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Scitech | Using apps to combat inaccessibility

Researchers collaborate to compile data on barriers to various spaces

Updated October 7.

Over 1.5 million mobile apps are currently available for Android and iOs users to download. With an estimated 55 per cent of the Canadian population owning a smart phone, apps have seamlessly integrated themselves into our daily routines. From getting the latest news, to crushing candy, to swiping for affection, these days there is an app for almost everything. While gaming-, business-, and entertainment-focused apps seem to dominate the app market, one area that has remained largely untapped is accessibility apps.

Some of these apps were created right here in Montreal, using innovative techniques and vast data collection to provide people with the information they need to fit their access needs.

Jooay: access for children with disabilities and their families

For a child, there aren’t many priorities greater than being able to play and have fun. In fact, the United Nations and the World Health Organization have recognized playing and recreation as a crucial right for children, given their role in healthy childhood development.

Jooay (a play on the word “jouer,” French for “to play”) is a mobile app that helps children with disabilities and their families find leisure opportunities that are accessible and suited to their needs. This easy-to-use app allows parents to browse nearby activities through a variety of categories – such as arts, camps, and sports – by entering certain keywords. The GPS component gives anyone in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan information on activity locations close to them.

“Families consistently expressed [that] one of the main barriers to accessing leisure activity for their child with a disability was not knowing what activities were available,”

However, according to co-creator Keiko Shikako-Thomas, an assistant professor at McGill’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, “the idea isn’t only to list the resources available, but to create a community around participation and leisure.” Hence, other components of Jooay include user comments, reviews, and suggestions, all of which foster a community dialogue and keep activity providers accountable for the quality of their services.

The app also links users to CHILD LesisureNet, which provides parents with additional resources on finding accessible recreation, and community members with advice on how to make leisure activities adaptable for children with disabilities.

Jooay was developed based on research by Shikako-Thomas and Annette Majnemer, director and associate dean of McGill’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapy. They found leisure participation was significantly lower in children with disabilities, even though most children expressed a desire to partake in physical and skill-based activity. Lacking the physical and social support, these children tended to defer to more passive activities, like watching television.

“Families consistently expressed [that] one of the main barriers to accessing leisure activity for their child with a disability was not knowing what activities were available,” explains Shikako-Thomas.

“As we have a good mapping now, we can see which regions are deprived in terms of activities [offered] and work with policymakers to fix that.”

 

In order to address this problem, Shikako-Thomas and Majnemer partnered with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and spoke to numerous parents across three provinces. They received overwhelming interest in an app that would give information on how to find accessible spaces for their children, which prompted them to begin development of Jooay.

“So how do you make an app?” Shikako-Thomas remembers asking many of her “tech friends,” having no experience herself. Not knowing much about app development, Shinkako-Thomas and Majnemer teamed up with Montreal organization Hacking Health, which “brings together healthcare professionals, developers, designers […] and anyone who is interested in revolutionizing healthcare,” according to Julia Delrieu, the organization’s director of operations. With a team of volunteers, they were able to create a prototype of Jooay.

The app received funding from NeuroDevNet, the Rick Hansen Foundation, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Through partnerships with the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Trevor Williams Foundation, both an English and French version of Jooay were eventually made available as a free iOS app, and soon an Android app will be released as well.

Looking to the future, Shikako-Thomas believes the next step is “to work with policymakers. […] As we have a good mapping now, we can see which regions are deprived in terms of activities [offered] and work with policymakers to fix that.”

Stay in Touch: designed for the elderly

Another app developed with the help of Hacking Health is Stay In Touch. This app has an accessible no-touch, user-friendly interface that helps people look after and communicate with their elderly loved ones.

“A big problem with apps for seniors is that they press the wrong button sometimes and end up on unpredictable places in their computers. We are building an app that runs on a tablet in grandmaís house which helps her stay in the family,” says creator John Brohan, who works on tech projects for the elderly. Brohan has been working on this app with registered nurse Donna Byrne, founder of Beaconsfield, Quebec nursing care company Health Access Sante, and tech expert Robert Crecco.

“Many places will say they’re accessible, but maybe their washroom isn’t, or the restaurant requires a large step to get in.”

This app allows family members to make Skype calls and send family photos without older relatives ever having to push a button. For convenience, the tablet is always on and starts automatically. Its latest addition is the inclusion of subtitles to Skype conversations; if the user is hard of hearing, family members can speak into the app and subtitles pop up.

Brohan’s inspiration for the app was his own mother, who lives with his brother in England. “It was a way I could turn a life spent developing computer programs to something useful to her,” he said.

According to Brohan, the next step for Stay in Touch is “likely to be collection of blood, glucose data by having [grandma] speak the reading, and maybe a video of anyone ringing her doorbell showing on the tablet.”

​Stay In Touch is now available as a free Android app.

Radical Accessibility Audit Project (RAAP): an app in-progress

Although still in its planning stages, RAAP Montreal is a collaboration between the advocacy group Accessibilize Montreal and the Community-University Research Exchange (CURE) that aims to initiate a project mapping accessible venues, restaurants, studios, and performance spaces in Montreal for individuals with limited mobility.

Accessibility is currently a major issue in Montreal, as in most metropolitan cities, with many older buildings, bars, and restaurants remaining completely inaccessible. In fact, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) says that only 9 out of its 68 metro stations are wheelchair accessible, a number Accessibilize Montreal believes to be actually lower, due to unnoted barriers such as construction.

“We don’t have enough resources to involve app developers at this stage. What we require is the very basic data that can eventually be turned into something more presentable and usable. ”

The idea of a mapping project came to Madde Halupka, a former Concordia student, as she “was taking a GIS [Geographic Information Systems] course at Concordia and hoped to collaborate with Accessibilize Montreal.”

Halupka explains, “We don’t have enough resources to involve app developers at this stage. What we require is the very basic data that can eventually be turned into something more presentable and usable. ”

The required information Halupka points to are accessibility audits, which are done on a volunteer basis and can be found on the RAAP website. These audits can take hours to complete in order to be meticulous, which Halupka explains is necessary as “many places will say they’re accessible, but maybe their washroom isn’t, or the restaurant requires a large step to get in.”

Halupka hopes that, once the team can gather more audits, they will then be able to work with interested app developers to create a prototype.

An intersection of technology and healthcare

All in all, it seems that many are starting to realize that mobile platforms can be used to assist those who experience physical or social barriers that make daily life hard to navigate or simply unsafe. However, given how readily available and simple to use apps are, the complexity of their development is easy to overlook. Healthcare providers don’t always have the resources or the physical capacity to compile information necessary for an accessibility app, which must take into account a plethora of elements to evaluate the accessibility of a space. In addition, accessibility apps are often conceived by people who have a particular knowledge of inaccessibility, but know little about app development.

Organizations such as Hacking Health have grown exponentially in recent years, in an effort to revolutionize healthcare accessibility through technology. The success of these organizations stems from the fact that there is a clear need to build a bridge between expertise in healthcare and technology in order to realize the full potential of apps in helping to navigate inaccessible spaces.


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