Employees Make Google Maps Wheelchair Friendly

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Thanks to a group of dedicated and thoughtful employees, Google Maps will now be able to display whether certain places on the map are handicap accessible and wheelchair friendly, making a huge difference for people with disabilities.

The project was made possible because of Google’s policy of “20% time,” which allows employees, if they wish to do so, to spend 20% of the work week working on projects unrelated to their primary job. The policy isn’t always utilized by employees, but features like Gmail, AdSense, and Google News were all made possible because of 20% time.

Rio Akasaka, a Google employee from Boulder, Colorado, spearheaded the project to make Google Maps display accessibility information for any business or location. Over the last year, Akasaka worked with 10 others on the project.

“Accessibility at Google is a big deal,” Akasaka explains. “But it’s often facilitated by whether or not there’s a legal requirement, or some sort of requirement we need to adhere to.” There is no legal requirement that forces mapping software to show information about wheelchair accessibility.

But required or not, Akasaka and his team wanted to make sure that information was available to users of Google Maps, many of whom will benefit from the new feature.

Not every spot on the map has information about wheelchair use or other disabilities, but Google Maps is able to pull information from other users through its “Local Guides.” Google now has enough information to list wheelchair accessible entrances under “amenities.”

Any public or commercial building constructed after 1992 is required to be wheelchair accessible via the Americans With Disabilities Act. However, older structures may or may not be able to accommodate those with disabilities. This initiative by Google Maps will at least allow people to know ahead of time whether a place has the proper facilities for those in a wheelchair.

On the surface, this is a relatively minor addition to Google Maps that most will not notice. However, it will make a meaningful difference for those with disabilities, and Akasaka and his team should be commended for making it happen.