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Mobile App Helps Travelers with Disabilities

Alex Knoll, a 2023 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes award recipient, created a mobile app that allows travelers to search mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive accessibility features at hotels, restaurants and other businesses around the world.
Man in wheelchair holding up yellow suitcase excited for vacation
Man in wheelchair holding up yellow suitcase excited for vacation
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Today, the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes announced its 25 winners. These prizes are given to inspiring, public-spirited young people from across the U.S. and Canada who have made a significant positive difference to people and the environment. Winners must be between the ages of eight and 18. Every year, the top 15 winners receive $10,000 to support their service work or higher education.

This year, one of the winners is Alexander Knoll. He created the Ability App, a crowdsourced web app that serves people with disabilities by providing a road map of accessible public spaces and businesses. The app allows users to search mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive accessibility features at hotels, restaurants, and businesses around the world. It includes ratings, comments and photos uploaded by anyone interested in supporting the app. Launched online in 2020, the app will be available in both Google and Apple app stores in late 2023.

Hospitality Technology sat down with Knoll to learn more about his app and how it can help benefit the hospitality industry at large.

Where did the idea for this app come from?

It all started when I saw a man in a wheelchair struggling to open a manual door at a retail store. I wondered if there was an app that he could have used to find other businesses in the area that would have allowed him easier access, including access with automatic doors. At the time (circa 2014-2015), there were no resources that fully reflected that idea. 

So, that night, I went home and thought up the Ability App. I entered my idea into a student invention competition called Invent Idaho. I won that competition and the Ability App idea gained traction. I was able to develop an app prototype with the help of some kind friends I met in the tech industry from Chaotic Moon, based out of Austin, Texas (Ben Lamm, Matthew Murray and Marc Boudria). I was able to present the prototype on the Ellen DeGeneres show where she presented me with a $25,000 check from Shutterfly to start developing Ability App. 

But building out an app can be very expensive. So, I had to think of creative ways to raise more funds to pay developers to finish developing the app. One of the ways that I was able to raise funds was by becoming a public speaker, spreading the word about the importance of accessibility and inclusion and donating all of my speaking funds to the development of the Ability App. 

A wonderful engineer named Luke Mizuhashi reached out to me after seeing me on Ellen, and he helped me start to develop the Ability App. I’ve had a lot of help along the way from a lot of kind people. 

The Ability App launched online in the spring of 2020. 

What are some of the obstacles you faced in creating it?

Throughout the 8-plus year process of developing Ability App, receiving the capital necessary to develop the app became a challenge. For many mobile application companies, it can take tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for costs including employing developers and establishing hosting. I have self-funded most of the development and hosting of the Ability App over the last few years by donating my public speaking fees and working additional jobs to cover the costs. I hope that Ability App can be self-sustaining someday.

What were some of your biggest triumphs?

The biggest triumph was being able to launch the Ability App web application in the spring of 2020. It felt great to get Ability App out into the world after years and years of hard work conducting research, designing, and raising funds to create the web application of Ability App that can be found online today.

Alex Knoll, creator of the ability app
Alex Knoll, creator, Ability App
Alex Knoll, creator of the ability app
Alex Knoll, creator, Ability App

Why do hotels and restaurants need to think more proactively about disabled guests?

Hotels and restaurants need to think more proactively about disabled guests for several important reasons:

  • Legal and Ethical Responsibilities: Many countries have laws and regulations that require businesses, including hotels and restaurants, to provide equal access and accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Ensuring accessibility is not only a legal requirement in many cases but also an ethical responsibility to promote inclusivity and prevent discrimination.
  • Expanding Customer Base: By catering to disabled guests, hotels and restaurants can tap into a larger and growing customer base. People with disabilities, as well as their friends, families, and caregivers, represent a significant portion of the population. By providing accessible services, businesses can attract and retain more customers.
  • Enhancing Reputation: An establishment that actively promotes accessibility and inclusivity gains a positive reputation as a welcoming and socially responsible organization. This reputation can lead to increased patronage, positive word-of-mouth referrals, and improved customer loyalty.
  • Competitive Advantage: Accessibility can set a hotel or restaurant apart from its competitors. When potential guests are considering where to stay or dine, they are more likely to choose an establishment that demonstrates a commitment to accommodating diverse needs.
  • Meeting Diverse Needs: Disabilities encompass a wide range of challenges, and individuals have varying needs. By proactively addressing these needs, hotels, and restaurants create a more comfortable and enjoyable experience for all guests, regardless of their abilities.
  • Compliance with Industry Standards: In the hospitality industry, many organizations and associations advocate for accessibility standards. Complying with these standards not only aligns with best practices but also demonstrates a commitment to meeting industry expectations.
  • Future-Proofing: As awareness and emphasis on accessibility continue to grow, businesses that proactively address these issues are better positioned to adapt to changing regulations and customer expectations in the long term.
  • Positive Employee Morale: Staff members take pride in working for an establishment that values inclusivity and makes efforts to accommodate all guests. A positive work environment that promotes diversity and inclusivity can lead to higher employee satisfaction and retention.
  • Innovation and Creativity: Developing accessible solutions often requires innovative thinking and creative problem-solving. By addressing the needs of disabled guests, hotels and restaurants can drive innovation in their services and technologies.

In summary, being proactive about catering to guests with disabilities can lead to increased business opportunities, improved reputation, and a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all patrons.

If you could talk to a room full of hotel and restaurant CTOs, CDOs, and VPs of IT, what would you say to them?

Here are some steps that hotel and restaurant Chief Technical Officers (CTOs) and IT professionals can take to make their establishments more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities:

  • Website Accessibility: Ensure your website is designed with accessible features, such as alt text for images, proper heading structure, and keyboard navigation so that individuals using screen readers or other assistive technologies can easily navigate and access information.
  • Digital Menus and Ordering Systems: Implement digital menus and ordering systems that are compatible with screen readers and offer options for larger font sizes and high contrast, making it easier for people with visual impairments to browse and order.
  • Mobile Apps: If your hotel or restaurant has a mobile app, make sure it is designed with accessibility in mind. Include features like voice commands, large touch targets, and easy-to-read text for users with various disabilities.
  • Assistive Technology Compatibility: Ensure your establishment's technology, such as Wi-Fi networks, is compatible with assistive devices and doesn't pose barriers for individuals who rely on these tools.
  • Accessible Room and Facility Booking: Provide an online booking system that includes information about accessible rooms and facilities, allowing guests with mobility challenges to easily find and reserve suitable accommodations.
  • Captioning and Subtitling: When displaying videos or multimedia content, include captions and subtitles for individuals with hearing impairments. This ensures that everyone can access the information presented.
  • Visual and Auditory Alerts: Implement visual and auditory alerts in your establishment's IT systems, such as fire alarms and emergency notifications, to cater to people with hearing and visual impairments.
  • Wayfinding and Navigation: Utilize digital maps and navigation tools that guide guests with disabilities to accessible entrances, amenities, and facilities within the establishment.
  • Accessible Payment Options: Offer a variety of accessible payment options, such as mobile payment apps and contactless payment terminals, that cater to the diverse needs of guests.
  • Staff Training: Provide comprehensive training for your staff on how to assist and interact with guests with disabilities respectfully and effectively. This includes understanding how to operate assistive devices and offering assistance when needed.
  • Feedback Channels: Create easy-to-use channels for guests to provide feedback on accessibility features and any areas that may need improvement. Actively use this feedback to continuously enhance the guest experience.
  • Regular Accessibility Audits: Conduct regular accessibility audits of your technology and facilities to identify any barriers and address them promptly.

By implementing these measures, hotels and restaurants can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for people with disabilities, enhancing their overall guest experience.

What's next?

I am working on launching the Ability App in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, with the hopes of bringing new users on board to the Ability App to increase the global accessibility roadmap.  I’m still working to save money to be able to pay engineers to be able to accomplish this goal.

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