travel

How Accessible Is Your Travel Destination, Really? Now There’s An App For That!

Rain or shine, the West Michigan lakeshore attracts tourists from around the world.

Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park, and the Grand Haven Lighthouse and Pier rank No. 1 to 3, respectively, according to TripAdvisor.

Not all top attractions – or restaurants, or hotels – would get top ratings from travelers with mobility challenges, however.

Having up-to-date accessibility information on travel destination can make the difference in how fully you’re able to enjoy it when you get there.

That’s why a group of current and former computer science students developed a software application they call “Access Earth.”

The Access Earth app is an easy way for smartphone users with disabilities to preview and review access to public places to benefit others who use wheelchairs, walkers, tricycles, crutches and other assistive devices.

Access Earth was the Global Citizenship Award winner and was the $5,000 third-prize winner overall in the 2014 finals of the Imagine Cup, a worldwide technology design competition for students sponsored by Microsoft. The finals were held in August at Seattle.

“We didn’t just develop this for the competition,” said Matthew McCann, 24, team captain. “As we build our database, we hope Access Earth will become a valuable and reliable source of information for people around the world.”

McCann, a masters-level student at Maynooth University in Kildare, Ireland, envisioned the Access Earth app after a trip to the 2012 Olympic Games in London with KC Grant, the only American on the design team.

McCann has cerebral palsy and uses a rolling walker to steady himself. The hotel he booked was, according to its website, “accessible.” Yet the room doorways were too narrow to accommodate his Rollator. Also, there was no ramp option to avoid a three-step rise from the entrance to the reception desk.

Most accessibility rating systems just don’t provide enough information for someone with mobility challenges to know if a place will be suitable for them, McCann said.

He and fellow students at Maynooth developed Access Earth outside of their coursework to archive reviews. Users can also leave a meaningful rating based on a series of specific yes and no questions based on construction regulations.

Similar apps like Wheelmap and DisabledGo use rating continuums that aren’t specific enough for people who require certain accessibility features, McCann said.

The Access Earth app works on smartphones that use the Windows platform. Look for it in the Windows store. The students are developing mobile apps this fall that will work on iPhone and Android devices. Check iTunes and Marketplace for those apps.

The app can also be downloaded from the developers’ website, www.accessearth.org.

But you don’t need to have the app to start leaving accessibility ratings and reviews for West Michigan attractions like Windmill Island, The Musical Fountain, and Tunnel Park.

Site reviews can be entered at accessearth.org by viewing the site through any Internet browser.

Fact is, Access Earth will become more useful as its database of ratings and reviews grows.

“Participation from a lot of people all over the world is what’s going to help Access Earth make a difference,” said Grant, 23, a Massachusetts resident who’s preparing to start a clinical biological research program winter semester at a Rhode Island college.

Other members of the Access Earth design team are: Donal McClean, 25, now working on a master’s degree at Athlone Institute of Technology in Co. Westmeath, Ireland; and Jack Gallagher, 22, a recent Maynooth graduate now working for IBM in Dublin, Ireland.

So, who’s going to be the first to review Mt. Pisgah and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum?

Reserving an accessible hotel room should be easier now!

We’re putting a bow on another summer -- the season synonymous with sunshine and vacation.

It’s uplifting to break with routine, see fresh sights, and relax.

But the logistics of traveling can be daunting for people with physical disabilities, even when they stop for the night. Many have to be concerned whether their hotel will be accessible enough.

Sometimes guestrooms are listed as being “accessible” when they are not fully accessible for people with particular disabilities.

Most hotel chains have a central booking agency staffed with representatives who are delighted to reserve you an “accessible room,” but might be hard-pressed to explain what makes it accessible.

Usually accessible means wider doorways, a high toilet with grab bars to help a person using a wheelchair transfer, and a shower you can roll into with a waterproof chair on wheels.

Information on accessibility features at call centers is increasing thanks to Americans with Disabilities Title III requirements, which went into effect March 15, 2012.

But travelers who require specific amenities are still advised to phone the hotel directly and quiz the front desk clerk, not just all an 800 number.

“We do sometimes carry a slide-in seat for a tub in the event that 's what we get,” Tom Bird said. “Most hotels do not have specific hardware to meet our needs, so we travel heavily equipped.”

Since accessible rooms usually have one bed without guardrails, the Birds slide Dany’s bed against one wall and line the opposite side with chairs to prevent a roll-off.

They have not done a family trip since ADA requirements that require central booking agencies to provide more information on accessibility features went into effect.

In the past, it has been difficult to find the type of accommodations they as attendants need – a room that adjoins one that is handicap accessible. 

Dany goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. In an adjoining room, Tom and Rita can watch primetime TV without disturbing Dany.

Some hotels put accessible rooms on the upper floors, but the Birds prefer to stay on the ground floor, if possible. In the event of a fire, elevators shut down, making it very difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to exit, Tom said.

The new ADA regulations require all establishments that provide transient lodging to use the same process for booking all guestrooms. If the establishment uses a centralized or online booking system, that system must display a detailed description of the accessible facilities.

The new regulations also require hotels to hold accessible guest rooms for people with disabilities until all other guest rooms of that type have been reserved. The custom of assigning rooms upon check-in and subject to availability is no longer lawful if it would mean disabled guest’s reservation of accessible room would not be honored.

Previously, guaranteed reservations by people with disabilities were sometimes given to earlier-arriving people without disabilities. Often no other accessible room remained and the person with the disability was stranded.

The accessible travel market is a $13.6 billion market and one of the fastest growing tourism niches today, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

“… With estimates of one Baby Boomer turning 65 every eight seconds, it’s a market that will continue to see significant expansion, “ said Tony Gonchar, Chief Executive Officer of ASTA, in a 2011 press release.

Air Travel Travel Still Has a Long Way to Go

Between business and pleasure travel, the Rev. Terry DeYoung makes several international and domestic flights each year.

 And he says he’d always rather drive.

 DeYoung -- coordinator of disability concerns for the Reformed Church in America and a member of Disability Network/Lakeshore’s Board of Directors – has used a cane for 30 years. Sometimes he uses two. With lots of distance to cover in airports, DeYoung uses a wheelchair, a “terminal” convenience that pre-dates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

 Express security lines for travelers with disabilities and family-sized restrooms with room to maneuver make airports easier to navigate, but that doesn’t change DeYoung’s opinion. He’d still rather drive.

 “Air travel is dreadful because of airplanes,” DeYoung said. “The narrow aisle, placement of tiny restrooms and tight seating is challenging for the able-bodied.

 “For travelers with mobility problems,” DeYoung added, “airplanes are just miserable.”

 Have you ever seen someone in a power chair on an airplane?

 “No,” DeYoung sighed. “I doubt there’s not enough room on an airplane for that.”

 DeYoung’s bias for driving may be a family trait.

 His father, Peter DeYoung, makes the marathon drive from his home in Wisconsin to accommodations in sunny Arizona every winter, and drives back each spring.

 The elder DeYoung, 88, lost his leg in a farming accident 20 years ago. DeYoung says his Dad gets annoyed having to take off his prosthetic leg to have it X-rayed for contraband. Security agents also have him remove the shoe from the prosthetic so it can be X-rayed separately.

 It’s a lot of maneuvering to manage from crutches, especially in front of an “audience” of passengers eager to board.

 “Dad says he’d rather drive 2,000 miles than go through that,” DeYoung said.

 He has his own horror story.

 In January he flew unaccompanied from Grand Rapids to Rochester, Minn., for a follow-up appointment after knee replacement surgery. He planned to stay over only one night.

But heavy snow in Grand Rapids caused postponement of the last leg of his flight home. All the hotel rooms in Minneapolis were full. He was going to have to spend the night in the airport.

Hygiene packets and sleeping mats were furnished to all stranded passengers. DeYoung said he needed assistive tools that were packed away in checked luggage to use the personal care items, but was told by airline representatives that it would take several hours to retrieve it.

If he got the checked suitcase, DeYoung knew he’d have a hard time dragging it and his carry-on bag.

He couldn’t use the mat because he can’t get down or up from the floor without assistance, and sleeping in a chair triggered a terrible headache.

 DeYoung said he called a telephone number he found on the airline’s website that passengers needing assistance could call.

It wasn’t staffed after 5 p.m. 

“Weather-related flight cancellations are especially hard on travelers with disabilities,” DeYoung said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything in the booking system that signals to the airlines that certain travelers may require help that wasn’t requested in advance. “ 

There will be long lines of passengers trying to book alternate flights, DeYoung said, and disabled passengers are probably going to be in those same lines.

DeYoung had a conversation with the airline about his experience in Minneapolis that he hopes will inspire round-the-clock assistance for stranded travelers with limited mobility. 

And that’s why, despite improvements in air travel, driving is usually still the more accessible choice. 

Tell us in the comments below - what has been your experience with air travel?