Breaking Down Barriers: Creating a more disability-friendly city

Use of creative thinking and technology could spark new ways to improve accessibility


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Can Pittsburgh become a more accessible community -- not simply by providing more wheelchair ramps and automatic doors, but actually serving all types of disabilities and touching every aspect of daily life?

With the abundance of technology brainpower in our city, can we create solutions to access barriers that not only enhance lives here but help people elsewhere?

These two questions were the centerpiece of Pittsburgh's first "Accessibility Meetup," held last week at Google's offices in Larimer. Organized by local disability advocates Gabe McMorland, 31, and Chris Maury, 27, the Pittsburgh endeavor takes a cue from similar efforts in Chicago, Toronto and other cities with a progressive agenda to become barrier-free.

The local Accessibility Meetups, which will be held monthly in various locations, are open to a wide range of participants: people with disabilities, people who have a professional interest in the subject and those who simply like to solve problems. Google's offer to host the inaugural meeting underscores the fact that many access solutions involve technology and out-of-the box thinking.

Mr. McMorland, a Pittsburgh native with a background in urban planning, and Mr. Maury, a technology developer from San Francisco, joined forces to launch the meetups after being introduced by a mutual friend and realizing their common interest in creating a more disability-friendly city. Both men have a medical condition that leads to vision impairment during young adulthood.

Pittsburgh's historic leadership in disability services and its capacity for solving problems through technology, they said, present a rare opportunity to push boundaries and improve lives.

The key to nurturing sparks of innovation at the meetups will be the input of creative people who may never have considered these situations. "Sometimes the best person to solve an access problem is not a person trained in access," Mr. McMorland noted.

Among the 50 attendees last week were professionals in robotics and design who were attracted to the challenge. "Bring your friends," Mr. McMorland urged them. "You don't have to be an engineer to attend, just an interest."

Attendees' suggestions for topics for future sessions included:

• How to get existing technology in the hands of people who need it.

• Making medication prescription labels accessible to people with vision impairment.

• Accessible website design, especially employment sites.

• Mapping accessible routes for pedestrians, similar to bike maps.

• How to inform local officials about curb cuts and other access features in disrepair.

• Improving consumer product design, especially those for household appliances, to take accessibility into account.

"The ADA [Americans With Disability Act] is about minimal compliance. It creates the floor. I'd like to see the ceiling," said Todd Reeves, executive director and president of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, who attended the session.

"I love the fact that the people are here because they're interested in the subject and getting to know one another," said Kirsten Ervin, an art educator who specializes in access to art-making.

By coincidence, on the day following the meetup, Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science held a talk "How Can We Make Our World Accessible?"

Chieko Asakawa, a research scientist at IBM Japan and frequent CMU collaborator, presented new technology prototypes that increase access for people who are blind. She lost her vision in an accident at 14.

As both creator and user of assistive technology, Ms. Asakawa's messages about accessing an increasingly complex world could not have been more compelling. The audience of about 100 people, mostly students, were rapt as she demonstrated how she navigates without sight, and the promise of emerging technology to create ever fuller encounters.

For information about Pittsburgh Accessibility Meetups, visit meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Area-Accessibility-Meetup, call 412-719-3424, or join the Twitter conversation on #A11yPGH.


Tina Calabro: tina.calabro@verizon.net.

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