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Students work to improve accessibility in the community

Students rated local businesses during a mapathon.

Students at the Hillsdale Young Adult campus.

Many of us take things like walking into a store or having a meal at a restaurant for granted. But for people with mobility issues these ordinary tasks can become quite complicated.
Students at the Hillside Young Adult Campus (YAC) have been working with current technology to help themselves navigate in a world not always designed to accommodate their needs.

The YAC is a center-based program housed in the former Otsego Public Library. The program primarily serves young adults aged 18-26. For the last few years, the YAC program has offered a Community Participation and Accessibility class as an option for students. Barbara Freedman has been the primary teacher, with assistance from the Allegan Area Educational Service Agency's (AAESA) Orientation and Mobility Specialist Felicia Vliek, AAESA Deaf and Hard of Hearing Technician Karen Steffens, and Hillside Para-educators Dorothy Fuss and Nancy Lautenschleger.

One YAC student, Dan, is visually impaired and uses a power wheelchair for mobility. He has experienced several difficult situations where areas were not accessible to him, including baseball games and local businesses in southwest Michigan. Since Dan is an iPad user and enjoys downloading apps that assist him in varying ways, he decided to start researching apps about rating accessibility for businesses. He wasn't sure if he would find anything, but he was hopeful. He knew there had to be more options than just calling ahead.

Through his research, Dan discovered the AXS Map app. His excitement for the app led him to try using it in class with all his peers while traveling in the local community.

The AXS Map app developer and staff refer to it as "a Yelp for people with disabilities." This app has made more people aware of different disabilities and the physical barriers present in the community, as well as stressing the importance of accessibility for all people and providing opportunities for positive interactions that impact the community. 

The app was developed by Jason DaSilva, a New York filmmaker who has multiple sclerosis. DaSilva’s goal was for the app to make New York City easier to navigate for fellow wheelchair users. The app has gone beyond that humble beginning and is being used around the world.

“It’s great for our students to be part of an international movement,” said AAESA’s Felicia Vliek. “After almost a year of experience using the app with this class, we decided we should create a mapathon event that we could invite others to attend and increase the ratings in the Allegan area.” 

These mapathons are taking place all over the world. Groups of users get together in a specific area and rate several businesses based on criteria, asking questions like, are there steps or ramps at the entry? Are the doors wide enough for a wheelchair to get through? Are the bathrooms easy to get to and use?

“We had a few parents join us during this event and they felt it was a very eye opening experience," Vliek said. "Dubbed the 'YAC Raters,' we were split up into several teams and rated about 30 businesses in the downtown Allegan area.”

The businesses were receptive and appreciative of the feedback on creating an accessible environment for their customers, as well as gaining insight on how to improve accessibility at their location. The mapathon took place in June of 2016. A second mapathon is being planned for spring 2017.

The YAC students were gaining so much from their experiences they decided to send a letter to app developer DaSilva. In part the letter said:

"…Dan’s idea and dream came to life last spring, and ever since the class has been actively using the AXS Map app to rate local businesses in both Allegan and Kalamazoo Counties. One of the exciting things about this adventure is that we are AXS Map app pioneers in Allegan County! We are the first group in Allegan County to start using this app and the response to our efforts has been very positive, not only with staff at local businesses, but also customers who have observed our work. In addition to using the app, we are gaining experience advocating appropriately, determining each group member's needs for accessibility before rating and making a team decision, planning travel routes, practicing safe and efficient travel, as well as preparing and dressing appropriately for our lovely Michigan weather!"

DaSilva appreciated the YAC group’s involvement and sent this response:

"Hi Otsego Hillside Learning and Behavior Center Young Adult Campus, 
Thank you very much for your very heartwarming letter about how you’re using AXS Map and that you appreciate the work that Alice and I do. Life here is good. We have a son Jase. He is three years old. We continue to work on AXS Map and it is getting larger and larger. We have over 75,000 reviews globally. I really am excited to hear that you're going to have your first mapathon in June. Let me tell you, I've done over 50 mapathons in person going from New York to San Francisco to Hawaii, and even in countries like Georgia, outside of Russia and I'm about to do one next month in Paraguay -- they are really fun. Enjoy yourselves and thank you. Your letter made our day!"

Time magazine wrote a feature story about DaSilva and how he used his experience with MS to create the app. 

Dan graduated from the Hillside YAC program in June 2016. 
If you would like to learn more about the Hillside YAC and their involvement with AXS Map, or if you would like to volunteer to help at the next mapathon contact Felicia Vliek.
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