Improving access for people with disabilities in the built environment has been an ongoing process for many decades now and has seen many peaks and troughs over the years.

While most people today understand that allowing people equitable access to buildings and the services they may contain is a human right and something that can’t be disregarded, the reality is that it hasn’t always been that way.

The need for change and improvement has seen many ‘carrots and sticks’ along the way. As an observer of the area over many years however, real tangible change, has generally happened on the back of regulatory ‘sticks’ or immediate financial ‘carrots.’

The Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 and the corresponding changes to the Building Code of Australia in 2011, for example, saw very significant improvements in both the amenity offered by buildings to people with disabilities as well as the type of buildings offering the improved amenity. Funding incentives such as those made available under the Nation Building – Economic Stimulus Plan back in 2009 saw a very significant increase in more accessible social housing at the time.

People from within the disability community have always advocated that more accessible buildings and facilities will inevitably result in ongoing financial benefits through ‘opening up’ their products and services to a wider audience. Unfortunately, it has been evident that many businesses, as well as property managers, didn’t always fully grasp the potential associated with this. More accessible facilities of course not only benefit the 18.3 per cent of the community that report having a disability in Australia, but other very significant cohorts such as families with young children using prams.

Google recently announced that Google Maps will now also include information regarding wheelchair accessibility. This will appear under the ‘amenities’ heading for locations along with other information such as operating hours. The data has been collected by ‘Local Guides’, people who answer questions about places they visit.

Google began including questions regarding accessibility in its Local Guides program and have since accumulated enough information to now launch this component in the US with the intention of eventually extending the service worldwide. The company warns that there are likely to be gaps in information, but Google expects over time that these will gradually be filled. A few initial searches don’t seem to produce much beyond whether the entrance of a given building is accessible, so it is likely that there is considerable way to go in developing the depth of information necessary. The potential is, however, very significant.

Of course, similar initiatives existed in the past, but they were largely driven by the disability community and relied on the uptake of a relatively small amount of contributors. An application as ubiquitous as Google Maps may well make all the difference.

Uber clearly demonstrated through its driver rating system that user ratings can potentially drive real improvements in service delivery. Uber, of course, has grown exponentially in recent years and is persistently held out as a prime example of the digital age ‘disruptor.’

The power of customer ratings together with the reach of Google Maps and related Google services may potentially drive the message that improved accessibility of the built environment as well as the services and products being offered could really affect the bottom line. So rather than having decisions regarding accessibility ‘trickle down’ from property investors, property managers, project managers basing their decisions on minimum legislative requirements and often largely on cost, the possibly of reversing the direction of decision making becomes real. That is from the customer to the tenant and so on up the chain of decision makers.

Could initiatives like this be the beginning of something of a game changer? Time will tell.