Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a vibrant mecca of restaurants, coffee shops and quaint bars. It’s also a quintessential historic New England seaport, a fact that helped draw architect Todd Hanson to the town in 1987.
But in 2008, on a solo 50-mile mountain hike, Hanson noticed symptoms of the motor neuron disease primary lateral sclerosis, which would later take his voice and athletic legs. He now relies on a wheelchair for mobility and on a voice-activated iPad to speak.
“My town that was so familiar suddenly became a labyrinth of inaccessibility,” Hanson says by email. “I discovered I could no longer visit the inaccessible homes of friends and family. It was incredibly isolating, to say the least.”
When it came to visiting local establishments, Hanson realized he needed more information before venturing from home or work. So he and Anne Weidman, his colleague at the New England architecture firm JSA, created Access Navigators, a crowd-sourced website for people with disabilities who want to go to restaurants, bars and other businesses. “Technology levels the playing field for so many people,” says Weidman, who focuses on community engagement for the firm.
With a tag line that says it’s “taking the mystery out of accessibility,” the site offers guides to various establishments. A typical entry might tell users where to find a door that can accommodate a wheelchair, describe the spacing of tables inside and list the number of handicapped parking spaces in a local garage. Restrooms could be listed as accessible or described in more detail, such as “excellent, four grab bars.”
It’s an issue that’s gaining attention around the nation. In Washington, food critic Tom Sietsema said he’s going to start adding ratings for accessibility when he reviews restaurants. Washington’s City Paper in April called 50 restaurants in the area to ask whether a wheelchair could enter their establishments.
So far, the Access Navigators site includes reviews for restaurants and coffee shops in a dozen New Hampshire towns, three in Maine and two outside of Boston. A separate tab opens up to guides for 20 New England breweries.
Hanson and Weidman have also made suggestions for small things that mean a lot, such as moving trash cans or furniture in hallways and changing doorknobs so wheelchair users can independently enter a restaurant or rest room without needing assistance.
“Once most business owners heard what we were doing, they enthusiastically jumped on board,” Hanson says. “Our goal is to inform, spread awareness and hopefully create a sincerely welcoming society. Lofty goals, but not unrealistic.”
Anyone can contribute observations to Access Navigators by using an online assessment report. People in retirement communities with neighbors in assisted living are often willing to help, Weidman said.
“They get it,” she says. “They have smart phones, and they have friends with mobility issues.”
University of New Hampshire nursing students also help gather data as part of their senior community health projects. Recently, the students surveyed eight cities, and each evaluated about 40 sites.
The experience improved UNH nursing grad Samantha Rossignol’s understanding of what it’s like to be mobile and social while in wheelchairs. Rossignol, who starts work as a registered nurse in July at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, said she had only worked with wheelchair-bound individuals in clinical settings before.
Weidman says that while following her around the region, nursing students start to look at open spaces differently and have a better sense of the challenges that disabled people face, she says. “We’re informing the future,” Weidman says.
New England Chambers of Commerce interested in promoting tourism recommend Access Navigators. And people from Boise, Idaho, to Athens, Greece, have contacted the website, which depends on volunteers and the support of the architecture firm JSA for expansion. Hanson and Weidman hope to eventually convert the site into a smartphone application so Access Navigators can map more places and operate more efficiently.
They have also developed a partnership with an app called Soundprint to help blind people determine if a restaurant is too noisy to be safe. Those with vision impairment have trouble navigating very loud establishments because they can’t hear the taps of their canes.
There’s a definite need for more information for the disabled, Hanson says.
Almost 13 percent of Americans were considered disabled as of 2017, according to a report from Cornell University. Of that group, more than half reported a disability affecting their ability to walk.
While modern establishments must be in compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that required public accommodations to be accessible, older places – like those in New England ports – may not be as easy for people like Hanson to navigate. That’s because removing barriers is not “readily achievable,” the standard required by the law.
Even so, Hanson says that people with disabilities are pleasantly surprised to learn about how many establishments are accessible. Many businesses recognize that inclusiveness has economic implications, he says.
“Businesses that are not accessible and welcoming to this booming demographic will miss out on an enormous market sector,” adds Hanson. “I never hit a restaurant or bar on my own – it’s often with a big group. My story isn’t unique, so that’s a win for inclusive businesses.”