Sunday, March 19, 2006

Neighborhood (In)accessibility Mapping

In her introduction to Simi Linton's Mini Course presentation "Reframing Disability Through the Arts" last Wednesday, March 15, Carol Marfisi spoke of the dream that that she has cherished as long as she has been employed with the Institute on Disabilities. She had always felt the urge to move out to Berkeley, California where a robust disability community has been in existence for since the early 1970s. What was it about Berkeley that made it so attractive. Was it the countercultural ethos? Was it the climate? Was it the progressive mentality? Or was it simply the prospect of being able to explore an urban landscape without having to face physical and attitudinal barriers on a regular basis?

Carol interviewed for a position at Temple University's Institute on Disabilities back in 1994. In response to her expressed desire to move to Berkeley, the Institute on Disabilities' Executive Director, Diane Bryen, responded, "Why can't we make our own Berkeley here." Make Philadelphia into a Berkeley? What could that possibly mean? Philadelphia has a very distictive urban gritty flair, one well-captured by its blogging community, including some very creative photojournalists. Here is just a small sample of their work.
When I think of bringing Berkeley to Philadelphia, I think about the finding an activist focus for the energy of our substantial population of high school and college students. I think about turning the 'camera phone' generation into documentarians, joining the fight for to create a Barrier-Free Philadelphia.

Where to begin? How about an inaccessibility tour of the city? This isn't a new idea of mine; it emerges from my background and contacts as an urban social geographer, as well as my current employment at the Institute on Disabilities. I collected my first inaccessibility photoset back in 1992 while I was a masters student at Penn State University, inspired by access maps that were being produced at a number of different universities. Penn State's access map at the time, printed just after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was very colorful, but was not presented in such a way that it could be used as a practical guide for students on campus. Instead, we found that it was being distributed as a recruiting tool! Local disability activists were particularly perplexed by a key that designated buildings 'accessible,' 'inaccessible' and 'partially accessible.' What is 'partially accessible' about buildings with step at the front entrance?

Strategies for accessibility photojournalism have shifted with the expanded capabilities of the web. In Barcelona, Spain, people with disabilities take pictures of unaccessible places and then post them to a site where they are linked to a map of the city. The 'treehugger' blog offers a brief description of the site, linked to a gallery exhibit at the Centre d'Art Santa Mónica, la Rambla 7, 08002 Barcelona until the 5th March 06.
Of course, it is one thing to document barriers and another thing to undertake a public campaign for their removal. John Kelly shares an apparent successs story on his blog called, aptly enough 'NAG: Neighborhood Access Group'. Or at least we hope that this is the case, since posting on the site stopped after they were successful in getting the City of Boston to agree to remove and replace a bricked stretch of Huntington Avenue near Massachusetts Avenue.

Tempted to dart into that handicap parking space?
Just when you convinced yourself that "I'll only be here a minute" and besides "Nobody will even notice" ... Click!
You've been outed from the driver's seat by the driver whose spot you're in! Pictures are posted on a 'moblog' called 'Gimp Eye for the Clueless Guy'.

Similar photodocumentary and accessiblity projects have been been pursued for many years by in the fields of urban planning, geography and urban studies scholars. I have collected numerous examples from the United States and Great Britain, and would love to learn more about yours!

-- Many thanks to Scott Rains, Jim Marston, Ph.D., and Mary Johnson sharing the sites listed above.

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Penny L. Richards said...

Maybe this could be tied in with the Green Mapping movement--I know they've already established symbols they use for some access features--not sure there's a Green Map of Philadelphia but it would be worth looking into. (I blogged about it here, last summer, but here's the main link:

Also, I'd want to hook up with some restaurant critics on this one--at least hereabouts, restaurant reviews frequently include a note about accessibility along with parking, prices, address, etc., but I don't think the critics necessarily know what to look for when they make that note; I see a lot of "wheelchair access OK" but not sure I can trust that.... I'd love if restaurant/arts reviews were reliable on this subject.

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