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Smart cities must be accessible by design

While technology can help improve life in cities for people with disabilities, there’s a risk that without adequate oversight and appropriate input, it could widen inequality. Three city leaders share their ideas on making sure smart cities are accessible.


Smart solution vendors and city implementers must better consult end-users about accessibility and far earlier in the process, three leaders from the US’ largest cities concluded during a recent panel debate.


A billion people globally have some form of disability, including one in four people in the United States. We are also seeing a growing ageing population.


While technology can help improve life in cities for people with disabilities, there’s a risk that without adequate oversight and appropriate input, it could widen inequality. People with disabilities are already more likely than those without to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes, such as less education, poorer health, lower levels of employment and higher poverty rates.


One billion people globally have some form of disability.


Despite the numbers, people with disabilities are too often an after-thought when it comes to everyday tools many of us take for granted in cities.


During a panel discussion at the recent Smart City Expo Atlanta, Karen Tamley, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, City of Chicago; Victor Calise, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, City of New York; and Stephen Simon, Executive Director, Department of Disability, City of Los Angeles, noted that they had all been presented with products or services which were on the cusp of being deployed, only to have to tell the vendor or department that an initiative couldn’t go ahead as accessibility was not up to standard.


End users


Tamley gave the example of a wayfinding tool which was supposedly ready to go live. She asked members of her Office’s advisory committee to test it out. Blind people and those with low vision reported that the tool was confusing and difficult to use, and that the website had accessibility issues.


“To me, that just cemented the idea that unless you’re speaking to the end-user and having them test the product or deployment, you cannot have confidence that it’s going to be truly usable and accessible,” she said. “And there, in my opinion, is the definition of a smart city.”


“I can’t underestimate the importance of community engagement at all steps,” Tamley added. “And not just at the very end, because it’s very costly – sometimes it’s almost impossible – to fix something when it’s already developed.”


Los Angeles’ Stephen Simon advised: “If you’re the vendor of a product and you sell to cities, find us first. If you can get past our staff and our requirements, [the rest] is easy. We’re the tough ones.”


The number of cities with designated departments focused on people with disabilities is growing but Tamley noted that even without this, any company or local government can set up an advisory committee.


Calise added, though, that people with disabilities must be paid fairly. “You hire consultants for everything else but everyone wants people with disabilities to give them this information for free. We need to hire them as paid consultants,” he commented.


Risk management


Simon pointed out that while civil rights and equitability issues cannot be underplayed, businesses and cities also can’t be sustainable unless they’re making products, services and facilities fully accessible “because we’ll have to go back again and tear things up to bring them up to compliance.”


From a risk management perspective, he also highlighted the billions that have been paid out by cities and vendors in lawsuits and settlements related to accessibility.


“We need to stop thinking of compliance with accessibility as an add-on; it needs to be the baseline,” he said.


New York City is home to around a million people with disabilities, and a further 9 million visit every year.


Calise said: “Everything that the City does needs to include disability and if it doesn’t, you’re missing out a huge part of the population and market share – it’s leaving millions of people out of the equation.”


"We need to stop thinking of compliance with accessibility as an add-on; it needs to be the baseline."


This includes the need to acknowledge the diverse range of disabilities, including those that are hidden or cognitive.


Calise said it’s key for cities to “spell out” accessibility requirements in request for proposals (RFP) and requests for information (RFI).


“A lot of cities don’t do a good job of that,” he added, noting that many tend to simply mandate that all regulatory standards are met. “We need to dive deeper” and be more specific, he said.


Calise pointed out that it’s important for departments such as his to work with colleagues across the city – particularly the CIO and CTO, and to provide regular training and briefings to representatives in other departments.


Accessibility also has to be built into processes and at the strategic level. In many cities, departments can manage their own online content, for instance.


“Unless you’re constantly providing training on what accessible web content means, you’re going to have to figure out other solutions for how to ensure accessibility with limited staff and limited resources,” Tamley said. “It’s constantly evolving so you have to be very strategic about how you achieve accessible smart city status.”


Rich experience


The city leaders all noted that when products and services are accessible, everyone benefits and new opportunities open up. Simon shared the example of Los Angeles’ Hollyhock House, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Unesco World Heritage Site was built before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and many areas are not easily accessible for people with vision and mobility-related disabilities.


“We wanted to use smart solutions to make sure people with disabilities could have access to this extraordinary space,” Simon said.


The City Council approved $133,000 of funding in 2017 to produce a virtual reality tour of the space. Initially, the tool was about compliance but soon, the benefits of opening it up more widely became clear.


Simon said the tool allows people to not only experience the space but also to see and hear more than if they were physically in it.


He commented: “We saw an opportunity to make this so rich that this could be the most extraordinary way to see this space and learn about it.


“There’s a content build-up that needs to happen – not thinking just about compliance but about the total rich experience.”


Likewise, cities and vendors can use technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities, rather than simply to meet legal requirements.


Chicago is set to deploy a new tool that allows people to order and manage paratransit services through an app, similar to ride-share solutions, improving on the current system where they have to call and make a manual reservation ahead of time.


Holy Grail opportunity


Simon sees the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics, being held in Los Angeles, as a “holy grail” opportunity to make LA “the most accessible big city in America, the smartest city.”


"There’s so much data that needs to be transferred on such an incredible scale, I literally think it’s unprecedented."


“I need to [think about] transportation, communication, kiosks…every kind of path of travel for individuals, buses, paratransit. We are building new subway routes. And there’s so much data that needs to be transferred on such an incredible scale, I literally think it’s unprecedented,” he commented.


Partnering and sharing best practices will be key to achieving this, Simon said: “Any piece of it that you’re working on, we need it. Big cities are looking at partnering with you on really smart, accessible technology.”


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