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.

  • Sounds great! Visited my local council yesterday (City of Yarra) to ask if they had such a thing as a map of all of the disability parking spaces in the municipality. They had an internal map of sorts, but I could immediately see it's inaccuracy. Can see a real future for Google Maps in this area too. Wheelchair access into buildings is still a real problem. I frequently have to order a sandwich or takeaway coffee from outside the front door, because the front of shop has a step. Hopefully the feedback of patrons identifying where wheelchair access is poor, may assist shop and restaurant business owners to consider this need. Thanks for the article.

  • Perhaps google could sponsor a few wheelchair users to map access? Surely they could fit out an electric wheelchair to capture imagery and data they same way they do with their vehicles that map street view data.

  • Problem is Councils/governments put in infrastructure like kerb ramps which are as per the standard AS1428.1-2009 but in the real world, due to topography or associated infrastructure like footpaths, end up with ramp faces with incline far greater than 1:8 making ramp unusable or downright dangerous but the contractor does not know what can be done like raise the height of gutter so ramp in not so steep and usable. Putting in kerb ramps with 300mm rise to footpath and only 1000mm from face of kerb to existing footpaths giving ramp face 1:5 incline. Some councils do have access maps but some do not see issues with footpaths going down a hill of 1:10 incline cross streets with uphill side kerb ramps much greater than 1:6.
    Krista unless the coffee shop is owned by the operator they are not required to provide access or if unjustifiable or due to design unable to put in ramp a lit of the time not possible to provide access. I am a wheelchair user but to me that minor inconvenience of getting sandwich on street is minor compared to Government action denying me safe equitable and dignified access to a part of Sydney city (Cockle Bay) such as letting the monorail be pulled down, for no good reason, which provided good, accessible access from the CBD down to Cockle Bay/Darling Harbour. Used to be a 10 minute trip future it will be 1hour trip unless daredevil going down hill.

  • Good article George. I am a member of City of Sydney Inclusion (Disability) Advisory Panel. If Google can do a really good job of producing an access map I would be very surprised, but pleased. Accessibility is far more than just kerb ramps and level or step free entries – the topography of the landscape with steep inclines, the roadworks, building works, lack of footpaths, outdoor seating, all impinge on fluent accessibility. And it is not just about wheelchairs – it's also wheelie walkers, prams, bikes, and luggage. City of Sydney now has a map where you can chose overlays, such as parking, toilets, steep gradients, etc. ( They do not claim this to be the perfect map, but extensive work went into this latest online version. Now we have to work on the insides of buildings and the attitudes of service staff. Venues for events still haven't caught up with the DDA.