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UWM students create app that rates buildings based on accessibility

Posted at 7:42 PM, Feb 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-11 20:42:16-05

MILWAUKEE — People with disabilities can often run into obstacles at public buildings and restaurants. Now local college students are developing an app that rates accessibility at businesses. They’re planning to get it up and running in time for the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this summer.

As a Master's student at UW-Milwaukee, Anna McCartney often goes to the Gasthaus Grill to study or get a bite to eat.

“I always look for corners and I always look for where the sound can be in front of me versus behind me,” McCartney said.

She typically goes to sit in a booth on one end of the restaurant because she has a hearing impairment, so music, lighting and physical barriers all impact her decision-making on a daily basis.

“I do find it really frustrating, but it also is something that I've just learned to live with,” McCartney said.

Later this year, she'll be able to plan ahead and figure out what restaurants work best by using her phone.

Roger Smith is the director of the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability Center, also known as the R2D2 Center. He and a team of students are developing an app for phones and computers, where people with physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities could find out how accessible a building is.

“We're creating an app to be able to rate any building anywhere,” Smith said.

See how the app works below:

UWM disability app preview

According to the CDC, one in four adults have a disability, and while buildings are required to be accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, they're only minimum requirements.

“Old buildings are not required to meet accessibility standards. They're only required if they're new buildings or if there's major remodeling,” Smith said.

Each business will be rated in two ways. One section will include detailed information measured and collected by trained experts. In the other section, users will be able to contribute their own reviews.

Smith compares it to movie ratings.

“There’s usually two types of ratings. You’ve got the audience ratings, the Rotten Tomatoes, and then you’ve got the experts’ ratings because that’s the critics,” Smith said.

They’re just starting the process of collecting data by measuring information like sound, distance and slope, and answering hundreds of questions about potential obstacles.

Mason Drake is one of the many students working on the project.

“It’s designed to be easy, quick, simple and give them the most information that they probably need,” Drake said.

The R2D2 Center has been working on the system for more than a decade with the help of federal grants from the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

The plan is to officially launch it in time for the Democratic National Convention with ratings for restaurants and venues in downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward.

UW-Milwaukee is partnering with three other universities on the project. Eventually, the hope is for a database nationwide.

McCartney is just counting down the days to use it.

“It would afford me just a lot more independence, and not being able to have to rely on the person I'm with to be able to take my order or looking like I can't do things for myself,” McCartney said.

You will be able to start rating restaurants and venues starting Feb. 29, when the center holds a community event at Independence First from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you’re interested in getting involved, you can also contact the leaders of the project at contact@accessratings.org.

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