Hansen foundation's 'Wikipedia of accessibility' opening doors for travellers

January 14, 2013

The world of disability has changed since Rick Hansen first set himself in motion as a young athlete in the 1970s: Wheelchairs and the people in them are much more visible and far more mobile because of forerunners like him who were determined to roam the globe in spite of the barriers placed in their way.

"Back then the opportunity for access was incredibly limited," said the man who turned the money and goodwill generated by his Man in Motion World Tour into a $280-million foundation that specializes in spinal cord research and accessibility issues. "If you went outside a bubble of local knowledge, it was travel at your own risk. Anywhere you went it was almost impossible to know what you were getting into."

Now that necessary and long-elusive know-how is becoming much more attainable, thanks to planat.com, a consumer-driven ratings tool developed by the Rick Hansen Foundation that ranks buildings and public spaces around the world on their accessibility features.

Available by computer, smartphone and tablet, planat.com is modelled on opinionated travel sites such as TripAdvisor, but so far there's much less snark or dreamy effusions about the perfect meal. The ratings, and the comments that are intended to go with them, are much more geared to providing basic and necessary information for visitors who need to plan ahead, about automatic door openers, turning space in washrooms, use of Braille on elevator buttons or policies regarding service animals.

There is no such thing as too much information in the world of accessibility: The intense degree of detail on planat.com is a reminder of the numerous barriers, seen and unseen, that can block an experience meant to be normal.

The wide array of technical specifications – many of them supplied by businesses that have bought into the project, hoping to penetrate the empowered disabled market – may not be quite as much fun to read as the highly personal TripAdvisor assessments. But they're a big advance from the word-of-mouth knowledge that supported Mr. Hansen's early travels.

The service has been in development since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics. "We realized that there were a lot of people travelling to Vancouver who had disabilities," said former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, a long-time supporter of Mr. Hansen who took part in early brainstorming sessions for the project. "So we thought: Let's get feedback from them on how we're doing."

Technology allowed that random thought to go global very quickly. Planat.com claims to have 17,000 venues covered so far, even though it is just emerging from pilot-project testing. "It's going to be almost like a Wikipedia of accessibility," Mr. Harcourt said.

That's the dream anyway. Right now there's much more local knowledge, particularly as you get closer to the Rick Hansen Foundation headquarters in Richmond, B.C.

But just by establishing a foothold in the online consumer-ratings game, the site marks an evolution in the movement for disabled rights. The activism and advocacy campaigns of the seventies and eighties, complemented by the superhuman displays of crowd-pleasing exemplars like Terry Fox and Mr. Hansen, prodded politicians, regulatory bodies and businesses into action, however reluctantly and uncertainly. Now with planat.com, the rights argument has a larger economic component that is magnified by the community-building influence of social media.

"Timing is everything," Mr. Hansen said. "There's critical mass in the number of people with disabilities who are turning into consumers. They have greater accessibility in moving about their community or going from country to country, and as a result they have more purchasing power. And the trend magnifies when you can create a tool like planat.com where people can come together around their interests and have the ability to make choices."

Those were choices Mr. Hansen rarely enjoyed in the word-of-mouth era. But it's precisely because of where his once-lonely quest has led him that he has great hopes for the crowd-sourced mobility of today.

"This innovation has the ability to take what was a one-man-in-motion initiative in a very large and inaccessible and disconnected world and turn it into a many-in-motion community."

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