Duo developing campus accessibility app

The Meeting Center at 101 N. Harrison street is one of the buildings at VCU that is handicap accessible. Photo by Brooke Marsh.

Michael Melkonian
Contributing Writer

A VCU staff member and graduate student are teaming up to create a smartphone app that would allow students, faculty and staff with disabilities to check the accessibility of buildings, parking decks and roads in and around campus.

Paula McMahon, VCU Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator and sociology graduate student Alexander Sutton are working on the project funded by an award from VCU’s Quest Innovation Fund.

“No university in Virginia would have an equivalent app,” McMahon said. “It’s the first of its kind in the state.”

The project’s goal is to create a map that can evolve with user input about restricted routes, facilities and roadways. To get to this point will take a considerable amount of groundwork in surveying the sprawling campus and its multiple entrances, bathrooms and ever-evolving routes of access.

The downside of the project, Sutton said, is that the smartphone platform will ultimately define the scope of the project.

“We still have to deal with the process of sitting down with the programmers and saying ‘OK, this is what we want. How easily can you do this?’ and they can tell us that’s impossible or we can definitely do that,” Sutton said.

McMahon and Sutton said they are excited about the prospect of being able to work with many different departments and student groups to create the app. One of these groups is Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness at VCU.

Senior psychology major Jenson Larrimore, president and co-founder of the advocacy group, said the map is a step in the right direction.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience that VCU, because of its city landscape, is not the easiest place to get around in a wheelchair or in leg braces or any other physical disability,” Larrimore said. “So I’m hoping first and foremost that it helps the people that need help. My secondary hope is that it highlights what things we might want to prioritize in changing.”

In 2011, the revised regulations for ADA compliance, which includes the Standards for Accessible Design, went into effect.  Compliance with the code prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, government services and other public buildings, transportations and services.

With so many buildings to upgrade, inspect and survey for ADA compliance, the task at hand is exceedingly difficult, McMahon said.

“There are certain issues that we can’t address as a university because the issues are the city of Richmond’s issues, not the university’s,” McMahon said.  “So how can we as a university try and proactively address these issues?”

These are the priorities that Larrimore hopes to clarify because achieving 100 percent ADA compliance on such a large scale may be mostly impossible, said Marian Vessels, director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.

“Quite honestly I don’t think there’s ever going to be any university or large facility (that is) totally compliant,” Vessels said. “There are so many different factors involved in making sure that every facility is accessible. You have existing buildings, existing terrain, even brand new buildings never quite get it totally right.”

As the project transitions into functioning technology, success for Sutton is to create a practical tool that everyone on campus, not only people with disabilities, will use.

“We use the term accessibility to extend as far as possible,” Sutton said.  “It’s more than just about people with disabilities, it’s about making the campus accessible in every sense possible and however we can manipulate the app to that we’d be into doing.”


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