took four years to bring the right team together but just four months to build and launch the app. Now, people can use iAccess Life to research the places they want to go, and rate and review places they’ve been, based on four accessibility pillars: parking, entrance, bathrooms, and interior spaces. If they want directions, they can also click to launch the Google Maps navigation app directly from the iAccess Life platform.
So far, 20% of our users leave a rating and 15% write a review. We’re nearing 8,000 unique locations rated, with 30,000 total ratings and almost 6,000 reviews across all 50 states and 30 countries. We currently have almost 7,000 active accounts and 15,000 guest users. Building up our user base is one of our core focuses for 2023.
Building solutions for a more accessible future
Our app, unlike the physical spaces around us, is designed for accessibility first. Our user base already has challenges using technology, so we want their experience to be as seamless as possible. Our goal is to refine our product and leverage native accessibility features on Android and iOS to solve more pain points that our users face every day. During the development process, we were selected by the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, which gives us the backing and validation we need to keep iterating and provide better accessibility tools to those who need it.
We see iAccess Life as more than a rating and review platform. We want to become the all-in-one platform for accessibility that helps people travel better, live better, and feel better in today’s world. In our latest version, users can pay for parking directly in the app, removing another step in getting from A to B. We’ll be rolling this out to 70 cities over the next year and will continue to add more features as we go. We also plan to expand our platform to be inclusive of all forms of disabilities, like vision and hearing impairments, autism, and more.
I made a decision after my injury that I wouldn’t let it define my life. I vowed to keep doing what I love, no matter what, and I do. I still race (now on four wheels), I still travel, and I still go out with my friends. When you have a disability, it’s natural to focus on your limitations, but iAccess Life aims to do the opposite. It shines a light on all the places you can go and all the things you can do, and that simple shift in mindset can be extremely powerful.
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