Back in October, I (Donald) got to interview Raul Krauthausen, creator and developer of the Wheelmap app. Krauthausen is a 34-year-old social activist and communications specialist from Germany, who, in 2010, released an app that maps out what public places provide accessibility to people who use wheelchairs.
Wheelmap, according to Krauthausen, “is based on the principle of a cooperative community – many people collect and share their information on the wheelchair accessibility of public places. For this purpose, the map uses a simple traffic light system which is easy to understand for everyone. Wheelmap.org is based on the geo-data of OpenStreetMap.org and works in all parts of the world. It is now available in 22 languages.”
Here are some of the questions I asked him, with his responses.
DB: What led to the creation of this phone app? Has there been anything like this before?
RK: The idea developed from an actual everyday life situation: A friend complained about having to meet in the same café every time. We both didn’t know in which café it’d be possible for us to meet. In this situation, I thought that a map which shows the wheelchair accessibility of places in the surrounding area would be helpful.
There were and still are various local applications of maps which have focussed on the accessibility of a city or a region. However, they are widely lacking the knowledge of the crowd, meaning the data had been collected and administrated by a central institution.
DB: How has your app enabled people with disabilities?
RK: Thanks to Wheelmap, millions of people with mobility impairments have a guide for wheelchair-accessible places now. With Wheelmap it is easier to discover new places in everyday life and to meet other people, impaired or not.
DB: How has Wheelmap impacted Germany?
RK: It would surely be overconfident to claim that Wheelmap.org has triggered a real change in society. However, I hope that people understand Wheelmap as a tool that contributes the perspective of innovation and self-determination to the topic of inclusion. More and more local initiatives in or outside of Germany rely on the possibility to become active themselves and take accessibility into their own hands.
DB: Would you describe Germany as an accessible country for people with disabilities?
RK: The level of accessibility still varies from city to city and region to region in Germany. In Berlin, the public transport is quite good for people with disabilities considering the low-floor buses and the ramps that are available on the underground platforms. However, there are still elevators missing – or elevators that don’t work. The latter is also the topic of another project, called brokenlifts.org. (It launched on October 8.)
Last but not least, Berlin is also shaped by a lot of old buildings where sometimes only one step makes a location inaccessible. That’s why we’ve started the initiative “1001 ramps” and the shop wheelramp.de as an easy solution for a number of only-one-step-places.
DB: Can you tell me how you’ve been able to navigate through the area of the country you live in, as a person with a physical disability?
RK: I use a wheelchair all day and every day. My daily route from my home to work and back is a quite navigable distance of 3 kilometers in each direction. There is only one bus line that I can take to work. But I only take the bus in winter because the bus takes longer than I do with my wheelchair. When I travel to another city I always check the website of the local public transportation provider to see if the train station is wheelchair accessible. If it isn’t I have to rethink my route. I don’t have a car or a driver’s license.
DB: You obviously take an interest in technology. The name of the blog site I contribute to is called Technology Enables Me. How has technology enabled you as a person with a disability?
RK: Starting with my electrical wheelchair, which affords me a level of independence and mobility that would otherwise not be possible, over my smartphone and my laptop which enable me to carry out my internet based work, technology is omnipresent in my life.
DB: Do you see the app catching on in other countries?
RK: Yes! There are ‘wheelmappers’ everywhere, from Japan to England to Switzerland. It’s great to see that so many people use the app and map places everywhere. And the app is particularly useful when abroad.
DB: What do you like most about Wheelmap?
RK: The app contributes to my personal freedom and happiness by making my everyday life simpler. Mobility is a major aspect of being able to lead a happy life, and the app provides information that allows me to be more mobile and participate in “normal” situations and events.
You can learn more about Wheelmap and download it at http://wheelmap.org/.
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