The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30—and there’s still a long way to go.
At 25, Jason DaSilva was a rising star in the documentary world. He received numerous awards and even premiered a film at Sundance. Unstoppable, on the rise, and then suddenly slowed by trouble walking. Doctors diagnosed him with an accelerated, and debilitating, form of multiple sclerosis.
Over the next seven years, DaSilva documented his journey in the Emmy Award-winning film When I Walk, and became a disability rights activist. He founded non-profit AXS Lab, Inc., to help people with disabilities through art, media and technology.
DaSilva and AXS Lab launched AXS Map, a crowdsourcing platform powered by Google Maps, and backed by web app users who rate the accessibility of locations like train stations, grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops. AXS Map’s goal is to map the accessibility of these places to help people with disabilities navigate the world with ease.
It’s a problem many of us face, but for the more than 1.3 billion people worldwide with mobility or vision related disabilities, the challenges are often compounded. Case in point: DaSilva found 9 out of 10 businesses on a city block were inaccessible. Imagine the frustration of meeting friends for lunch at a popular new cafe, only to find you can’t reach the register when it’s time to pay, the cream for your coffee is out of reach and the floor is decorated with shag rugs that make it hard to get to the table.
People lauded the idea of AXS Map, but the platform’s technology backbone wasn’t cutting it: many visitors quickly left the site because they couldn’t figure it out.
Better information to drive better everyday experiences
Since AXS Map’s original 2011 launch, design thinking and human-centered technology advanced, but the web app didn’t use current design practices. Nor did it place the end user at the center of strategy and design. We interviewed users with mobility-related disabilities to better understand their frustrations navigating public spaces. Our follow-up questions centered around specific pain points in the web app: confusion over the complicated rating system, complex instructions and an unclear purpose.
There’s more. AXS Map could also impact how businesses operate, as many organizations may not know their accessibility shortfalls. As web app traffic expands, businesses will increasingly realize users with mobility related disabilities, their friends and families represent a significant market opportunity. That is, if they pay attention to accessibility. In fact, the US Department of Labor estimates Americans with disabilities spend $175 billion annually on discretionary items and experiences.
Reimagining AXS Map using human-centered design
If a design is so complicated it requires an instruction manual, it’s broken. AXS Map needed to simplify. The team settled on a service-design approach mirroring a user’s experience with almost any venue. Working side-by-side with the AXS team and volunteers with disabilities, we recreated what can happen when a person with mobility challenges enters a typical venue. Our findings: the rating system needed to be uncomplicated, objective and uniform. Is there a ramp? Yes or no? Room for a wheelchair at all tables? Does the restroom door swing out? Ratings should be helpful and inclusive for all users, from parents with strollers to people with visual impairments.
Creating a global solution built on AWS
As part of the design process, the AXS Lab and PwC team also reached out to Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a software engineer on the Google Maps Accessibility team and prominent disability rights advocate for his feedback and experiences. With the new design locked down, PwC’s writers, designers, coders and tech processionals brought the reimagined platform to life.
The team quickly transitioned ratings and location data from the existing AXS Map to the new web app. Then, we shifted our focus to helping reduce costs and better serving unlimited global users by porting AXS Map to Amazon Web Services (AWS). That way, there was no limit to how much the system could scale up or down, depending on the traffic.
It’s easy to forget there are a million little things happening in the background when we use a web app. AXS’ platform — hosted on AWS — means a more stable and seamless user experience. AWS is committed to keeping its services up and running approximately 99.9% of the time. That means less crashing, glitching and freezing. As interest in AXS Map grows, the amount of data, resources and information will naturally expand. AWS customers can automatically scale to meet demand within seconds. After the site was completed, the AXS Lab team was able to engage a group of computer science student volunteers to continue development of the site.
A way to more easily navigate daily life
Since AXS Map’s global soft-relaunch in May 2020, the number of searches for accessible places significantly increased. As users add new and updated ratings each day, the number of hassle-free options for individuals with disabilities and their families expands.
Just a few years ago, it was hard for users with mobility-related disabilities to get around without facing multiple unknown obstacles. With advances in technology, design, advocacy and awareness, things continue to change for the better, and AXS Map is a prime example of what can happen when people work together.
By John Jones, Elissa Arkinstall & José Reyes
About the authors: John Jones is Managing Director, PwC US; Elissa Arkinstall is Principal, PwC US; José Reyes is Chief Creative Officer & Experience Center Leader, PwC US.
This article first appeared on www.pwc.com and is republished with permission.